(Non)refereed conferences

3 Mar 2010

When I was a graduate student, my advisor took the time to explain the academic publishing game. One of the things he suggested was to publish in journals and to list books, journal publications, and conference publications in separate sections on my resume. I didn’t pay much attention at first but once I began to review faculty applications I started to notice entries of the form "refereed conferences". This notion has proliferated and nowadays it is common to see "refereed conferences and workshops."

What nonsense. Submissions to conferences are never refereed; at best they are selective.

The word "refereed publication" refers to the process of submitting a paper to a journal and having an editor play the role of "referee" (Americans: umpire) who mediates between the author(s) and the reviewers. It is the job of the editor-referee to ensure a timely and a fair review process:
  • With "timely" a good journal means an average of three months for the first (and usually most difficult) round of reviewing.

  • With "fair" I mean that an editor-referee has to enforce that anonymous reviewers don’t exploit their position to criticize the work, not the author; not the author’s taste and agenda; not past transgressions of the author against the reviewer or some friend/relative of his, and so on. This charge of preserving "fairness" is often easy but sometimes extremely difficult. It is easy to spot when the reviewers disagree but unfairness doesn’t have to show up in personal bias. Reviews may also express community preferences on how to solve a problem and may express them uniformly.

    Most importantly, an author has the right to point out to an editor-referee that reviews are biased. The referee must take such complaints seriously. He must then invest the time and energy to read the paper and to formulate his own judgment. Doing so will help ensure a good understanding of the reviewers’ perspective and will also establish a decent basis for a neutral decision.

And now it is all too obvious why conferences and their badly flawed review process can’t be labeled as "refereed".

Personally I dislike "refereed conference" on a resume so much that I count it against faculty applicants when they use a phrase like that. There are plenty of applicants these days and it’s all a buyers’ market. I can afford this standard. If you want to add adjectives—and you may have to because resumes circulate outside of CS departments—use "refereed journals", "selective conferences" and plain "workshop" for the sections on your resume. If you also have books and/or book chapters, list them as such. No adjectives needed.