Andy's Math/CS page

Thursday, November 04, 2010

ECCC: what authors should know

Anyone interested in computational complexity should be aware of ECCC, the most important and widely-used online repository for complexity papers. (Depending on your specific interests, various sections of arxiv, along with the Cryptology eprint Archive, may be equally important to follow.)

Unfortunately, the technical side of ECCC's submission process is arguably broken, and seems to trip up many if not most authors. Here are the issues I'm aware of:

1: no preview function.

Unlike arxiv, ECCC offers Latex support for on-site abstracts, so you can have as many funky symbols as you want. Good thing? No, because the site offers no way to preview what the compiled math will look like. This results in bizarre spacing effects and compile errors. (The most frequent problem, I think, is authors trying to use their own custom macros in the abstract, or commands from outside the Latex fragment supported by the site.)

Nor is it possible to preview what your document will look like (assuming it's accepted). This brings us to the second point:

2: hyperrefs are broken.

Many authors these days like to use internal hyperlinks in their document (provided by the hyperref package in Latex). This way, in case the reader forgets what Lemma 14.5 said, there's a link to it every time it's invoked. ECCC is happy to accept hyperref'd papers, and when they appear on the site, they'll have the same appearance you've chosen to give them. Unfortunately, in most cases the damn things won't do anything when you click on them.

Faulkner wanted to print The Sound and the Fury in multi-colored ink. I happen to like the look of colorful hyperrefs, even broken ones, but I still feel like a fool when they're all over a paper of mine.

3: keywords are nearly useless.

There is so little standardization in the use of keywords, and they're handled so rigidly, that clicking on them is often a waste of time. For example, the keywords 'algorithmic meta-theorems' and 'algorithmic meta theorems' bring up one paper each -- two lonely souls separated by a hyphen. (The search tool and the browse-able list of keywords are somewhat more useful, but still probably less so than googling.) Mistyped keywords are another danger. I've also seen author names that, when clicked, bring up a proper subset of that author's work for no apparent reason.

Why does this matter?

I think all this constitutes a serious problem. But one possible objection to my view is that authors can always post revisions to their papers -- fixing abstracts, documents, and keywords in one stroke.

This might be an OK solution, except for the empirical fact that almost nobody does this (myself included). I think, and others have also opined, that this is because people are afraid to revise. Presumably, they fear there's a widespread perception that posting revisions = mistakes or sloppiness.

Whether or not this perception is actually widespread, we should stand visibly against it, to loosen the grip of pointless anxieties and to improve the quality of available papers. A more reasonable attitude is that having early access to preprints is a good thing, but that such papers will almost always have imperfections. Revising a paper within a few weeks or months of its release ought to be a sign of conscientious authors, not sloppy ones. This holds doubly in the context of a messed-up submission system.
Of course, there is such a thing as too many revisions, and it is possible to post a paper too early in the editing process. Where that line should be drawn is a tough topic that deserves its own discussion.

What's the solution?

We can and should expect more from ECCC. Specifically, a preview function for abstracts and documents would be a key improvement. But at the least, there should be a clear list of warnings to authors about common submission errors.

The web administrators are aware of these issues, and have been for some time; but we as users can each do our part to communicate the importance and urgency of fixing these problems. This is especially true of users on the site's scientific board.

In the meantime, what should you do if your submission doesn't turn out the way you expected? Last time this happened to me, I contacted a web admin, a friendly guy who was able to fix part of the problem for me, without resorting to the dreaded revision step. This might work for you as well.