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These days, most of the conferences I attend provide their proceedings on a USB stick, or online only. Yet at the same time they have a strict page limit, which is usually set to something between 4 and 8 pages. I'm curious about the rationale for such a small limit. This is probably something that varies between fields, although I've experienced it in more than one field myself (subfields of artificial intelligence and physics). It doesn't seem particularly limited to big conferences.

I realise that super-long papers would hard on the reviewers, who have to do a lot of work for a large conference. But on the other hand, a very short paper will have to leave out a lot of background and important information, which at best will make it difficult to read, and at worst will make it impossible to judge on its merits. It's also a lot more effort to write a four-page paper than a 10-page one, unless you happen to be presenting a single experimental result using an established methodology (which is rarely if ever the case in artificial intelligence and related fields).

Looking at conference proceedings from the 1950s through to the early 1980s, it seems that proceedings papers were generally much longer. As an extreme example, I know of one that's over 100 pages (it's quite a famous paper and the length seems worth it), but up to 20 pages doesn't seem uncommon. In the '90s the standard seems to have been 10 pages, at least in subfields of computer science. Although there's obviously selection bias involved, these old papers don't seem particularly longer than they need to be, and their length allows them to make rather deeper points than could be made in a modern 4-page paper.

I'd like to know the reasoning behind short page limits at conferences. Is there a school of thought that says these extreme limits lead to better-quality papers, and/or less work for the reviewers? Or is it just a holdover from the recent past, when big conferences were expected to provide a paper proceedings to every participant, who would then have to carry the whole thing home?

  • possible duplicate of Why are all these papers exactly 10 pages long? – scaaahu Nov 15 '13 at 6:14
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    Not really a duplicate. The other question's answer is: "because there are page limits" and this question is: "why are there page limits" – Suresh Nov 15 '13 at 6:26
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    Yes, I've seen the other question (and even commented on it when it was asked), but it really isn't asking the same thing I'm asking here. – Nathaniel Nov 15 '13 at 8:33
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There are a number of inter-related reasons for short (and shorter) conference paper lengths:

  • The 10-12 page limit is typically so that reviewers don't have to review an inordinately long document.
  • Final versions are also limited in length because the fact that proceedings are now mostly electronic doesn't mean that the cost of publication is independent of paper length. Editing costs are per-page (one can of course argue that professional editing does little for a conference paper, but nevertheless that's how it's priced).
  • in order to make sure "what you review is what you get", one generally enforces the page limit at submission time as well
  • finally, the 4-page limit I suspect is so that a fleshed out version of the work can be published in a journal without questions about the level of original content over and above what was presented at the conference. In this sense, the 4 (or 2 page) conference version is merely a short advertisement.
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    +1 for some plausible reasons. In my field(s) I've never heard of conference papers receiving editing assistance, though - usually you're given a LaTeX template (or occasionally some kind of infernal MS Word template) and you have to provide "camera ready" proofs yourself. (These are actually just pdf files that will be published without any modification, aside from possibly the addition of page numbers.) – Nathaniel Nov 15 '13 at 6:56
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    In my field(s) I've never heard of conference papers receiving editing assistance — Me neither, and I publish in many of the same venues as @Suresh. Perhaps he's referring to the addition of page numbers (which does indeed scale with the number of pages)? – JeffE Nov 16 '13 at 5:19
  • @JeffE you might (like me) think that Sheridan is a joke, but they are the official copy editors for many ACM venues, and I have gone back and forth with them about problems in a final version of a paper. As for edit costs, this was stated very clearly in a business meeting at FOCS a few years ago when deciding on USB vs CDs for proceedings (FOCS is a CS theory conference) – Suresh Nov 16 '13 at 7:31
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    Ah, right. My mistake was equating "copy editing costs" with "editing assistance" instead of "editing insistence". (To be fair to Sheridan, they are only enforcing the rules that ACM insists that they enforce.) – JeffE Nov 16 '13 at 15:06
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    Wait, so you're saying that one reason for the limits is that a third party has set itself up to extract money per-page from the conference organisers, for no particularly good reason? If so then this is extremely bad for science, and more people need to be made aware of it so that the situation can be changed. – Nathaniel Nov 17 '13 at 6:53

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