Abstracts and Hugos

So the latest kerfuffle in the science fiction world seems to be the disqualification of John C. Wright’s short story Yes, Virginia, There Really Is A Santa Claus on the grounds that it was published in 2013 on his blog. I had wondered a bit about that myself, but thought ‘surely, surely, in a field as forward looking as speculative fiction, they will have figured out how to navigate this sort of previous-decade internet issue.’

It seems I was wrong.

I call it a last-decade internet issue because about ten years ago the biomedical community noticed a problem with the new digital abstracts submissions to scientific conferences. Multiple abstracts on identical research were being submitted – authorship was clearly different, but the work presented was the same. Worse, multiple, identical abstracts were being submitted to the same conference, under different authors*. And identical abstracts were being submitted to multiple conferences.

* This is, at root, a lab management problem. It is the PI’s responsibility to coordinate abstract authorship and conference attendance. More problematic was the tendency to recycle abstracts between conferences – a hot abstract would quickly accumulate multiple presentations

I know about all this was because one of my early tasks in the lab was to submit my PI’s final grades for each abstract into the conference organizer system, and I started noticing duplicates. After a year or two, the abstract grading system began to include a "no score, duplicate submission" option in the grading while the community at large decided how to handle the problem.

It is a problem, because the idea that an abstract was actually published by a scientific conference was a murky concept to most submitters. In your CV, no one cares how many posters you’ve had accepted at conferences. Posters and abstracts and presentations were padding, it was your publications (and the impact factor of the peer reviewed journal) were the important factor.

Meanwhile, the conference, who published a complete session book complete with all accepted abstracts, felt very differently. They didn’t want recycled work, but to publish the hottest, newest research.

It was finally resolved, to my understanding, that research could be published twice. Once as an abstract submitted to a conference for a poster or oral presentation. And once as part of a complete paper, in a journal. This process took awhile, but this compromise was, in my opinion, a good one. It increased the value of having a conference accepted abstract on one’s CV, and retained the ability to freely publish one’s research in a peer reviewed journal. A relatively clear policy was reached and abided by both parties. The end. I’m not saying that duplicate submissions no longer happen, but when it does, there is a clear answer to whether a particular abstract is publishable. It’s not up to the arbitrary judgement of an individual.

And this is the fundamental malfunction of the Hugo disqualification announcement.

I sincerely believe that a situation such as Old Man’s War won’t happen again–as long as the Hugo Administrators are aware of the initial publication. (Since the Hugo Administrators change from year to year, I can’t guarantee that to be the case. But if a future administrator reverted back to how Old Man’s War was treated, I’d certainly disagree with that action and I think most other people would, also.)

What is this, but an admission that there is no actual binding policy on what is and is not eligible, apart from the good will and omniscience of the administrators?

I don’t necessarily have problems with the decision that the moment a work is presented to the public, it is considered published. This is a legitimate approach, even if I consider it an embarrassingly short sighted one seen in the context of the rapidly evolving publication environment.

I don’t have a problem with Old Man’s War slipping through in prior years while Mr. Wright’s short story gets disqualified. Such things happen during technologic and scientific upheavals. Sometimes even one’s status as a planet is taken away.

No, it is the straightforward admission that they will not make an actual binding policy on what is or is not eligible that I find offensive. The membership of the Nobel Prize committees changes over time, yet these changes cannot impact anyone’s eligibility for that award. Surely the Hugos can manage a binding decision as to what qualifies as published without leaving it up to the yearly award committee.

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