Monday, July 13, 2009

Going Green with Electronic Proceedings

We're looking into the options for publishing the proceedings for SenSys 2009 (which I'm co-chairing with Jie Liu). Sensys is an ACM conference and traditionally has had a printed proceedings. I'm interested in what people think about an all-electronic (that is, online) proceedings, with no printed copies or CD-ROMs. The idea would be to put the PDFs on the conference website and ensure that they are archived by the ACM Digital Library. (Assuming, of course, that ACM would allow this -- I haven't looked into their policies.)

SenSys is an ACM conference, and has traditionally had printed proceedings. As anyone who has been a conference organizer knows, this can often be a cumbersome and slow process, requiring many weeks of lead time from the publisher, and quite a lot of work on the part of the authors and the publications chair. This also shortens the time available for paper shepherding. Going the traditional route also incurs a nontrivial cost which is passed down to every conference attendee, whether they want the printed book or not. Finally, there is an environmental cost to all those dead trees that never get read, and to physically ship out the proceedings to all of the SIG members.

Personally, I don't have a need for printed proceedings. I get my papers online, through Google or the ACM DL. I realize there are still plenty of people who want to hold a physical paper in their hands, which is what printers are for -- indeed, if we put the PDFs online a week or so before the conference, anyone who wants to flip through the papers physically could print them out themselves and bring them to the conference. Printed proceedings seem to me to be a holdover from the time when scientific literature was chiefly distributed through printed books and journals archived in libraries. That is not the reality today. Many journals have now gone all-electronic, so it seems odd to me that a conference could not go the same route.

At the same time, I realize there are some (real or perceived) downsides to electronic-only proceedings. There is a question about whether it really constitutes a "publication," and I have heard that some institutions in Europe and Asia expect a printed proceedings in order for a paper to "count." (I have no hard evidence of this so would like to learn more.) The copyright issue becomes a little sticky, but I think that it would work fine to allow authors to retain copyright in their papers but require that they release them under a Creative Commons license permitting the conference organizers, and ACM, to distribute them. Finally, do electronic-only proceedings diminish the gravitas of a paper being accepted into a major venue? I would hope that those bulky yellow-spined books alone do not impart validity to a conference paper, but you never know.

So, I'm curious to know what others think about going all electronic.


  1. I think the most important thing is that authors retain copyrights and papers are freely available for download. Everything else (amount of work, scheduling, costs, whether there is any kind of printed book) is secondary.

    It is an excellent thing if SenSys follows the example of STACS and other conferences which have switched to open access publishing. I'm interested to hear more about your experience regarding ACM's reactions; it would be nice to have a test case of a major ACM conference that switches to open access publishing.

  2. I think the movement to online-based materials is good overall. I think the main issue with a publication is that it needs to be accessible for people to read and cite. In my opinion, if your work is buried in a conference proceeding that is only available in print, it is less likely to get cited than if it is available electronically. Anyone who teaches these days discovers that reference material not available online does not exist to their students. (That’s a whole other issue entirely!)

    For many years now, the large Lunar and Planetary Science Conference has published a program with 1-sentence talk/poster descriptions, supplied conference goers with a CD-ROM, and archived the abstracts online. (They are available both through the Lunar and Planetary Institute and the Harvard/SAO/NASA Astrophysical Data System). With literally thousands of 2-page abstracts each year, it became a real problem to print a hard, multi-volume abstract tome (literally 6+ inches!). Now, it is easy to find and link to abstracts, and meanwhile, many of the old abstracts have been scanned and added to ADS! (Actually, there are a lot of older full journal articles too that have been released and are available freely on ADS. ADS is fantastic!!)

    LPSC no longer publishes proceedings of the yearly conference. The work presented at the conference is published either through normal journal articles or special issues arranged by conference or theme organizers.

    I have to honestly say that I hardly ever use the LPSC CD-ROMs, but I can see that it would be useful for colleagues (particularly foreign ones) that have tenuous internet access. Before I had easy internet access at home, I did use the CD-ROMs.

    I think that there is some stigma associated with "electronic only" full publications if they come from journals that have different electronic and paper editions. There seems to be an implication that the work was not "good enough" to appear in print on paper. If a journal or proceedings is wholly electronic, then I'd think there'd be no stigma attached. At least for the various longer conference abstracts that I have published, their electronic nature is not a bad thing. In fact, it ensures that I can easily link to my work from my own online reference list, thus ensuring that interested parties can easily access, read, and hopefully cite my work.

  3. I'm a dinosaur. When I sit down with a student, there's nothing better than being able to pull relevant conference papers off my bookshelves in seconds. So I like printed proceedings.

    I also like the serendipity of having 30 articles bound in one volume. Nobody, but nobody, is going to print out all the articles from a proceedings. Printers aren't good enough; Kinko's isn't good enough. I hope will will still see printed proceedings just as we still see printed books.

    On the other hand, dealing with Sheridan is hell. I feel your pain.

  4. A local university press would certainly be happy to produce printed books for those who are interested in buying a copy. You can get a "real" paperback book and it doesn't have to cost that much.

  5. I am not sure if ACM provides any assistance with this, but it is important that the online proceedings have their own ISBN number. At least here in Germany, the univesity administration insists on proceeding ISBN for the paper to be counted in the dissemination metrics.

  6. as far as distribution at the conference, i'd go with USB sticks rather than CD ROMs.

  7. Perhaps you could partner with some eBook reader maker and subsidize the purchase of said readers for conference attendees who wish it.

  8. We have looked at the ebook and DIY publishing companies, but decided not to go this route for now since it seems to be a lot of overhead to get it published that way. Do you have a suggestion for one?

  9. SIGMOD, which is a big ACM conference, has been electronic only for at least two years now. At the very least, I've attended it the past two years and don't recall even having the option to get printed proceedings. You may wish to contact them to find out how to negotiate the ACM details.

  10. Printed proceedings drive better interactions during the Q&A, at least for me. I usually flip through papers in parallel with a talk to dig deeper or better understand some point or another before asking a silly question about this, that, or the other thing. I recently attended a conference where the proceedings were given out in CD-ROM format, which totally didn't work for me since my laptop doesn't have a CD-ROM drive. I was able to get the proceedings on a USB flash drive, which was great until my battery ran out (only a few outlets were visible in the entire room and I didn't get one of the coveted seats near one). The other thing I noticed was that one my laptop was open and I was reading papers, it didn't take long for me to start to surf, check e-mail, or otherwise get distracted. So, I think printed proceedings are great.


Startup Life: Three Months In

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