Conference Hijacking

The ACM Workshop on Programming Languages and Operating Systems (PLOS) is a small event where researchers interested in the intersection of these areas can share ideas and results. There have been five of these workshops and I’ve attended a few of them and presented a paper at one. It’s a fun event and a perfectly respectable one.

The other day I received this invitation:

It is with great pleasure that we announce the inauguration of the *Annual
International Conference on Programming Languages and Operating Systems
(PLOS). *PLOS 2011 will be held on 15-16 August 2011.

The Conference Chair is Professor the Hon. Dr. Stephen Martin, Former
Speaker Parliament of Australia, Former Deputy Vice Chancellor (Strategy and
Planning) Curtin University of Technology, Former Pro Vice Chancellor
International, Victoria University, Former President/CEO University of
Wollongong in Dubai.

In view of your personal achievements and contribution to the related
research areas, we kindly seek your interest in constituting the *Technical
Program Committee (TPC)* of the Conference. Should you consent to be on the
TPC, you will also be eligible for the role of *TPC Chair* or *
Editor-in-Chief* for the conference proceedings based on your profile and
interest.

With respect to your responsibility, you may review a few papers and the
number will depend on your schedule and area of research interest/expertise.
In the event that your schedule is tight, paper review will be arranged
through other committee members. All administrative and logistic functions
will be managed by conference secretariats.

We would appreciate your prompt response as we intend to launch the
conference website soon.

Should you require any assistance or clarification, please do not hesitate
to contact me at farhana@globalstf.org  or Dr Tony Luo at tony@globalstf.org.

A little later on the same day, I got a mail from my colleague Eric Eide saying that neither he nor any of the other organizers of the ACM PLOS Workshop knew anything about this new conference, which is being sponsored by the GSTF (The Global Science and Technology Forum) rather than the ACM.

Creating a new conference with the same name as an existing one, and recruiting people known to have participated in the original event to help run the new one, is either inept or shady. Carefully reading the TPC invitation, it becomes clear that things are not totally on the level. First we have this:

The Conference Chair is Professor the Hon. Dr. Stephen Martin, Former Speaker Parliament of Australia

Now I’m sure that Stephen Martin is a great man (the invitation fails to note that he also had a successful career as a rugby league referee and administrator), but is he really the person to be running a conference on programming languages and operating systems? The area of his PhD is unspecified but it’s pretty safe to assume the guy is not a practicing computer scientist.

The second suspicious bit is:

Should you consent to be on the TPC, you will also be eligible for the role of *TPC Chair* or *Editor-in-Chief* for the conference proceedings based on your profile and interest.

That is not how things are done. Rather, the TPC chair is chosen by some sort of steering committee, and then he or she forms a program committee. To form a TPC without a chair makes little sense unless you’re simply fishing for a conference and have nobody to lead it.

Strike 3 against the new PLOS event is that none of the three organizers of the 2009 ACM PLOS Workshop who I talked to was contacted about the new event. PLOS 2009 had a 4th organizer who I haven’t heard back from, but there’s no reason to suspect that he was contacted either. If the GSTF PLOS organizers were acting in good faith, they’d have talked to the previous organizers. (Note that Eric was also an organizer in 2007 and Olaf Spinczyk, one of the other organizers who was not contacted, has organized PLOS for a number of years in a row.)

Finally, this sentence is off-key:

In the event that your schedule is tight, paper review will be arranged through other committee members.

If TPC members are not being recruited to review papers, then what is the TPC’s purpose? A reasonable guess is that the TPC will be used for its name-dropping value.

To summarize the evidence:

  1. Previous attendees of ACM PLOS, who obviously are willing to pay the registration fee for an event called “PLOS,” were invited to participate in the new PLOS.
  2. Previous organizers of ACM PLOS, who might be expected to be miffed at the creation of a new conference with the same name, were not contacted.
  3. The new conference is not being organized in response to any known demand for a new conference, but rather targets an already-filled niche.
  4. The new conference has no technical leadership, but is instead fishing for leaders. Legitimate new conferences are usually given strong leaders during the first few years to ensure a good start.
  5. The primary purpose of the TPC is to make an impressive list of names on web pages and in emails, not to filter submissions.

Taken together, this doesn’t feel like cluelessness as much as it suggests an attempt to hijack PLOS. I’m not sure that “conference hijacking” has a generally accepted definition, but it would involve using name confusion and possibly other duplicitous methods to steal away a community of people who habitually attend an existing conference. Presumably it is hoped that robust attendance at the new PLOS would cause the total conference registration fees to exceed the costs of running the conference. I have no idea if this is an isolated incident, nor did some obvious web searches turn up much useful information about GSTF (Google has a total of only 741 hits for “global science and technology forum”). Comments from people with information pointing in either direction would be appreciated.

It’s not necessarily bad for people to try to make money running academic conferences. However, an organization that does this would have incentives that are not quite aligned with the best interests of the academic community. Conference hijacking would be an expected outcome of this incentive mismatch, as would other strategies to increase attendance, such as lowering standards for publication. A few years ago some MIT students hilariously pranked the World Multiconference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics by submitting an automatically generated paper, which was accepted for presentation and inclusion in the proceedings. In contrast, the incentives of a non-profit professional society would be more closely aligned with the interests of its constituent researchers. If the ACM, for example, finds itself in a situation where the income from one of its conferences exceeds expenses, the surplus stays inside the academic community. It could go into a rainy-day fund for the conference or — as is common — subsidize travel and registration expenses for students attending the event.

Anyway, the PLOS vs. PLOS story has a satisfactory ending: someone at the ACM sent a polite letter to the PLOS organizers at the GSTF, who decided to instead call their event The Annual International Conference on Operating Systems and Programming Languages (OSPL).

4 thoughts on “Conference Hijacking”

  1. This same group (also with Stephen Martin as conference chair) has been trying this with other conference names too. Recently the SICSE-members maillist had a discussion of this regarding a CSEd conference whose name/acronym was essentially the same as the established ACM-sponsored ITiCSE; the outcome was the same as what you report; after representations from ACM, the GSTF agreed to change the name of their conference to “Computer Science Education: Innovation & Technology (CSEIT)” see http://listserv.acm.org/scripts/wa.exe?A2=ind1008A&L=SIGCSE-MEMBERS&F=&S=&P=2789

  2. Thanks Alan! It’s good to know about this.

    I asked someone at ACM how many times this has happened, but she would not give me any details (and in fact did not appear to be at all happy that I was writing about this).

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