Why we should turn to journals
Why do I avoid submitting to highly selective conferences?
What do I mean by highly selective conferences? I refer to the publication system which consists in regular (often yearly) events where researchers submit “extended abstracts” of their latest results to go through a highly competitive reviewing process resulting in a so-called “conference publication” in the proceedings and a talk slot during the conference. In some communities (mostly in computer science) conference publications are the most important part of your CV, and researchers focus their efforts on being published in prestigious conferences.
My complaints below concern these top conferences, but more specifically their competitive selection process, which has the following consequences: unfair selection process, ineffective dissemination of the research, time and energy demanding publication and reviewing processes, and counter-productive normative rules.
I think it is time we break with this toxic system.
I strongly believe that seminar talks, specialised workshops, week-long meetings, weeks-long research visits, and journal publications are the best way to disseminate research. The distinction between prestigious conferences and specialised workshops is the competitive selection process implying that conference papers are prizes to be voraciously collected. I find small scale conferences with little or no selection process often very interesting events to attend (as an example, the Highlights conference of Logic, Games, and Automata).
My ideal timeline for a scientific publication is: submit on arXiv, which hopefully raises some interest; present and discuss the results in various scientific events, inducing a healthy maturation process; once this has stabilised, usually a few months to a year later, submit to a journal.
Counter-arguments to the usual reasons for submitting to prestigious conferences.
Click on an argument to expand it.
I want my results to be visible and quickly accessiblePut your results on arXiv. This will give them a wide and immediate visibility. Everyone knows and uses arXiv, it is well referenced by scholar websites. To strengthen that effect I often send my latest arXiv link to a few colleagues.
I need the stamp of approval from top conferences for my CV and being a member of my research communityThis is an unfortunate truth, but this does not mean that it cannot be fought. The obstacle is just a community mindset. There are two things to consider here: the recognition for a specific paper, or the need to build up your CV and your place in the community. For the research paper although prestigious conferences surely help, this is by far not the only way to advertise your work. Researchers have enough judgment to make their own mind about your results. In my experience giving talks and discussing your results is much more effective than getting published in a top conference. For your CV, indeed a long list of prestigious conference papers looks good. But this is only a first impression, which is quickly replaced by your research interactions, ability to present your results, discuss them, relate them to others, and engage in developping new ideas. In the long run the correlation between your ability to get published in top conferences and your place in the community is not that clear. There are examples of all combinations: in particular, there are (fortunately not too many) researchers who have an impressive list of conference publications but whose research impact is debatable.
I want my students to thrive and get positionsThis is arguably the strongest point against not submitting to conferences. In some sense, this is the same point as above, but specialised to students. The question is whether students can be successfully integrated into research communities, which includes getting jobs and grants, without conference publications on their CVs. My first point is that spending the same energy into submitting to journals rather than conferences is actually a good strategy: the outcome is better (a journal paper rather than a conference paper) and more fair, the price being that the process is slower. It should be commonly agreed that a journal publication carries more weight than an "extended abstract" in a conference. This is unfortunately not true in some minds, but this is completely irrational, and this strange bias should be fought against. Submitting to conferences is in pratice not that much faster than journals, once we factor in the risk of getting rejected (which is higher for students!) and the random aspect of the reviewing process for conferences. One may argue that for instance postdocs who are looking for positions need papers now. I sympathise with this as I was there just a few years ago, but again: given the odds, what is better, a noisy shot at a prestigious conference or a more fair try at a journal? My second point is that many initiatives achieve more towards integrating a student to a research community than a long list of conference publications: involving them in research projects, inviting them to scientific events, and organising visits in other research groups.
I want to be informed about the latest important resultsSign up for the daily or weekly arXiv alerting service on your research interests. This will be far more efficient than attending a conference for a broad coverage of the latest results. For more specific results and deeper discussions you want to talk directly to the relevant researchers, this is much easier and natural in a specialised event than in a general conference. For instance, the Logic, Games, and Automata community organises every year a Highlights conference where anyone can submit and everyone is accepted. This great initiative already inspired a similar event in the Algorithms community. Those are the perfect places to get up to date with results in the field.
I do not want to be scientifically isolatedThis argument relies on the idea that your research interactions are only or mostly through your conference publications. There are many other ways to share your research, as listed above: seminar talks, specialised workshops, week-long meetings, weeks-long research visits, and journal publications. I am tempted to add another one: I started writing this research blog, and found that it is a useful platform for stimulating research interactions.
I want to publish smaller results which are not yet ready for a journal publicationThis is wrong. We should aim at publising less, not more. For a simple reason: the more we publish, the less visible our results are, drowned in the number. On the other hand, nothing prevents you from publishing small results on arXiv. If I have a result which I think is interesting but not yet a full-blown satisfactory answer, I write a short note and put it on arXiv. The actual publication may come much later, be a merge of different notes, and often is enriched by interactions stimulated by the arXiv paper.
Arguments in favour of submitting to journals rather than conferences.
Click on an argument to expand it.