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I understand that in the field of computer science, publishing in a conference is the default, as opposed to other fields where it's normal to publish your research in a journal. But does the word conference here carry the same meaning as it does in other fields?

If your paper is accepted in a conference in computer science, does it simply mean that it will be published in a proceedings rather than a journal? Or does it really mean that you have to travel to a physical conference and present your work as a talk? If the latter, what happens if you have multiple papers accepted at different conferences in the same year but can't afford to travel to all of them? I imagine that in this situation, trying to publish any work would result in a scheduling nightmare, both on the part of conference attendees and organisers. If this is the case, how did this situation arise and why is it allowed to continue?

Or have I got the wrong end of the stick and in computer science, the word conference is just a synonym for journal?

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    It seems like a huge burden for people who cannot afford to travel much (eg single mothers who would have to pay a lot for bringing the children to the conference, organizing childcare,...) – user111388 Apr 17 at 15:47
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    @user111388: Or for those of us who have other home responsibilities that can't just be left for a week. And those who find commercial flights, hotels, and large crowds of people to be highly unpleasant experiences. – jamesqf Apr 18 at 1:00
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    I posted an answer, but in a nutshell, almost all authors are full-time researchers who plan on conference travel as part of their job description and have it funded by their employer. Researchers in several other fields likely do a similar amount of travel at similar expense, but their publication model isn't as connected. (This isn't to say the conference model is perfect or even good, it's just to give a perspective on how it actually works.) – usul Apr 18 at 7:14
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    @jamesqf: I do agree there are many other home reposibilities that can't be left for a week. However, hating flights and crowds of people is not a good reason for me -- presumably, when taking this job, one knows how the CS world works (just like a stewardess shouldn't complain about hating flights). – user111388 Apr 18 at 9:13
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    I guess you can still find several differences among different areas of Computer Science... In crypto, for example, the top conferences (mainly the ones organized by IACR) are very competitive, the articles are peer reviewed and the acceptance rates are very low, thus, researchers of the field consider that publishing in such conferences is a great achievement. And when you check the publication list of important cryptographers, you see that they have published a lot of papers in these conferences, but only a few in journals. – Hilder Vitor Lima Pereira Apr 18 at 11:43
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I echo the other answers: Yes, the standard is that an author needs to attend the conference and physically present the work. If you don't have the time/money/energy/childcare/visa to do that, then hopefully one of your coauthors can go. In a pinch, a non-author may be able to present. However, ultimately, if no one is able to attend and present, then you have to withdraw the paper and publish elsewhere.

This situation is problematic and there have been plenty of complaints about it. I personally have had to miss conferences due to visa issues and due to childcare constraints.

However, I would like to add that this is rapidly changing. The COVID-19 pandemic has made conference attendance impossible for almost all participants. Many computer science conferences have decided to become "virtual" or at least have the option of virtual attendance. It remains to be seen how this will work. But there is a good chance that this will result in a lasting change beyond the pandemic.

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Most computer science conferences expect that, except in extraordinary circumstances, at least one author will present the paper in person. The paper is also, in most cases, published in the proceedings, possibly on paper and distributed to some set of people, such as a special interest group.

The reason for this is that we highly value collaboration and face to face conferences give us a chance to sit and talk as well as interact with authors.

If you publish in a lot of conferences you need to plan for the travel. Grant funding is one source, as is university funding. I think that personally funding your travel is not especially common, but possible.

Note, also that many conferences attendees work in industry, not academia, where they do research of various kinds. It is common to see folks from IBM Research, or Microsoft Research, for example at many ACM conferences. They are funded by their companies.

One option for a prolific publisher (we should all be so lucky) is to do a lot of collaborative work so that if you can't attend, say, SIGPLAN POPL 2021, then one of your coauthors will be able to.

But no, it isn't just another way of saying "journal".

I should also note that quite a few people attend such conferences even when they have no part in the program. They are just there for the collaborative opportunities and for informal meetings.

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    Yes, @GoodDeeds, some folks will have more than one paper in an annual CS conference. – Buffy Apr 17 at 14:43
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    Re "...face to face conferences give us a chance to sit and talk..", maybe that's true for some people, but certainly not for everyone. There are (or so I'm told) people who can hold meaningful conversations on technical topics. Other people, like me, do far better by email. – jamesqf Apr 18 at 0:58
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    "The reason for this is that we highly value collaboration and face to face conferences give us a chance to sit and talk as well as interact with authors." - this is written as if no other field values collaboration anywhere near as much as CS, and that other academics have no interest in face-to-face discussion (on both academic and other topics). It doesn't explain why conferences are a de facto requirement to be considered positively published in CS. – Nij Apr 18 at 11:16
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    The question is about why CS uses conferences as its primary or pinnacle publishing format, and your answer tries to use "we like collaboration a lot" as a justification for this. It either rejects the idea that collaboration has such importance in any other science or that requiring a high degree of collaboration also necessarily leads to using conferences as the highest marker of publishing quality. One does not need any publication arising at all to have conferences which promote collaboration and presentation of work; the entire paragraph is irrelevant or it is deliberate exaggeration. – Nij Apr 18 at 11:27
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    I'm from one of the other fields. Almost all in this answer is also true for us (and it is also quite common to have somewhat more formal "side meetings", e.g. to put a project meeting next to the conference if most of the participating groups will also be at the conference or have the meeting of a professional society there as well). The difference: instead of proceedings (that hardly count at all) we do special issues "conference XY" in a reputable normal journal, and these undergo the normal review process that is in place for the journal. The review for presenting something at the... – cbeleites unhappy with SX Apr 18 at 22:05
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Computer science conferences are confusing because they involve two entirely different things:

  • A process that works essentially like a journal, where you submit papers, get reviews, and accepted papers are formally "published" in conference proceedings which is just like a journal. Differences with journals:
    • there is usually one submission deadline per year (aligned with the conference);
    • reviewing is speedy (around 2-3 months) because the conference gives a firm deadline;
    • papers are relatively short (around 12 pages) though in some fields this is worked around by having an unlimited-length appendix (which reviewers do not need to review);
    • the number of accepted papers is limited (by the conference capacity);
    • you can publish an "extended version" of a conference paper into an actual journal later;
    • sometimes, papers are selected based on whether they are expected to make a good talk, but this is only done by a minority of conferences and not the main deciding factor.
  • A physical meeting, where people come, present their work, discuss and socialize: the program of the conference consists of what was accepted to the proceedings in that year. And yeah, there is a requirement that some author of the accepted paper will travel to present it.

