My colleague and CACM's editor-in-chief, Moshe Vardi, has written thoughtfully and persuasively about the changing nature of the academic publication culture, sentiments I also expressed in an earlier Computing Research News (CRN) column entitled Publishing Quarks: Considering Our Culture. Both of us have bemoaned the rising tide of conference publications at the expense of archival journals. (See Moshe's CACM editorial, Conferences vs. Journals in Computing Research for his perspective.)
In a more recent CACM editorial, Moshe returned to publications and culture, discussing the transformation of informal workshops into what might best be called small conferences, with all the program committees, paper reviewing and formality that implies. Like Moshe, I remember attending an earlier genre of workshops, when I was a graduate student and a young assistant professor.
Workshops: Real Discussion
These earlier workshop venues were an opportunity to meet senior researchers in settings where extended conversations and social interactions were both possible and desirable. The atmosphere was informal, the posted agenda were at best a rough guideline, and the discussions were lively, with no objective other than sharing experiences, trading insights and generating ideas.
There were no published proceedings, nor in many cases did the presentations even involve use of overhead transparencies. Real chalk was sometimes used, and the agenda might well have been mimeographed. I realize these descriptions of meeting technology alone date me, and perhaps label me as a technological Neanderthal. For the record, we did not walk five miles barefoot, in the snow, to the workshop venue, nor was it uphill both ways.
In the spirit of fostering off the record conversations on new research directions, I once helped organize and host a Gordon research conference. It was an experience unlike any other I have had as either a program committee or conference general chair, one I heartily recommend we embrace more often in computing.
If you are unfamiliar with Gordon conferences, most are held at small colleges, with attendees housed in student dormitories. The conferences follow a strict format, with morning sessions, free afternoons for informal discussion, followed by evening sessions and (typically) a social event with liquid refreshment. The conference rules also prohibit publication, quotation or attribution of ideas exchanged at the meeting, and attendees are chosen from applicants to ensure diverse technical perspectives.
Technical Reports: Computing History
In that same spirit, I bemoan the seeming demise of the technical report, long a fixture in academic research circles. The technical report, or TR as it was often called, was a mechanism to record details that were too voluminous for a journal publication. Such details ranged from extended descriptions of the experimental infrastructure used to capture data to detailed derivations of the lemmas and theorems behind a key result. Yes, it may be "obvious to the reader" but it is certainly much clearer if the proofs of the preceding nine lemmas and three theorems are explained in depth. Likewise, an extended description of the research infrastructure increases the odds the experiment might be repeatable, an all too rare event in computing.
The TR was also often used to document the progress and technical context of an extended research project. Reading a series of TRs often introduced one to project rationales, approaches and milestones, as well as the then current technical state of the art. For seminal projects, these TRs now serve as an intellectual archeological dig, documenting the early days of our field.
Like the informal workshop, the TR has gone the way of the passenger pigeon. It is time we extracted a sample of cultural DNA from computing's history and engineered a new generation of contemplative, informal workshops. Perhaps we could even ban wireless devices to ensure participation. After gestation, ideas conceived at those workshops might even find their way into technical reports. Imagine that.