Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Cons and cons of closed workshops

In Europe (at least in logic and/or philosophy) the dominant model of a conference involves:
  • a few invited speakers,
  • some contributed papers (acceptance is usually based on abstracts).
Some conferences diverge from this model. Sometimes, there are no invited speakers (e.g. EetN 2013). Sometimes, full contributions are required and reviewed (e.g. EetN 2010, EetN 2011, EetN 2013, TiL XIV). Sometimes, there are no contributed papers (on purpose, I won't give any example) and the only speakers are those who were invited by the organizers. 

On the face of it, closed workshops/conferences are kinda cool:
  • If you're the organizer:
    • You don't have to prepare and distribute your CFP.
    • You don't have to collect and manage the submissions.
    • You don't have to find referees to review the submissions.
    • You don't have to message the contributors with the results.
    • Some of the speakers might later invite you to their closed event.
  • If you're an invited speaker, you might feel a bit better about yourself because you were chosen for a closed workshop (although, if you're not too insane, it's rather unlikely; I think the fact that the event is closed shouldn't add any value to your being invited).
  • If you're a participant, there are some options:
    • You're one of the organizers and then you have fun because you get to spend some research money on hanging out with good old friends without the uneasiness of meeting new people, making sure they're comfortable and whatnot. 
    • You're the invited speaker and then you have fun because you hang out with the crowd you know and like.
    • You're a graduate student: either from the institution that organizes the workshop, or you're one of those lucky people who study under the supervision of one of the speakers who decided to use their research grant to help you cover the trip costs and convinced the organizers to allow you to come. Then you're sort of happy because you get to do some networking and attend a (hopefully) interesting workshop.
A moment of reflection should lead you to the observation that none of these supposed advantages is academically relevant. Actually, closing your workshop to external submissions makes things worse:
  • Since the organizers are only going to invite people they know or they know of, the extent to which the selection of participants is going to be gender-biased is only up to them. And we've seen quite a few workshops where most (or all) speakers were male - not because the organizers are evil, not because women are not good logicians or philosophers, but rather because whoever you are, your own picture of people in the field is going to be limited by various factors that shouldn't be relevant and it seems that currently some of those factors make male researchers more likely to be invited. If, on the other hand, your conference is open to submissions and those are blind-refereed, you have a higher change of discovering female researchers you haven't heard of even though they're pretty awesome.
  • The point generalizes. Your view of people in the field is limited. By closing your workshop to submissions you miss out on meeting researchers doing interesting stuff whom you've never heard of.
  • Also, as a consequence, you're especially discriminating against young researchers: if they're not in your field of vision, they're not even allowed to compete for the right to present their views and to participate in the discussions. Senior scholars are likely to be invited here and there, but younger scholars have pretty low chances of becoming members of your in-crowd, unless their supervisor is in a position to help them. This is far from meritocratic.
  • You might think that by hand-picking the speakers you ensure that the level of the workshop is high. But you really don't:
    • Sometimes invited speakers make less effort preparing their presentations. Why the hell would they make the extra effort? They get invited anyway and they are usually more torn between various events they have to go to and they have to prepare for each of them. Many times I've seen an invited speaker doing a poor or only decent job or just reading their paper aloud without being properly prepared.
    • The person having the most impact on the quality of accepted contributed papers is you. The point of the review procedure is to select good submissions. Of course, if the selection is based on abstracts only, there's a chance of getting a bad talk. But it's still trumped by the chance of getting a good talk you wouldn't hear if there were no contributed papers. (Also, if you worry about the quality of contributed talks, require full papers rather than abstracts.) 
  • Another problem is that you not only prevent young scholars from presenting their work relying on non-meritocratic factors, but also prevent most of them from being in the audience. Even if in principle anyone can come to the talks, quite rarely a scholar from out of town will be able to have their trip covered if they don't give a presentation, not to mention the case of coming from abroad.
  • Also, if all you do is give a talk to the organizers and  invited speakers whom you've known for a while,  giving a talk at a closed workshop won't contribute to popularizing your views and getting useful feedback you didn't think of as much as giving a talk at a standard workshop/conference would.
  • Perhaps, you could argue that organizing a closed workshop is better than not doing anything and that it requires less effort on the part of the organizers. Still, I think the additional effort of going out of your comfort zone and having contributed presentations isn't that great when compared to the advantages mentioned above.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A general audience paper on Lesniewski's Mereology

This material is intended for a general audience. The paper is  forthcoming in European Review (special issue on Logic and Philosophy in Poland). I would like to express my gratitude to Dagfinn Follesdal for his comments.

It's not going to be terribly surprising if phil of math is your thing, but for an exposition it's almost bearable (he said proudly).

Also, p. 7 par. 5 from the bottom and fn. 13 give you an example of what logician's revenge looks like (and how harmless it is).

[EDIT: Thanks to Paweł Pawłowski for his correction.]
[EDIT 2: Thanks to Jack MacIntosh (this one, not this one) for his comments and a pointer to Lowe's paper.]