May 27, 2022

Recommendations for introducing greater safeguards and transparency into CS conference funding

In Part 1 of this piece, I provided evidence of the extent to which some of the world’s top computer science conferences are financially reliant upon some of the world’s most powerful technology companies. In this second part, I lay out a set of recommendations for ways to help ensure that these entanglements of industry and academia don’t grant companies undue influence over the conditions of knowledge creation and exchange.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that conferences stop accepting money from tech companies, nor am I saying there is no place for Big Tech investment in academic research. I am simply advocating for conference organizers to adopt greater safeguards to increase transparency and mitigate the potential agenda-setting effects associated with companies’ funding of and presence in academic spaces.

While I am not claiming that sponsors have any say over which papers are or aren’t published, in the next few paragraphs I will show how agenda-setting can happen in a much more subtle yet pervasive way.

Resurrecting conferences as “trading zones”

Setting the agenda in a given field means determining and prioritizing topics of focus and investment. Research priorities are not neutral or naturally occurring—they are the result of social and political construction. And because a great deal of CS funding comes from tech companies, these priorities are likely to be shaped by what is considered valuable or profitable to those companies.

An example of the tech industry’s agenda-setting power includes the way in which AI/ML research has been conceptualized in narrower terms to prioritize technical work. For instance, despite its valuable contributions to the understanding of priorities inherent in ML research, the Birhane et. al. paper I cited in Part 1 was rejected from publication at the 2021 NeurIPS Conference with a dismissive meta-review, which is just one example of how the ML community has marginalized critical work and elevated technical work. Other examples of corporate agenda-setting in CS include the aforementioned way in which tech companies’ definitions of privacy and security vary from those of consumer advocates, and the way in which the field of human-computer interaction (HCI) often focuses on influencing user behavior rather than stepping back to reflect on necessary systemic changes at the platform level.

In deciding which conferences to fund, and shaping which ideas and work get elevated within those conferences, tech companies contribute to the creation of a prestige hierarchy. This, in turn, influences which kinds of people who self-select into submitting their work to and attending those conferences. Further, the sponsorship perks afford companies a prominent presence at CS conferences through expos and other events. Combined, these factors mold CS conferences into sites of commercially oriented activity.

It is important to make space at top conferences for work that doesn’t necessarily advance commercial innovation. Beyond simply serving as a channel for publishing and broadcasting academic papers, conferences have the potential to serve as sites of critique, activism and advocacy. These seemingly secondary functions of academic gatherings are, in actuality, critical functions that need to be preserved.

In “Engaging, Designing and Making Digital Systems,” Janet Vertesi et al. describe spaces of collaboration between scholarship and design as “trading zones”, where engagements can be corporate, critical, inventive, or focused on inquiry. While corporate work engages from within companies, critical engagement requires the existence of a trading zone in which domain scientists, computer scientists and engineers can meet and engage in dialogue. Vertesi et al. write, “Critical engagements typically embrace intersections between IT research and corporations yet eschew immediate pay-offs for companies or designers.”

Even if sponsoring companies don’t have a direct hand in deciding which work gets published, their presence at academic conferences gives them both insight into ideas and work being shared among attendees, and opportunities to push specific messaging around their brand through advertising and recruitment events. Therefore, instituting sponsorship policies and increasing transparency would help to both curb their potential influence, as well as make clear to conference participants the terms of companies’ financial contributions.

Introducing greater safeguards around conference sponsorship would not be unprecedented; for example, there have been similar efforts in the medical community to curb the influence of pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturing companies on clinical conferences.

Asking accountability conferences to practice what they preach

In particular, tech conferences whose mission is explicitly related to ethics and accountability deserve a higher level of scrutiny for their donor relationships. However, my survey of some of the most prominent conferences in this space found that many of them do not provide a list of donors, nor do they disclose any sponsorship policies on their websites.

That said, some conferences have been reevaluating their fundraising practices after recognizing that certain sponsors’ actions were not aligning with their values. For example, in March 2021, the ACM Conference for Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency (FAccT) suspended its sponsorship relationship with Google in protest of the company’s firing of two of its top Ethical AI researchers, who had been examining biases built into the company’s AI systems.

FAccT committee member Suresh Venkatasubramanian tweeted that the decision to drop Google as a supporter was “in the best interests of the community” while the committee revised its sponsorship policy. Conference sponsorship co-chair Michael Ekstrand told VentureBeat that having Google as a sponsor could impede FAccT’s Strategic Plan. (It should be noted that FAccT still accepted funding from DeepMind, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, for its 2021 conference.)

