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.

17 Comments:

  • broken hyperrefs is also a problem for the STOC 2011 submission server. I wonder whether the original PDF is stored as well and which version reviewers will get

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:08 PM  

  • ECCC is a joke. I didn't see you mention the fact that whatever postprocessing they use blows a 300K PDF file in to 5.1 MBs. fantastic.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:53 PM  

  • The problem is that to add the ECCC masthead they first convert the submitted file to postscript, then add the masthead to the postscript file, and finally convert back to pdf.

    The step in which pdf is converted to postscript breaks the hyperlinks and, in some cases, enormously blows up the size of the file.

    The FOCS submission server did the same to add a "Do not circulate" header to each page and, on a few submissions, this created an unreadable file out of a valid submission. Unfortunately I don't think that there are flexible and public-domain programs to superimpose text to a given pdf file, so it's not clear how to replace this kind of hack.

    By Blogger Luca, at 1:01 AM  

  • To address the point Luca made, ECCC should ask submitters to upload the tex source file, just like arXiv does.

    (Independent of these technical issues, I don't see the point of having ECCC be a separate repository. In my opinion, they should just be an arXiv mirror containing the papers that are judged to be complexity-related. But I guess this is whole another discussion...)

    By Blogger Arnab, at 10:53 PM  

  • About four months ago I contacted the ECCC admin about the lost hyperlinks problem, who confirmed that they know about this. I also told him that I found a quick fix for this problem, and that they might consider describing this fix explicitly on the paper-submission page. However, I didn't get around to find where I actually wrote the fix so I didn't send it to him. Fortunately, your post reminded me of this, and I found it. I hope that people would find it helpful.
    So here it is:

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------
    Goal: send ECCC pdf file that keeps the hyper-links.
    -----------------------------------------------------------------------
    Procedure:

    1. Use the following packages and options in the preamble of the tex file:

    \usepackage{color}
    \usepackage[dvips,pdfstartview=FitH,pdfpagemode=None,colorlinks=true,citecolor=blue,linkcolor=blue]{hyperref}

    2. Compile the tex file "name.tex" into a dvi file "name.dvi".
    3. Convert the file "name.dvi" into "name.ps" by:
    > dvips "name.dvi" -z -P pdf
    4. Convert the file "name.ps" into "name.pdf" by:
    > ps2pdf "name.ps"

    (Of course, you can change the "blue" in the hyperref package options to a different color. I usually prefer black.)

    By Anonymous Iddo Tzameret, at 4:27 AM  

  • * The second line in the preamble was truncated. It should be:

    \usepackage[dvips,pdfstartview=FitH, pdfpagemode=None, colorlinks=true,citecolor=blue, linkcolor=blue]{hyperref}

    By Anonymous Iddo Tzameret, at 4:32 AM  

  • Thanks everyone for the info!

    Iddo, maybe you could also help give a version of this fix that works within Windows or Mac OS?

    The gist of your procedure is to start with dvi, and convert to ps then pdf. These conversions can be done in other operating systems. Can you explain what's going on in the options, for the command

    dvips "name.dvi" -z -P pdf

    so we can mimic this step in another OS?

    By Blogger Andy D, at 8:24 PM  

  • Also, maybe you can explain in a few words why it works? Doesn't have to be a proof :)

    And are there successful examples of this technique up on ECCC?

    By Blogger Andy D, at 8:27 PM  

  • Hello Andy,

    For an example that worked see:
    http://eccc.hpi-web.de/report/2007/078/download


    For the OS issue: Mine was done on windows. First, you can make WinEDT use these options explicitly. But if you don't need to do it every time you compile the file, you can apply this procedure only before submitting to ECCC, by using the command line (in windows).
    I think that the same commands should work for other operating systems (because these are just batch files, so possibly other OS have these scripts).


