Friday, 11 May 2012

Biology Conferences, don't publish papers!

When I was young and naive, I thought it was great when a conference published the submitted paper in a journal. Two for the price of one, right?! No. The older and more experienced (i.e. jaded) that I get, the worse an idea I think the whole publication of submitted talks is. I'm on a few review boards for bioinformatics conferences now and I am always slightly dismayed by the quality of the papers I review. Most of them are straight rejections, with a minority that might be worthy of publication if they make some tweaks. Obviously, I only review a handful of papers for each conference and there are good papers in the overall bunch, but I am more and more convinced that the quality of submissions is driven down by the promise of publication. Here's why...

On the face of it, publication seems like a great way to improve quality. After all, you need to have a finished, polished piece of work in order for it to be published, therefore you will only get talks representing finished, polished pieces of work. The problem is, in Biology at least, this is not what conferences are for. If you want to a finished, polished piece of work, read it in a journal. Preferably, read it in a high profile journal with a good reputation, where you know the review process has probably been quite tough and it has been pre-filtered for interest or impact.

And here is problem 1. If I have a good piece of work that I am really excited about, I am going to want to publish it in high impact journal where it will reach as many people as possible. Usually, this is not a conference proceedings journal. I am, therefore, probably never going to submit my most exciting work to a conference that requires and publishes full papers. If I submit anything at all, therefore, it will be something a bit more mundane and mediocre, or something incomplete and rushed at time of publication.

And here is problem 2. Even if I did think that the conference journal was good enough - some of them are special issues of Bioinformatics or something similar - there is a very definite time window for submission and then publication. Either I just have to happen to have something ready in time, or I have to rush it, or I have to sit on it for ages. Again, if it is something big and exciting, I am going to want to (a) do the best job I can (not rush it) and (b) get it out there as soon as possible (not sit on it), so again, I am put off submitting my best work to the conference.

And here is problem 3. I want to talk about my best and most exciting work at a conference, not something mundane and mediocre or rushed. It may or may not be quite finished or published but that is what I want to get out there and get feedback on. Therefore, not only am I not going to submit by best work to the conference, I probably won't go at all because I need to save my cash for a conference where I can submit what I want to talk about. Furthermore, I am unlikely to want to go and hear a load of other people talking about not-very-high-impact stuff. (Except the keynote speakers who, unbound by the shackles of publication, are usually very good.)

And here is problem 4. As far as I can see, there is a general downward spiral, where quality of submissions is low, quality of talks is therefore low, quality of attendance becomes low and numbers of submissions drop. This then creates pressure to accept papers that are not really worthy of publication - nothing is more frustrating as a reviewer than having your major concerns that need rectifying blithely ignored - and thus the quality drops further and the spiral continues.

The problem now is that I am reaching the stage where I am reluctant to consider even attending a conference that publishes talks as papers, as I have serious quality concerns. Some of the bigger conferences probably have the kudos to remain reasonably unaffected but how long that will last, I am not sure. (And I'm not a fan of big conferences for other reasons.) The only real solution that I can see is to stop publishing conference submissions or, at the very least, have a large section of "breaking science" that does not require full paper submission. Otherwise, I just think the spiral will continue. Life's too short for bad coffee and bad conferences.

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