Workshop organization 101.

Last March I was program chair for CompleNet2013 after attending as a speaker the previous year. I thought that my experience might help others understand what are the different organization roles, and also how the whole process looks like behind the scenes.

The general chair is the visible head of the workshop. He/she will welcomes everyone before the opening talk on the first day and gives the final remarks; this is generally the only thing that people will remember in terms of the workshop organizers. In my experience, he/she doesn’t necessarily have more power of decision than the rest of the organizers. This person is usually a local professor, because this role entails finding the location for the workshop, arranging the hotel for the attendees and the catering, finding funding from sponsors, etc.

The local organizer helps with these matters too, paying special attention to the social events and the schedule. The poster chair organizes the poster session: from setting the physical location and timing, grouping works according to topics, and editing the book of abstracts, if any.

As I mentioned before, my role was program chair. The program chairs are in charge of compiling a list of potential invited/keynote speakers (these differ from regular speakers in two key aspects: theirs talks are way longer, are not evaluated by reviewers, and also get all their expenses covered). As a program chair, this means that I had a lot of power to bring to the workshop whoever I thought was worth it, basically offering free trips somewhere to colleagues and mentors. Nonetheless, this is a little bit like compiling the guest list for your birthday party when you are in high school: you can try to invite the cool people, but they are likely to accept only if you have an existing relationship with them.

The program chairs also select the program committee members (who review the works submitted to the workshop, decide whether these are fitted or not, and whether they deserve a poster or a talk). Usually, several program committee members evaluate each work, assigning an average score. Ideally, this works by the same principle of peer-reviewed journals. That is to say, under the assumptions that people will judge the merits of the works on scientific grounds only, and also will give an expert opinion or else refuse the assignment. But we are all too familiar with how peer-reviewed actually works.

Lastly, we have the steering committee. The existence of this role escaped me until I became a workshop organizer myself (because they don’t usually address the attendees directly). But these happy people are the real power lurking in the shadows, calling the shots on many issues, and organizing the organizers. They care about publicizing the event before the rest of the team is assembled, and if possible, score some big speakers and funding to get things going.

The organizing roles are handed out one year in advance, and regarding the time-line as a program member, that is also when you need to start inviting people to be program committee members, taking into account that you will need to recruit 2 or 3 times more reviewers than actual participants. This means that you annoy all your friends and acquaintances working in your same field, and make them give away their time and expertise for free.

Once you finally get to it, the call for papers is the debutant ball for the workshop: you put it out there in the world, which means that you tell your professional contacts, post the organizers websites (along with conference wiki pages), and get the workshop web page ready for visitors.

When you meet the submission deadline (or the third extended one more like it), you get all the submissions. Then you need to coordinate the efforts of the reviewers, and once they have done their part, notify the authors. Inevitably, this entails hearing their complains about getting a poster instead of a talk. If the workshop is also publishing a Proceedings, there will be an additional deadline and a bunch of format specifications dictated by the publishing company for the papers that will be included. Then, you open the registration period that remains open almost until it is time for the workshop to start. Finally, during the workshop, you have to introduce the invited and keynote speakers and moderate the questions afterwards, but worst of all, you have to show up to all the talks. In theory.

Overall, the experience was very interesting and fulfilling for me. I especially enjoyed being part of a collective effort to put together the event. Also it was a great opportunity for networking, walking around the workshop talking to people like I was someone.
It was a little overwhelming at times, especially around deadlines when I had to push people around so we all would be ready on time. On the other hand, it was really frustrating at times, when there were tons of emails flying back and forth among the organizers and some people were obviously not keeping up, which forced some others to repeat themselves or duplicate efforts. Finally, I would say that I didn’t enjoy the power of making decisions nearly as much as the power of inviting friends to the event.
Overall, I guess I did a pretty decent job, since I got asked to be program chair again for the next edition. Expect my invitation to be a reviewer shortly.

– Julia Poncela-Casasnovas.