The conference recently published a new sponsorship policy, acknowledging that “outside contributions raise serious concerns about the independence of the conference and the legitimacy that the conference may confer on sponsors and supporters.” Other conferences, like the ACM Conference on Equity and Access in Algorithms, Mechanisms, and Optimization (EAAMO) and the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL) Conference have also posted sponsorship and/or conflict of interest policies on their websites.

While it might be expected that ethics and fairness-oriented conferences would have a more robust protocol around which funds they accept, it is in the best interest of all CS conferences to think critically about and mitigate the constraints associated with accepting corporate sponsorship. 

Recommendation of Best Practices

In many instances, accepting corporate sponsorship is a necessary evil that enables valuable work to be done and allows greater access to resources and opportunities like conferences. In the long term, there should be a concerted effort to resurrect computer science conferences as a neutral territory for academic exploration based on what scholars, not corporations, deem to be worthy of pursuit. However, a more immediate solution could be to establish and enforce a series of best practices to ensure greater academic integrity of conferences that do rely on corporate sponsorship. 

Many scholars, like those who signed the Funding Matters petition in 2018, have argued in favor of establishing rigorous criteria and guidelines for corporate sponsorship of research conferences. I have developed a set of recommendations for conferences to serve as a jumping-off point for ensuring greater transparency and accountability in their decision-making process: 

  • Evaluate sponsors through the lens of your organization’s mission and values. Determine which lines you’re not willing to cross.
    • Are there companies whose objectives or outputs run counter to your values? Are there actions you refuse to legitimize or companies whose reputation might significantly compromise the integrity of the conferences they fund? Review your existing sponsors to ensure that none of them are crossing that line, and use it as a threshold for determining whether to accept funding from others in the future.
    • For example, in the sponsorship policy for the ACM Conference on Equity and Access in Algorithms, Mechanisms, and Optimization (EAAMO), organizers reserve the right to “decline or return any funding should the sponsorship committee decide that the funding source is misaligned with the mission of the initiative and conference.”
  • Be transparent about who is sponsoring your conference, how much they are contributing, and what benefits they receive as a condition of their contributions.
    • While many conferences do list the logos of their sponsors on their websites, it is not often clear how much money those organizations gave and how exactly it was used. To ensure greater transparency, publish a list of sponsors on your website and in other promotional materials and make the details of your call for sponsorship publicly available and easily accessible. 
    • Make sure to make this information public ahead of the conference, so that invited speakers and other attendees can make an informed decision about whether or not they want to participate. (1)
  • Develop rigorous policies to prevent sponsors from influencing the content or speakers of conference events. 
    • Establish a solid gift acceptance policy and thorough gift agreement outlining the kinds of funding you will and will not accept to ensure that your donors’ support is not restricted and does not come with strings attached.
    • For example, the FAccT conference recently published a new statement outlining their practices around sponsorship and financial support, which denies sponsors say over any part of the conference organization or content. In addition, sponsors can only contribute to a general fund, rather than being able to specify how their contributions are used.
  • Encourage open discussion during the conference about the implications of accepting corporate funding and potential alternatives.
    • For example, the ACM Conference on Computer Science and Law has committed to devoting time to a “discussion of practical strategies for and ethical implications of different funding models for both research and conference sponsorship in the nascent ACM Computer Science and Law community.”
  • Make sure the industry in general, or any one company in particular, is not over-represented among sponsors or conference organizers
    • Consider whether certain sponsors might be working to whitewash or silence certain areas of research. What are the interests or intentions of the organization offering you sponsorship funds? What do they hope to gain from this relationship? (2)
    • For example, the EEAMO sponsorship committee commits to “seek[ing] funding from a diverse set of sources which may include academic institutions, charitable organizations, foundations, industry, and government sources.”
  • Consider seeking alternative, industry-independent sources of funding whose interests are less likely to conflict with the subject/mission of your conference.
    • That being said, it is important to bear in mind that, as Phan et al. pointed out in their recent paper, “philanthropic foundation funding from outside Big Tech interests present different and complex considerations for researchers as producers and suppliers of ethics work.” This is why having a diversity of sources is preferable.

In working to reclaim conferences as a space of academic exploration untainted by corporate interests, the field of computer science can help to ensure that their research is better positioned to serve the best interests of the public.

(1) Several speakers backed out of their scheduled appearances at the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy’s November 2021 Power and Accountability in Tech conference after learning the center had accepted sponsorship money from the Koch Foundation, which has funded attacks on antiracist scholarship.

(2) For example, in 2016, the Computer, Privacy, & Data Protection Conference (CPDP) chose to stop accepting sponsorship funding from Palantir after participants like Aral Balkan pulled out of a panel and described CPDP’s acceptance of the company’s contributions as “privacy-washing”.

Many thanks, once again, to Prof. Arvind Narayanan for his guidance and support.