My Last Program Committee Meeting?

This month, I participated in what may very well have been my last physical program committee (PC) meeting, for ESEC/FSE 2018. In 2017, top software engineering conferences like ICSE, ESEC/FSE, ASE and ISSTA (still) had physical PC meetings. In 2019, these four will all switch to on line PC meetings instead.

I participated in almost 20 of such meetings, and chaired one in 2017. Here is what I learned and observed, starting with the positives:

  1. As an author, I learned the importance of helping reviewers to quickly see and concisely formulate the key contributions in a way that is understandable to the full pc.

  2. As a reviewer I learned to study papers so well that I could confidently discuss them in front of 40 (randomly critical) PC members.

  3. During the meetings, I witnessed how reviewers can passionately defend a paper as long as they clearly see its value and contributions, and how they will kill a paper if it has an irreparable flaw.

  4. I started to understand reviewing as a social process in which reviewers need to be encouraged to change their minds as more information unfolds, in order to arrive at consensus.

  5. I learned phrases reviewers use to permit them to change their minds, such as “on the fence”, “lukewarm”, “not embarrassing”, “my +1 can also be read as a -1”, “I am not an expert but”, etc. Essential idioms to reach consensus.

  6. I witnessed how paper discussions can go beyond the individual paper, and trigger broad and important debate about the nature of the arguments used to accept or reject a paper (e.g. on evaluation methods used, impact, data availability, etc)

  7. I saw how overhearing discussions of papers reviewed by others can be useful, both to add insight (e.g. additional related work) and to challenge the (nature of the) arguments used.

  8. I felt, when I was PC co-chair, the pressure from 40 PC members challenging the consistency of any decision we made on paper acceptance. In terms of impact on the reviewing process, this may well be the most important benefit of a physical PC meeting.

  9. I experienced how PC meetings are a great way to build a trusted community and make friends for life. I deeply respected the rigor and well articulated concerns of many PC members. And nothing bonds like spending two full days in a small meeting room with many people and insufficient oxygen.

I also witnessed some of the problems:

  1. My biggest struggle was the incredible inefficiency of PC meetings. They take 1-2 days from 8am-6pm, you’re present at discussions of up to 100 papers discussed in 5-10 minutes each, yet participate in often less than 10 papers, in some cases just one or two.

  2. I had to travel long distances just for meetings. Co-located meetings (e.g. the FSE meeting is typically immediately after ICSE) reduce the footprint, but I have crossed the Atlantic multiple times just for a two day PC meeting.

  3. My family paid a price for my absence caused by almost 20 PC meetings. I have missed multiple family birthdays.

  4. The financial burden on the conference (meeting room + 40 x dinner and 80 lunches, €5000) and each PC member (travel and 2-3 hotel nights, adding up easily to €750 per person paid by the PC members) is substantial.

  5. I saw how vocal pc members can dominate discussions, yielding less opportunity for the more timid pc members who need more time to think before they dare to speak.

  6. I hardly attended a PC meeting in which not at least a few PC members eventually had to cancel their trip, and at best participated via Skype. This gives papers reviewed by these PC members a different treatment. As PC chair for ESEC/FSE we had five PC members who could not make it, all for valid (personal, painful) reasons. I myself had to cancel one PC meeting a week before the meeting, when one of my children had serious health problems.

  7. Insisting on a physical PC meeeting limits the choice of PC members: When inviting 40 PC members for ESEC/FSE 2017, we had 20 candidates who declined our invitation as they could not commit a year in advance to attending a PC meeting (in Buenos Aires).

Taking the pros and cons together, I have come to believe that the benefits do not outweigh the high costs. It must be possible to organize an on line PC meeting with special actions to keep the good parts (quality control, consistent decisions, overhearing/inspecting each others reviews, …).

I look forward to learning from ICSE, ESEC FSE, ISSTA and ASE experiences in 2019 and beyond about best practices to apply for organizing a successful on line PC meeting.

In principle, ICSE will have on line PC meetings in 2019, 2020, and 2021, after which the steering committee will evaluate the pros and cons.

As ICSE 2021 program co-chairs, Tao Xie and I are very happy about this, and we will do our best to turn the ICSE 2021 on line PC meeting into a great success, for the authors, the PC members, and the ICSE community. Any suggestions on how to achieve this are greatly appreciated.

T-Shirt saying "Last PC Meeting Ever?"

Christian Bird realized the ESEC/FSE 2018 PC meeting may be our last, and realized this nostalgic moment deserved a T-shirt of its own. Thanks!!

(c) Arie van Deursen, June 2018.

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