Statement on Conceptual Contributions in Theory

Posted on Scott's blog ( on March 7th, 2008.

[Scott's preface: About six months ago, a group of theoretical computer scientists started raising concerns about what they saw as a growing problem in our field. (My parody post .FOCS.36 notification. was one attempt to explain what this problem is.) The group has now put together a statement, which I was happy to sign, and which is meant to serve as a starting point for further discussion at the STOC.08 business meeting. If you support this statement and want add your name to it, please say so in the comments section! Of course criticism is welcome too.]

We, the undersigned, are concerned about two related attitudes that seem to be increasingly prevalent in TCS community, and in particular, are affecting its program committees and their decisions. The goal of this statement is to attempt to recognize and reverse this trend. We are happy to note that the STOC'08 PC made a conscious effort to move in the direction of this proposal

The trends that worry us are the following:

  1. Assignment of little weight to "conceptual" considerations, while assigning the dominant weight to technical considerations.
  2. The view that technical simplicity is a drawback, and the failure to realize that simple observations may represent an important mind-switch that can pave the way to significant progress.
Most works offer a mix of conceptual and technical aspects, where by "conceptual" we mean the aspects that can be communicated succinctly, with a minimum amount of technical notation, and yet their content reshapes our view/understanding. Conceptual contributions can be thought of as contents of the work that are most likely to be a part of a scientific hallway discussion. They may appear in a work's "bottom line" or "along the way". Needless to say, the above list is not exhaustive.

Once understood, conceptual aspects tend to be viewed as obvious, which actually means that they have become fully incorporated in the worldview of the expert. This positive effect is actually a source of trouble in the evaluation process, because the evaluators forget that these contributions were not obvious at all before being made... Indeed, our community should be warned of dismissing such contributions by saying "yes, but that's obvious"; when somebody says such a thing, one should ask "was it obvious to you before reading this article?"

We believe that the community needs to remain vigilant about these issues, and program committees should make a conscious effort to pay attention to conceptual contributions (as apparently done by the STOC'08 PC). This will enable our conferences to continue to be a driving force in the progress of our field.

Scott Aaronson
Allan Borodin
Bernard Chazelle
Oded Goldreich
Shafi Goldwasser
Richard Karp
Michael Kearns
Christos Papadimitriou
Madhu Sudan
Salil Vadhan

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