In some subjects, a paper in a prestigious conference proceedings is the pinnacle of a researcher’s career. It has never really been so in mathematics, and is now less so than ever.
This is partly, I think, because of the law of unintended consequences. The people who evaluate our research have the idée fixe that conference proceedings are of less value than refereed journals, so anyone who submits one to the REF is committing academic suicide. This despite the fact that many conference proceedings are refereed to the same standard as journal articles; but the box-ticking of research evaluation cannot cope with this subtlety.
There are all sorts of reasons why I might want to have a good paper in a conference proceedings. Perhaps the people I want to read the paper belong to the community that puts on that conference. Perhaps the conference celebrates a mathematician I respect. And so on.
It wasn’t always so. I want to review briefly the history of the proceedings of the British Combinatorial Conference as an example. (Full details are kept by Keith Edwards.) The proceedings appeared intermittently until 1983, when regular publication in Ars Combinatoria began. (In some of the earlier volumes, the invited and contributed papers appeared together; but from 1977, the practice of publishing the invited talks in advance of the conference was adopted.) In 1991, the contributed papers volume moved to Discrete Mathematics, where it has been since; the proceedings of the 2011 Exeter conference appeared quite recently. The papers were refereed to the usual standard of the journal by a guest editorial board appointed by the BCC, and everything was vetted by the editor-in-chief.
The proceedings of the 1997 conference, for example, had 60 papers covering 795 pages in volumes 197/198, together with the problems presented at the conference. Later, when the publisher used to publicise the 25 most-downloaded papers from the journal every three months, papers from the BCC proceedings were usually high on the list.
It is clear that publication in the proceedings was highly valued by many conference participants.
But no more. Discrete Mathematics has been moving away from conference proceedings, and has given notice to the BCC. The committee have tried but failed to find an alternative forum for publication. We required a journal with a good reputation, since this is one of the things that delegates appreciated; putting the papers on a web page would be easy enough but would not really fill the gap. So, for this year’s conference, there will not be a volume of contributed papers.
Academic publishing is changing very rapidly, and it may well be that the committee will decide to try out a new option, perhaps an epijournal in the future. But, for what it’s worth, a tradition of some standing will be broken.