The cost of virtualizing CS conferences

Conferences in computer science are an odd occurrence. Unlike most other research fields which primarily focus on publishing in journals, conferences ended up being the primary publication and presentation venue in CS. They also became the place where researchers network with each other, learn about ongoing research, and drink beer with their grad school buddies.

Because of this, conference presentations and networking play an incredibly important part of a junior researcher’s career. Conferences allow us to show our research to our community and have other people learn about us. In my field of research, programming languages and systems, it takes anywhere between one year to multiple years to complete a project. Add to that yearly deadlines and specialized venues which results in a junior PhD student having anywhere from two to four presentations before they go on the job market. Our recognition in our community from our presentations and our papers is what gets us invitation for interviews and job offers.

Unfortunately, with the outbreak of COVID-19, our world has been turned upside down. Beyond the incredible amounts of fear, uncertainty, and human suffering it has caused, it has also destroyed one of the core mechanisms of conducting science—meeting people. Multiple major academic conferences (ASPLOS, ICLR, PLDI) have been canceled. Junior researchers, who had decided to go on job markets, find internships, or visit another institutions have had to cancel all of their plans. The impact of these things is unquantifiable—how does one measure the effect of a missed serendipitous research collaboration, or that one person on a hiring committee hearing about your work?

However, I am not here to complain about missed conferences. Canceling conferences in the midst of a global pandemic is the right thing to do. I instead want to figure out how we as a community can recreate the opportunities that conferences create for us every year. I am not an expert in this so I will need help. I have attempted to summarize the crucial opportunities conferences give us, what the challenges of running a virtual conferences are, and what options we have given that physical meetings are out of the question for a while.

Goals of a conference

From my (second-year PhD student in a relatively small community) perspective, conferences traditionally satisfy the following goals:

  1. Dissemination of research: The primary goal of any conference is to allow researchers to present their work to their peers and discuss it.
  2. Welcoming new researchers: The bloodline of our communities are new researchers. From undergrads who are attending conferences for the first time to PhD student presenting their research.
  3. The “Hallway” track: Well understood to be the actual primary goal of any conference, the hallway track is the colloquial name for researchers hanging out with each other and discussing research and whatever else that comes to their mind. It allows us to build long term connections within our community.

Options for Virtual conferences

Given that most health organizations have recommended that non-essential travel be suspended, our only choice is to have virtual conferences in some format. Virtual formats present several challenges:

  1. Multiple time-zones: Since researchers are not directly traveling to one physical location for the conference, it’s safe to assume they will distributed across the world in different time-zones.
  2. Lack of commitment: As a friend of mine put it, it’s hard to set aside the time to interact with presenters (who are possibly remote) when there are other commitments like teaching a class or having research meetings. Physical conferences act as a forcing function to set this time aside.

Both of these problems are challenging to solve. Following are some proposals I’ve seen discussed/implemented at currently canceled conferences.

  1. Recorded presentations: The bare minimum any conference can do to satisfy the first goal is to have authors record research talks and upload them to YouTube. This will allow researchers to reach out to the people who are most interested in their work and already know about it, but not a wider audience that a physical conference gives access to. It might also be possible to welcome new researchers through videos but they’d likely feel impersonal.

  2. Chatrooms for discussing papers: In addition to uploading all the talks to YouTube, ASPLOS 20 created a Slack channel to discuss each paper and co-located workshops. This improves the possibility of direct interactions by making community members available in the same place. Unfortunately, there really is no way of creating the hallway track in such a setup. As a junior student, it might be hard or impossible to get introductions to/talk to other researchers when they are not present in person. Furthermore, because of the asynchronous nature of chatrooms, it might be hard to have detailed conversations with people in different timezones.

  3. Livestreaming the conference: Livestreaming the conference in real time brings the experience as close to a conference session as possible. People are required to commit time beforehand and ask questions to right after a talk. Setting this up is non-trivial owing to time zone issues. Again, while this provides the opportunity for more direct conversations, there doesn’t seem to be a good way to recreate a hallway track.

  4. Postpone the conference/Merge it with another: The nuclear option of pushing back the conference and waiting out the pandemic. By definition, this will recreate the experience of a conference. However, this would be incredibly hard to do since conferences are carefully planned to not overlap with other conferences in relevant areas. A different approach might to be have a bigger conference the next year and have papers from both this year and next year be presented there. Again, I imagine this would be a nightmare to organize. It also fundamentally cannot recreate opportunities for researchers who go on the job market this year.

None of the solutions here are perfect and I wouldn’t know which one to choose. Each of these require hard trade-offs that we, as a community, have to make. The lack of conferences and the opportunities they create is not measurable which makes it easier to ignore their impact. I really hope that we can come up with a solution that is cognizant of this and takes into consideration the people most impacted by this.

A personal note: I had a paper accepted at PLDI 20. This is my first first-author paper and I have been incredibly excited to present this work for a really long time. I always imagined my first presentation to an exciting and terrifying rite of passage that I would celebrate with my friends, colleagues, and advisors. I feel a deep sense of loss, almost as if all the hard work was “zeroed out” because I can’t present it anymore. I assume other people in my situation feel similarly. I don’t know if senior researchers put this much value in conference presentations (since they’ve already given so many) but it seems important to acknowledge this feeling that junior researchers have when we come up with solutions for virtual conferences.

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