02 June 2011

The problem of conference proceedings

I'm sure I'm not the only journal editor (or copy-editor, proof-reader, etc.) to have noticed that the bibliographic control of conference proceediings is now a complete mess.  This is mainly the result of the digital environment in which we now all operate.

What's the problem?  Well, it is this:  authors present papers at conferences and then cite those papers and other papers presented at the same conferences and very few authors are capable of providing a full reference entry for the paper.  APA, for example requires:

author-date-paper title-'In'-editors names-conference title-pages of the paper-place of publication-publisher

and what authors provide is generally something like:

author-paper title-conference title

Then, when you try to track down the actual paper, to provide a correct bibliographical entry, what do you find?  There are several possibilities:

1. The conference proceedings have indeed been published by one of the large number of recognised publishers, some of whom specialise in publishing conference proceedings. The papers are often accessible at the publisher's Website.
2. The conference proceedings have been published by the local organization, often a university or a scientific society, responsible for the conference organization. The papers may be accessible also at the publisher's Website, but often there is no such provision for electronic access.
3. The proceedings have been made openly available at the conference Website - run by either the organizing body, or by the organization hosting the conference.  There is no print version.
4. The proceedings were made available in print form to those attending the conference. There is no other form of publication, unless 3 applies and, hence, there is no 'publication' in the formal sense.
5.  The papers was presented at the conference, but there were no conference proceedings and the author has subsequently published in a journal.
6.  The paper was presented at the conference and the author(s) have made it available through their home page, an institutional repository, or a disciplinary repository.
7.  The paper was presented at the conference but not made more widely available by either the organizers or a publisher, or by the author(s).

The responsibility for indicating which of these applies to the conference papers cited by an author clearly lies with the author of the citing paper but, very often, all they have is a pdf file or associated paper copy and they have no idea as to the details of its provenance.  Telling the author what is missing from a reference entry is almost as time-consuming as actually doing the search for the item oneself.

I can only imagine the situation becoming worse: we already have audio and video files of conference presentations although, thankfully, I have not yet had to deal with any citations to such objects.  The only actors in this situation who can influence the situation for the better are the conference organizers: it is their responsibility to do something about this mish-mash of alternative modes of publication.  Many conferences do inlcude a note on how and by whom the papers will be published, but many more leave this to one's imagination.

There's another conference paper problem and that is the "salami slicing" of research outputs to get three conference papers where one would suffice, and even straightforward duplication - paper 1 at Conference A in 2009 and paper 2 (sometimes identically titled) at Conference B in 2010.  But perhaps I'd better leave that for another day.

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