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For example in computer science, systems conferences have low acceptance rates hovering around ~20% as listed here: https://www.cs.ucsb.edu/~almeroth/conf/stats/

But in robotics many of the conferences, even the major ones, seem to have acceptance rates of ~40% (ICRA, IROS) as seen here: http://www.adaptivebox.net/CILib/CICON_stat.html#ICRA

Why is this, and are any steps taken to equalise the playing field between subfields? Does this simply mean that those doing systems research are just going to have a harder time publishing than those in robotics?

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You can't judge a conference by its acceptance rate because you don't know what is in the rejection pile. For example, I know of a computer science conference that regulates its acceptance ratio by determining it in advance and then just setting the number of parallel tracks to fit.

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  • +1 .. but tell that to university administrations that give associates credit and funding based on figures that are solely based on rejection counts.. :-( – fuesika Apr 2 '15 at 3:59
  • @pystarter What sort of figures are those? – Tobias Kildetoft Apr 2 '15 at 4:41
  • @TobiasKildetoft Practically this is an approach to ranking based on the approach that conferences of high quality and impact reject more publications than those of lesser importance. – fuesika Apr 2 '15 at 5:01
  • Doesn't a very low acceptance rate just suggest that a lot of wildly over optimistic people work in that field? – dorothy Apr 2 '15 at 8:22
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I am a little confused by your question, as the answers are rather straight-forward:

Why are the acceptance rates for publications in subfields higher than others?

Well, because some subfields have more active researchers, hence the popular conferences get more papers, hence they also have to reject more. Of course you could argue that these conferences should just get proportionally larger, but this is in practice unattractive. Cloud computing, for instance, is kind of a hot field right now. Acceptance rates for all reasonable conferences hover around or way below 20%. Of course we could accept twice as many papers in each conference to have 40%, but then all these conferences would be huge and take two weeks to run, and there would be even more mediocre related work to keep track of. I don't think anybody wants this.

This leads to the other, related, reason: not all papers are made equal. Hot topics tend to attract a lot more complete thrash than other fields. I am in the PC of conferences in software engineering and cloud / services computing. Both fields are reasonably established, but SE is more of a long-standing, existing field while cloud is a hype topic. SE conferences have substantially higher acceptance rates, but I feel the "floor" in terms of quality of accepted solutions is higher than in cloud conferences (that is, the worst paper at an SE conference is miles better than the worst paper at a cloud conference with much lower acceptance rate).

Does this simply mean that those doing systems research are just going to have a harder time publishing than those in robotics?

Not necessarily. See above - one thing I have learned is that the acceptance rate really is a crude measure to judge the difficulty of getting a paper accepted.

are any steps taken to equalise the playing field between subfields?

Not that I know of, and I see this not as a pressing issue that needs addressing.

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  • I suppose I am confused why in the field of robotics, which is quite an established field, the acceptance rates for the top confs are ~40%... – user2562609 Apr 2 '15 at 6:10
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    @user2562609 If I had to guess, I would say this is because Robotics requires some investment into, well, robots and field trials, while many other CS fields only require a laptop and internet access. Hence, it is easier to get into, say, Software Engineering than Robotics if you are working in an under-funded third-world university. – xLeitix Apr 4 '15 at 9:01

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