Thursday, July 5, 2012

Deadlines

Days before a conference deadline (SODA, for this week) are marked by increasing intensity of work, gradually setting aside more secondary tasks as the deadline nears. I used to have a surge of adrenaline on the day of the deadline: now I'm just impatient with myself for not having tied loose ends much earlier.

Day after the conference deadline: goofing off.

Day after the day after the conference deadline: cleaning up. Taking stock of all the urgent tasks that got shoved aside to make room for the conference submission, apologizing for things that were not done and people who were ignored, and working at getting things back under control.

Almost every computer scientist I know works in that way. Almost none of the mathematicians or physicists I know work in that way. Why have we chosen such a stressful and unpleasant way of organizing our work? More importantly, why is it so hard to break the habit? Part of the reason is that the minority rules in that case: in a group of collaborators, it is enough that one person works in that mode to force all participants to adopt it. In the DAG of tasks that need to be done, as long as a few critical tasks belong to a person of that culture, all members of the project have to also follow the same pattern of behavior, I think.

So what can be done to change behavior? Getting rid of hard deadlines would change the way the field works. One possible direction is the possibility of rolling deadlines.

5 comments:

  1. That's why I really really wish that CS would turn into a journal-based field. Something would have to be done about the ridiculous journal wait times though.

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  2. There are pros and cons to both systems.

    In the anual deadline system, I believe, the push that all the scientists make for the conference deadline keeps the field moving quickly. The fast review time also helps with this.

    Rolling deadlines do not have that last minute stress but projects can linger and take much longer to get in to print. This is caused both by a lack of diligence and our inevitable perfectionism. The very slow review times do not help the situation.

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  3. Unashamedly Disorganized TheoristJuly 5, 2012 at 1:06 PM

    If I were deprived of that adrenaline rush, I would probably switch fields...

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  4. Yeah it has everything to do with the fact that we do conferences instead of journals. Because of the nature of CS, but also the (bad) working habits, it is quite the case that if you decide to publish something directly through a journal, you run the risk of being preempted.

    And it's true that some people work best under pressure: it's during that intense rush when you set everything aside that things crystallize.

    Furthermore, what you say about having to be delayed by the most unorganized collaborator is true, but it's a chicken and egg problem: the co-author holding you up probably has another similar deadline, and so this frenzy is due to the fact that we have disjoint deadlines.

    Both of those things said, I deeply despise this system, because I think that it encourages many negative things: rushed submissions, fractional results (a little bit in this paper, a little bit in this paper---also known as "research in ten page increments"), and bibliometric tendencies among them.

    And then there are all the other extra problems associated with conferences...

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  5. I don't work in this deadline-driven mode. Most of the time.

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