Finding protected places

Authors: Jonathan Grudin
Posted: Wed, October 30, 2013 - 7:28:39

In a memorable scene, a boy is taught to swim by being thrown into a lake. In the movie, it worked. In real life, training is desirable, whether for heart surgeons, air traffic controllers, or swimmers. Training is a protected place, where we can try things, take risks, and make mistakes without adverse consequences. What happens in training, stays in training. That’s the idea, anyway.


Ever more of our activity is represented digitally, easily recorded and transferred. Increased visibility has consequences for criminals, politicians, celebrities, classified documents, you, and me.  “Don’t say anything in email that you would not want to see on the front page of the newspaper.” “Don’t post anything on Facebook that you would not want a future employer to see.” We are warned, then we decide whether or not to worry about it.

How does visibility affect training? What happens in Vegas rarely stays in Vegas any more. Once upon a time, a neophyte running for political office could try a line with a local audience, gauge the reaction, and tune the message. Now, early speeches will be recorded on someone’s phone. Care must be taken from day one—a misstep could surface later and haunt the candidate forever. There is no training period.

Transferring records is easy—some of my daughter’s middle school grades are attached to her high school transcript. Parents begin worrying about impaired college prospects at a time when earlier generations of students were able to grow up at their own pace. Although kids still mostly compete locally in academics and athletics, standardized testing and recruiting scouts push them onto larger stages at earlier ages.

Non-celebrities have some security through obscurity. The Web provides a global stage, but if my kids upload a video to YouTube, although anyone on the planet could see it, not many will. They may be safe as long as they don’t some day run for political office, although who knows how obsessively tomorrow’s college admissions and employers will troll the Web. The protection afforded by obscurity can be penetrated—is penetrated—by bots as well as people. Protected places are vanishing.

Nurturing ideas

Charles Darwin spent 20 years working out his theory. He described his ideas to colleagues, refined them, and collected supporting evidence. He wanted to avoid the marginalization that befell his mentor Robert Edmond Grant, whose less-polished evolutionary theory of the origin of the species, sans natural selection, was dismissed. Many theories of evolution preceded Darwin’s, some half-baked and some more than half-baked, but Darwin’s ended up thoroughly baked. Ideas can benefit by being nurtured in protected places. Finding such places requires more of an effort in the goldfish bowl. I have found a few and have treasured them, sources of ideas and enjoyment.

Before the Web: slow audience expansion

In my doctoral program at UCSD, ideas were nurtured privately for a time, tried out with friends, and then came a lab presentation. At the end of our first year we gave a formal presentation to the department. Students submitted work-in-progress papers to regional conferences. National conferences also had relatively low bars to acceptance—a paper was not archived, so no one would later see it unless it was released as a technical report. The goal was journal submission. Journal reviewing led to further refinement. Reviewing was usually more constructive than today’s in-or-out conference decision-making. Work typically took years to complete and fewer publications was the norm.

The benefits of ephemerality were not confined to research. In the 1970s I noticed that a favorite newspaper columnist, an elegant stylist, occasionally reworked an earlier column. His third version could be exquisite. With years elapsing between versions, perhaps few people noticed. Finding old columns would require a trip to a library microfiche room. Today, “self-plagiarism” could be tracked down online in minutes. Had he been forced to differentiate his columns more, his best would never have been written. Only his first drafts would have seen print.

Similarly, well into the mid-1980s, it was OK to rework a conference paper—fix errors, refine arguments, and deepen the literature review—and submit it for journal publication. Not now. A conference is no longer a protected place for unfinished work. We fear that its reputation will suffer if interesting but flawed work is found online by colleagues from another discipline. We force down acceptance rates. Separate work-in-progress venues were tried, with extended abstracts online, but quality concerns arose there as well and they became Notes.

Today: publish and move on

A student may work on a paper for only a few months prior to submitting. What kind of feedback is received? The paper may not be finished until the last minute. The advisor may be working on four submissions, unheard of in the past, with limited time for each. Reviewing focuses on finding grounds to reject 75% or 90% of the submissions, not on constructive critiques of likely-to-be-rejected work. In fact, an inherent conflict discourages sympathetic guidance: Reviewers must argue that almost all papers would still be unacceptable following a manageable revision.

And after acceptance? Few conference papers could not be improved, but authors may not even clean up the “camera-ready” version. Two leading researchers surprised me by saying that once a paper is accepted, they never look at it again. “It would be nice,” one said, “but I don’t have time. I’m already working on the next submission.”

With eyes on the next conference deadline, reworking an accepted paper for journal submission would be a distraction, and would risk a charge of self-plagiarism. The degree of novelty demanded for journal resubmission rose steadily as archived conference papers gained prominence.

Rejected papers can be revised and submitted to another conference, but it isn’t a cheerful process. The reviews do not help much and the next set of reviewers will have different fish to fry anyway. Workshops and doctoral consortiums can serve as protected places for exploring ideas, although many are now competitive and likely to leave online trails.

There is a risk of idealizing the past, but others have called for creating new walled gardens for group discussion, where less is at stake. Such gardens do not appear. New construction focuses instead on expanding public places and creating visible Web content. It is easy and appealing to provide recognition by putting workshop position papers or extended doctoral colloquia abstracts online. However, like the politician’s early campaign speeches, they cannot later be disavowed.

Finding walled gardens in which perennials can flourish and grow

Early in my career, ACM conferences were not considered archival. Later, papers were resurrected by being scanned into the digital library. Even when conferences first became more selective, it was acceptable to submit a revised conference paper to a journal. I did this frequently; a CHI paper led to a Human-Computer Interaction journal article, a CSCW paper to a CACM article, and so on.

This could not be done now. If someone unaware of the disorganized and largely inaccessible nature of the early literature exhumes it, I could face self-plagiarism charges. I hope The Singularity is charitable when it arrives and declares Judgment Day.

Today’s system may select for scholars who learn to swim when thrown off a bridge. I couldn’t have. I needed time and friends to help me develop ideas, and I found them.

My most valuable walled gardens were tutorial series, the dozens of tutorials and courses I prepared for conferences from 1990 to 2011, especially those on CSCW with Steve Poltrock. We mixed solid content and some original but not fully-baked ideas, improving them from year to year until they were ready to be published. Attendees provided invaluable feedback and support.

The Interactions history forum I edited and wrote for eight years has been a quasi-protected place. Three sets of Interactions editors provided constructive advice but never rejected a column. Ideas from my own sixteen columns were subsequently refined and worked into journal articles and handbook chapters. These columns remain visible in the Digital Library, but not many people explore back issues of a magazine and the informal nature of a magazine sets expectations. It has been a safe place to explore ideas.

Monthly online Interactions blog posts such as this are a third. The editor recently wrote, “Posts don't have to be finished and detailed ideas. We invite you to use this space to try out new ideas, to reflect on your work, to get messy and confused if necessary, but mostly to have a dialogue with readers.” I invariably get comments, although rarely in the comment field below a post. Reader comments, plus reading what I have written and thereby discovering what I think, are steps toward refining ideas.

It is not for everyone. If you might enjoy it, consider submitting a course to CHI, propose an Interactions blog, or find another place to explore ideas. It is fun in the short term, which is why I began, but to my surprise it can be remarkably productive over time. Some ideas need a place to blossom.

Posted in: on Wed, October 30, 2013 - 7:28:39

Jonathan Grudin

Jonathan Grudin is a principal researcher in the Natural Interaction Group at Microsoft Research.
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