Research is about developing, identifying, and communicating good ideas. I think that in the PL research community, we have a problem with the third part of that recipe. I say this despite the real impact that PL research has been having in the last few years, fueling a renaissance of industrial interest in designing and extending programming languages. Important ideas are making their way from academic research papers into practice. But we can do better.
Problem: The price of admission
The rich and deep history of programming languages research makes it difficult for new researchers to get up to speed on the important ideas. Too few institutions can offer the broad graduate-level courses that would be needed, so students are forced to self-educate by reading dense conference papers: not an efficient way to acquire core knowledge! I see a resulting gap between what students have learned in the first years of graduate school and the breadth and depth of knowledge they need to make significant PL research contributions, especially as PL interacts with new application areas like machine learning and cyberphysical systems.
Journals can be part of the solution
I believe part of the solution is to reinvigorate and refocus journals as a publication venue. The journal version of an academic paper should be the version of the work that is not only complete but also accessible. At conference length, there is often not enough space for a paper to properly motivate, explain, and situate its ideas.
It is unfortunate that many important results never make it into journal papers, where reviewers with real topic expertise have had the time to think carefully about each submission, and multiple rounds of revision can be used. While the two-round process of PACM PL publications does improve on the classic conference reviewing process, the traditional journal process offers more opportunities to make submitted work into the best version of the paper.
This line of reasoning is why I sought the job of editor-in-chief of ACM TOPLAS three years ago. TOPLAS has been the most prestigious broad journal in the programming languages area. I’m happy to report that we are seeing a significant increase both in papers submitted to and published by TOPLAS.
But to breathe life into journals, we need to address the reasons why they lost popularity. Conferences became dominant because they offered a better way to get results out to the research community, especially because results could be advertised by a talk. The obvious solution is to make journals more competitive by making it possible to talk about journal publication results at suitable conference venues.
Here I have expanded on the approach established by my predecessor, Jens Palsberg, and by other journals such as TOG. By this point, TOPLAS has partnerships with four PL conferences: PLDI, POPL, OOPSLA, and ECOOP, in which work submitted first to TOPLAS can also be reviewed, on request, for presentation at these conference. These partnerships seem to be a success: we’re seeing an increasing number of such “journal-first” submissions to TOPLAS, and the number of TOPLAS papers presented at these top conferences has been slowly increasing over time. Of course, I’m open to further partnerships.
It seems that conferences and journals, at least in the PL area, are moving closer together, with conferences introducing more feedback and shepherding, and journals adding avenues for in-person presentation. I applaud this trend because it should help the PL research community share its great ideas! But I am also eager to hear others’ ideas about journals, conferences, and other venues can increase the impact of PL research. Get in touch (or use the comments below) !
Bio: Andrew C. Myers is a Professor in the Computer Science Department at Cornell University. His research interests include computer security, programming languages, and distributed and persistent programming systems. He is the current editor-in-chief of the ACM journal, Transactions on Programming Languages and Systems (TOPLAS).
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