[…] holding conferences less frequently and accepting every reasonable paper for presentation without proceedings
While I am in favor of having large conferences where everyone meets and everyone talks as is common in other disciplines, I would like to see these as an additional format to the top CS conferences rather than a replacement. Of course, adding non-competitive non-proceedings conferences, without destroying the current competitive ones will not “solve the problem”, stated by the CRA tenure policy memo from 99, that “In those dimensions that count most, conferences are superior”.
From my point of view the unique role of top conferences in CS is that of influencing the agenda of the field. Science is a human endeavor, and as such is a social one. The raison d’etre of the whole academic system is to bring scientists together, having them influence each other. In fact, this is the only way for a field to advance: “standing on the shoulders of giants” or at least on the shoulders of each other. Now, the truth is that the most difficult insight at every single point in time is the understanding of what is important and how to look at things. A field manages to progress best if many researchers reach similar views on these questions, and then work, for a while, in the implied directions, boosting each other’s research. Of course, in many cases after a while it may become apparent that this research direction was “wrong” (i.e. not interesting, not solvable, or not bearing fruit), but this is the common risk in any research. When a whole community works in some direction together, they will tend not only to progress on it faster, but also to branch away into more profitable directions faster. If done right, they will also be able to abandon a wrong direction faster, and more often concentrate efforts in more promising directions.
All in all, I think that the CS conference system (at least in areas that I am familiar with) has been doing very well in concentrating the community effort, and more importantly in abandoning “old fields” and quickly moving into more promising ones. The “trends” we see evoked by the conference system have managed to develop whole areas extremely quickly: modern cryptography, quantum computation, online algorithms, streaming algorithms, and algorithmic game theory are examples of rapid creation of new fields. They have also manged to change directions quickly: the re-invention of CCC (formerly called Structures), the de-emphasis of new research in automata theory, the shift of focus away from the PRAM model in parallel computation, and the rise and fall of theoretical VLSI are such examples.
Now, I am sure that the reader will disagree with the “wisdom of the community” in at least some of the examples I listed above as well as in many other cases. Indeed it is important that there is ample room for other voices, both within each conference and in competing conferences. I do not think that one can seriously claim that the CS conference system is “shutting up” other voices. Certainly non-trendy areas get less attention and space than trendy ones, but they are allowed to compete for the mind-share and heart-share of the community, and may then become trendy. This competition is key. It may be artificially triggered by the limited size of the conference, but it really reflects a competition for the limited attention that humans have.
Now, one may evaluate differently the success of the CS conference system in setting the scientific agenda, and may certainly not like the idea of having a community agenda at all. But just consider the alternatives! One of the saddest and most common things in science is a brilliant graduate student that is working in the defunct area of his or her adviser. In most case, the area chosen for your PhD will determine what you work on for the rest of your career. What a loss! The CS conference system has given graduate students a better chance to find a research area with a promising future (better — not perfect). Many an adviser suggested: “read all abstracts of papers in the last STOC and find 2 or 3 papers that you want to read completely”. This is so much better than “read my own last 2 or 3 papers”. An enormous amount of research effort is wasted in all branches of science by researchers working in stupid and boring directions. This waste can not be totally eliminated of course, but I think that the CS conference system is very effective in reducing it relative to other scientific systems I know.