To confuse matters further, computer science also has "informal" conferences, also called conferences: their program can be chosen by invitation or by a light reviewing process. At these informal conferences, you only do the second point (there are no formal proceedings) and presenting work there does not "count" as a publication in the bibliometric sense, so you may allowed to present work that you have published or will publish elsewhere. Some of these conferences will have "informal proceedings" to circulate the presented works but which does not "count" as a publication. An example are Dagstuhl seminars (invite-only) or Highlights of Logics, Games, and Automata (open, light reviewing).

I say that these two things are "entirely different" because the reviewing process on the scientific paper is usually only concerned with the paper and not concerned at all about the suitability of the work to be presented as a talk; and because the physical conference could exist without these proceedings (as exemplified by the informal conferences). This forced marriage is unsatisfactory because some people want to formally publish their work and do not care about presenting it at the conference, but need to show up no matter the cost, time, inconvenience, CO2 footprint, etc. Conference proceedings accomplish a valuable job (get formal publications of short papers with speedy refereeing and the option to publish an extended version later) but there's no good reason why they are tied to the physical meeting aspect.

There are some rare CS conferences which have started to de-couple the two aspects, e.g., the VLDB conference is attached to a separate journal PVLDB for its proceedings volume; and the POPL conference is attached to the PACMPL journal. One can only hope that the current COVID-19 crisis, which is forcing some changes in how conferences are run, will encourage further evolutions of this model.

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Other answers are great - this may fill in any gaps. I'm not going to talk about what should be, just what is (or was before COVID). I will mention there are arguments against conferences that you don't bring up, especially inequity across geographic locations. I will also mention that CS has a fair number of great journals in addition to conferences and one could publish mostly in these if one wanted to.

But does the word conference here carry the same meaning as it does in other fields?

No - I think the event is similar, but in some fields there is little reviewing process and one may speak about the same work at multiple conferences, whereas at main CS conferences the reviewing process is relatively rigorous and accepted papers are widely consider "published", and only appear at one conference. However:

If your paper is accepted in a conference in computer science, does it simply mean that it will be published in a proceedings rather than a journal?

Usually yes, but it is also common to publish a more extensive or detailed version of the same work in a journal later -- some journals and conferences have explicit policies and agreements about this.

Or does it really mean that you have to travel to a physical conference and present your work as a talk?

As others mentioned, it's expected that you only submit if one of the authors plans to go and present if accepted. In unusual circumstances like denied visas it can be worked around.

If the latter, what happens if you have multiple papers accepted at different conferences in the same year but can't afford to travel to all of them?

This seems rare for several reasons. First, you plan travel when planning submissions, so you just wouldn't submit to those if you didn't have budget.

But mostly, almost everyone who publishes at these conferences is a professional researcher or close enough that their employer subsidizes/funds their travel. Tech companies pay for publishing employees to go (usually) and academics use research funds. This is part of their yearly budget. Many/most presenters are grad students who get somewhat reduced rates and often can get travel grants from different sources.

Also, most computer scientists collaborate with one to four or more other people on most papers, so each individual has flexibility. Often the least-senior author is given the opportunity to present and has funds available, so more-senior authors often don't travel, or travel to participate in the conference but don't present.

I imagine that in this situation, trying to publish any work would result in a scheduling nightmare, both on the part of conference attendees and organisers.

Again most participants are full-time researchers so they plan on attending the same conferences, or a subset of the same, every year, often regardless of whether they happen to have a paper accepted or not. Each conference is usually held around the same time each year so they don't usually conflict with other conferences in the same research area.

If this is the case, how did this situation arise and why is it allowed to continue?

I don't know much about how it arose, but why does it continue - it works well for a lot of people, especially people in power of decisionmaking. The case hasn't really been made for compelling alternatives.

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    "The case hasn't really been made for compelling alternatives." — Except that every other field of science gives a compelling alternative… – Jukka Suomela Apr 18 at 8:36
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    @JukkaSuomela compelling to some people, but not compelling enough make CS decisionmakers switch, obviously. Almost every other field has a history of paywalling articles in expensive closed-access journals but that hasn't compelled CS to switch to that model. – usul Apr 18 at 16:33
  • So what are these great journals? – lalala Apr 20 at 11:51
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    @lalala, Some top examples: Journal of the ACM, Communications of the ACM, IEEE Transactions on _____ and ACM Transactions on ______, for many different _____, Artificial Intelligence, Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research, Journal of Machine learning Research, Foundations and Trends in ______, Algorithmica, Information Systems. There are more specialized ones for each area. – usul Apr 20 at 12:03
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I've been to several of these Computer Science conferences, and I can confirm that the papers presented there are indeed released publicly afterwards. One interesting thing is that it is forbidden/frowned upon to present a paper at more than one conference. I had a friend who wanted to present the same paper at different conferences, so he worked around this rule by opting out of having his paper published at the conference. So because his paper wasn't published in the conference preceedings, he was able to present it there and then take it to the next conference.

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