Systems Papers at CHI – Some Data

Back in 2009 James Landay wrote a thoughtful piece on some of the challenges associated with publishing systems research at a venue like CHI (or UIST). He concluded that the incentive structure just isn’t there to support the greater degree of time and effort needed to build and evaluate systems, especially when compared to other types of research which require less time but still get you the line-item on the CV.

I wanted to try to back up some of this thinking with data, so I wrote a ScraperWiki script to go out and harvest a corpus of previous CHI proceedings (you can edit the script or access the data I collected here). I scraped all paper titles, authors, and abstracts going back to 1999 (the ACM DL changes their page format before then which is why I didn’t go back further). The dataset ended up being 2,498 papers over 14 years (1999-2012)

For the sake of the rest of the analysis I define “systems papers” as the subset of papers with an abstract that uses the word “system”. I know it’s not perfect (most likely some false positives in there), but it’s a reasonable proxy and I didn’t have time to go through all 2.5k papers by hand.

One question we might ask is: Do systems papers really require more effort than other papers at CHI? If they take too much effort, a rational researcher might choose to spend time on other types of contributions. In the following graph we can see that, in the last 5 years, systems papers have indeed averaged more authors per paper than other papers at CHI (and an assumption is that more authors implies more overall work, though this of course doesn’t always hold). There have also been years in the past when non-systems papers have had more authors on average (e.g. 2001 or 2002). Overall the number of authors for systems papers over the period (M=3.61, SD 0.37) is slightly higher than that for non-systems papers (M=3.43, SD=0.21), and the standard deviation is also a bit higher indicating there is more variance in the number of authors of systems papers. The difference in means isn’t statistically significant (p=.15). So it seems there is some (weak) evidence that systems papers do have more authors on average.

Another question we might ask is: Is the relative amount of systems work published at CHI declining? To see this we can look at the graph below which shows the fraction of systems papers out of the total for each year. The average fraction of systems papers over the time period (1999-2012) is 0.36 (SD = 0.07). There’s a fair bit of variance with a low in 2007 and a high in 2003. In the last couple years the fraction of systems papers has been a tad below the mean, but still within one standard deviation. There’s no correlation between fraction and year. From this I think we can conclude that there’s no clear trend in fraction of systems papers being published at CHI. Moreover, the absolute number of systems papers has gone from 15 in 1999 to 60 in 2012, indicating fair growth in this segment of CHI papers. (It would be really interesting to analyze abstracts from all papers both accepted and rejected to see if there is a bias).

While the cost of doing systems work in HCI may be higher (i.e. more co-authors needed), the fraction of systems work at CHI doesn’t seem to have been substantially affected over the course of the last 14 years. But it’s still easy to feel like all the action is happening in industry: new products are constantly hitting the market and start-ups and entrepreneurship and heavily covered by the tech press. The reality is that systems publishing is trucking along and also growing, but, I think, over time will represent a smaller and smaller fraction of the pie as prototyping becomes “mainstream” and knowledge of HCI continues to diffuse. That may be ok, as long as the research prototypes produced by the academy are sufficiently differentiated to what’s available and possible in the market.