In a recent blog post, Lance raised the question of whether a conference should be judged (?) by its best or its worst papers. To me, this is part of a broader issue that views the conference (and journal) system as mostly playing a role in allocation of attention. As there are “too many” scientific papers, the question of which ones should get the attention of “the community” is a critical one. This view of attention as a resource is a general phenomena in our information-overload world, as explained by the nice introduction to the wikipedia article on Attention Economy:
Herbert Simon was perhaps the first person to articulate the concept of attention economics when he wrote:
- “…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”(Simon 1971, p. 40-41).
He noted that many designers of information systems incorrectly represented their design problem as information scarcity rather than attention scarcity, and as a result they built systems that excelled at providing more and more information to people, when what was really needed were systems that excelled at filtering out unimportant or irrelevant information (Simon 1996, p. 143-144).
In recent years, Simon’s characterization of the problem of information overload as an economic one has become more popular. Business strategists have adopted the term “attention economy” (Davenport & Beck 2001), and some writers have even speculated that “attention transactions” will replace financial transactions as the focus of our economic system (Goldhaber 1997, Franck 1999). Information systems researchers have also adopted the idea, and are beginning to investigate mechanism designs which build on the idea of creating property rights in attention (see Applications).
My natural tendency is indeed to view the issue of allocation of attention (between scientific papers, as well as elsewhere) indeed as a mechanism design problem. Looking from afar, the journal and conference is a pretty impressive mechanism — better than what humanity has for most resource allocation purposes. Looking more closely, this mechanism was designed under a completely different set of technological constraints from those we have now. In particular the original main motivation of journals and conferences was dissemination of information, which today is better handled by the web, e.g. the ECCC or arXiv. Personally, I can cleary see the need for conferences as providing direct human interaction, but how journals still survive escapes me.
I believe that the near future will bring significant changes in how science uses conferences and journals. Blogs are already making a real impact: notice for example the attention (here, here, here, here, here, and here) that Mark Braverman (a young postdoc) got for his last result, before any journal or conference has assessed it.
Today, it is hard to separate the social issue of how science should organize itself, from the direct effect that the current mechanism has on our own job offers, tenure decisions, and promotions. It should be no surprise that the same mechanism that is used to allocate attention among scientists is also used to allocate other resources (our salaries) among them: the criteria are probably quite similar.