This week I stepped down as general chair for the 2017 International Conference on Software Architecture. It was a very difficult decision and not one frequently made by a general chair. So, what happened?
It all started an honest misunderstanding on my part. When I was asked to act as general chair as the proposal was being preparing, I did not realize the consequence of not being allowed to submit papers to the technical program. How can someone who has been in the software architecture community for close to 25 years not realize this? Well, most of my conference organization experience was collected before I went to industry in the early 2000s and at that point general chairs were not barred from submitting papers to the technical program. Had I, when asked, been aware of the consequence, I would have declined. Also, blocking the general chair from submitting papers does not make any sense to me as this role is not involved at all in the paper selection process and is no closer to the selection process than other members of the organizing team or the steering committee. To be honest, I think of these roles as a chore, something I’d rather not do and I feel that I have over the years “paid my dues” to the community as I was involved in organizing several WICSAs and WCOPs in the past. My only reason for accepting was to help a colleague who I respect immensely with something he wanted to do.
When it became clear that this was an issue, I was already the co-author of several papers submitted by my PhD students. I raised the issue with the chair people of the steering committee and they brought the issue to a steering committee meeting. The decision by the steering committee was, in my opinion, overly constraining and, in my opinion, to some extent unethical. I don’t want to criticize the steering committee as I trust them to have acted in their interpretation of the best interests of the community, but I found their proposal very difficult to accept.
The situation left me with three options: I could withdraw the papers on which I was a co-author, remove my name from these papers or to step down as general chair. Withdrawing the papers would be extremely detrimental to my PhD students – they worked really hard, including evenings and weekends, to prepare the papers and need publications to progress towards their degrees. Of course, their papers might not be accepted, but withdrawing the papers would be extremely demotivating to the people that put their trust in me for their PhD education and publication record. I could remove my name from the papers, but in many research communities, it is considered unethical to not include authors that contributed to the research or to add authors that did not. And even if I did remove my name, several people in the community would know that I originally was involved in the papers, so it wouldn’t really solve that much. Finally, I could step down as general chair and remove myself from the conference organization altogether.
Stepping down as general chair is an extreme step and one that I took only after considerable deliberation. There will be some, maybe many, who disagree with my decision and I realize that this will affect my reputation negatively. Depending on the integrity of the people in the community, it may affect my and my PhD students’ opportunities for publishing in the software architecture community. I also considered the effect for the conference and the community. However, the conference is still some months away and I have full trust in the team to succeed, even without my further contribution. So, I don’t see this cause any harm to the community.
My conclusion was, in the end, simple. My first responsibility is towards my students, even if the consequences of this decision are likely negative for me personally. Everything else is secondary. It would have been much easier to withdraw the papers or to remove my name from them, but in the end one has to be true to oneself. And when I wake up tomorrow morning at look at myself in the mirror, I will know that I acted with integrity and based on an honest belief of what was the best decision under the circumstances. And in the end, that is the only thing that counts.