    For an explanation:
    As far as I understand, the point is in making sure that the ps file contains the hyper-link data.
    For this you use the "dvips" option in the hyperref package. And second, you compile the dvi into ps, with the "-z" option which tells the compiler to keep the hyperlinks data in the ps file.
    The "-P PDF" option makes sure that fonts are embedded in the ps file, so that the conversion from the ps to the pdf file would be good (but it's possibly not always mandatory).

    By Anonymous Iddo Tzameret, at 12:57 AM  

  • The *system admin* issues raised were brought to the attention of the local office. I wish, however, to make two comments. Firstly, the entire system is handled on a volunteer basis, and so one should be less harsh regarding various bugs and/or flaws. Secondly, I think these issues are relatively less important in comparison to the *basic service* provided.

    Let me seize the opportunity and make an important comment regarding the scientific aspects of ECCC. Specifically, I wish to ask every person interested in submitting a paper to look at the CFP (see latest new of April 2010).

    By Anonymous Oded Goldreich, at 11:11 AM  

  • Hi Oded,
    Thanks for your comments.
    Let me first make clear, I do think that ECCC is a valuable resource for the community.

    I am grateful for the efforts of the web administrators (aka 'Local Office') who maintain and improve the site.

    I am also grateful to the scientific board, and I agree that their oversight improves the quality and usefulness of the assembled papers.

    I am also aware that all this work is done on a volunteer basis.

    So I don't agree with the tone or the sentiment of the anonymous commenter who called ECCC 'a joke'. This is why I:

    -refrained from name-calling in delivering my criticisms;

    -credited the friendly efforts of the site administrator who helped me (and have always given thanks to the Local Office in my correspondence with them);

    -never suggested we do away with ECCC.

    With that said...

    By Blogger Andy D, at 12:19 PM  

  • I do stand by my decision to vividly and publicly describe these frustrating problems. After all, I described them privately and politely to the Local Office six months ago; they took note, but the problems remain.

    I appreciate that they don't have time to address all known issues with the site. But if they are too busy to address even the major ones I raised, maybe it's time to enlist additional volunteers. (Unfortunately I don't have the relevant skills, or I'd consider volunteering myself.)

    In summary: ECCC is valuable, but the current submission process makes it hard to control the appearance/behavior of our papers and abstracts. This is especially critical to young researchers, who need every opportunity to convey professionalism in their work.

    We are a community of hundreds of computer scientists, many at well-endowed universities; together we *can* solve this problem in a prompt fashion! And of course, I'll be happy to report on progress at this blog.

    By Blogger Andy D, at 1:36 PM  

  • The ECCC system admin has now replied to my message, and said that due to Andy's post hopefully two of the problems raised above, the preview function and the broken hyper-links problem, are going to be addressed this week.
    I understood that possibly, if they would not find a better solution to the hyper-links problem, they will resort to describing my fix on the submission page.

    By Anonymous Iddo Tzameret, at 2:25 AM  

  • The anonymous "ECCC is a joke" post contained exactly one relevant information: PDF postprocessing increased the PDFs incredibly. This was - besides most of the points Andy mentioned - a serious issue and has now been fixed.

    P.S.: I am the new technical administrator of ECCC and as Iddo already posted, I attempt to get the preview done this week.

    best regards,
    Sebastian

    By OpenID sebastian.stange, at 7:36 AM  

  • Dear Andy.

    As I said in my private communication with you, I am very sympathetic to your 9and others) frustrations with various aspects of ECCC. In fact, I sahre some of these frustrations. However, I believe that any critique should be in proportion to the facts mentioned in my prior comment (i.e., the volunteer nature, and the fact that some/main issues are actually good).

    Regarding the idea of having outside volunteers to help with the "local" system admin issues, my guess is that this is not feasible.

    Oded

    By Anonymous Oded Goldreich, at 3:02 AM  

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    By Blogger Rajesh Kumar, at 11:37 AM  

  • I don't understand why the ECCC doesn't move to the arXiv. Splitting it like this does not add value. Technically the ECCC is significantly inferior to the arXiv, and moving over would let them focus their limited volunteer efforts on being a good overlay.

    By Anonymous John, at 11:11 PM  

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