So, having been very disappointed with Steve McConnell’s opening keynote yesterday, I’m pleased to report that the keynotes got steadily better over the week. Thursday’s keynote was by Carlo Ghezzi, entitled Reflections on 40+ years of software engineering research and beyond: An Insider’s View. He started with a little bit of history of the SE research community and the ICSE conference, but the main part of the talk was a trawl though the data from the conference over the years, motivated by questions such as “how international are we as a community?”, and “how diverse?” (e.g. academia, industry…), and “how did the research areas included in ICSE evolve?”. For example, there has been a clear trend in the composition of the program committee, from being N. American dominated (80% at first ICSE), to now approx equal N. American and European, with some from asia & elsewhere. However, there is a startling trend on industry vs. acadmia mix. The attendees at the first conference were 80% industry and only 20% academics. This has steadily changed: the conference is now 90% academics. The number of accepted papers each year has remained fairly steady (average is 44), but with a strong growth in submissions over past 15 years from 150 to 400. Which now gives us a paper acceptance rate now well below 15%. This is clearly good for the academics – the low acceptance rate keeps the quality of the accepted papers high, and makes the conference the top choice as a publication venue. But a strong academic research program clearly does not attract practitioners to attend.

In Carlo’s analysis of research areas, I was struck by the graph of number of papers on programming languages, which looks like a pair of vampire teeth – a huge spike in this area in the early days of ICSE, then nothing for years, and again a huge spike in the last couple of years. A truly interesting and surprising result.

Towards the end of the talk, Carlo got onto the question of how we could identify our best products. He talked about the strengths and weaknesses of quantitative measures such as citation count (difficult as it’s a moving target, and you have to account for journal/conference versions), number of downloads from ACM digital library over 12 months, etc. He drew a lot on a report by the Joint Committee on Quantitative Assessment of Research. He also mentioned Meyer’s viewpoint article in CACM April 2009, and of course, Parnas’s somewhat less nuanced “Stop the numbers game“. Why is the problem of quantitative assessment of research becoming so hot today? It’s being increasingly used to rank journals and conferences and individuals. Many stakeholders now need to evaluate research, and peer-review is considered to be expensive and subjective, while numeric metrics are considered to be simple and objective. The Joint committee report says that, to the contrary, numeric metrics are simple and misleading. From the report: Much of modern bibliometrics is flawed. The meaning of a citation can be even more subjective than peer review. Citation counts are only valid if reinforced by other judgements.

Carlos’ final message was that we have to care about impact of our research: understanding, measuring, and improving it. Because if we don’t others will (governments, funding agencies, universities, etc). Okay, that’s a good argument. I’ve been skeptical of SIGSOFT’s Impact Project in the past, largely because I think the process by which research ideas filter into industrial practice is much more complex, and takes much longer than everyone seems to expect. But I guess taking control of the assessment of impact is the obvious way to address this issue.

After the break, Jorge presented his paper on the Secret Life of Bugs. His did a great job on presenting the work, to an absolutely packed room, and I had lots of people comment on how much they enjoyed the paper afterwards. I beamed with pride.

But for most of the day, I was busy trying to finish off my talk “Software Engineering for the Planet”, in time for the session at 2pm. Many thanks to Spencer, Jon, Carolyn and Alicia for helping my polish it prior to delivery. I’ll get the slides up on the web soon. I think the session went very well – the questions and discussions afterwards were very encouraging – most people seemed to immediately get the key message (that we should stop focussing our energies on personal green choices, and instead figure out how our professional skills and experience can be used to address to the climate crisis). Aran posted a quick summary of the session, and some afterthoughts. Now we’ve got to do the community building, and keep the momentum going. [Aran said he doesn’t think I’ll get much research done in the next few months. He’s might be right, but I can just declare that this is now my research…]

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