Open Question: Do we need a new Cosyne?

UCSD started one of the first (the first?) computational neuroscience departments. But when I started graduate school there, it was being folded into the general Neuroscience department; now it is just a specialization within the department. Why? Because we won. Because people who used to be computational neuroscientists are now just – neuroscientists. I could tell there was a change at UCSD when people trained in electrical engineering instead of biology didn’t even feel the need to join the specialization. What used to be a unique skill is becoming more and more common.

I have been thinking about this for the last few days after news trickled out about acceptances and rejections at Cosyne (note: I did not submit an abstract to the Cosyne main meeting.) The rejection rate this year was around 40%. Think about this for a minute: nearly half of the people who had wanted to present what they had been working on to their peers were not able to do so.

Now, people go to conferences for a wide variety of reasons. Some go to socialize, some to hear talks, some for a vacation. But the most important reason is to communicate your new research to your peers. And it’s a serious problem when half of the community just can’t do that.

Cosyne fills the very important role of bringing together the Computational and Systems fields of neuroscience (hence, CoSyNe). But when it was founded in 1996, this was not a big group of people. Perhaps the field has just gotten too big to accommodate everyone in one, medium sized conference; either the conference must grow or people need to flee to more specialized grounds – and repeat the process of growth and rebirth.

At dinner recently, I mentioned that it may be time for some smaller conferences to split off from Cosyne. Heads nodded in agreement; it’s not just me being contrary. There are other computational conferences – CNS, NIPS, SAND, RLDM. But none of them reside in the niche of Cosyne, none of them bring together experimentalists and theorists in the same way. The closest is RLDM which occupies a kind of intersection of Cosyne and Machine Learning. (edit: there is also CodeNeuro, though I don’t yet have a sense of the community there.)

We need more of that.

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3 thoughts on “Open Question: Do we need a new Cosyne?

  1. Interesting ideas, especially the Growth and Rebirth process you’re describing.
    A few of comments –

    I attended COSYNE twice and CNS once. When I attended, my feeling was that the topics and makeup of the participant population (in terms of experiment/ theory/ computation) was very similar. And to be clear – it wasn’t as if one conference “had the leftovers” of people who didn’t get into the other. The number of participants was more or less the same and the level (as I found it) was the same. It was quite surprising in fact that there was very little overlap between the actual people – as if there are two communities working in parallel on the same things and not talking much to each other.

    This sounds bad, but maybe it isn’t. Seems like the community is able to sustain two mid-size conferences that have the exact same format (3 day single-track main meeting with invited+contributed talks and poster sessions, 2 day multi-track contributed workshops). I think the state of the field is such that we would benefit more from having multiple general meetings than from specialized ones. The overlap in the research between an average pair of participants in these meetings is significant, and so is the potential loss if they would not have a place to meet each other.

    As for the 40% rejection rate (disclosure: my abstract was accepted this year) – We can debate on what’s the optimal rejection rate and move it 10% up or down. But look at it this way – anyone can present their work at SfN, and clearly the rejection rate for papers is higher than 40%, so doesn’t it make sense to have something “in the middle”?, where (usually) work that is published or “paper ready” gets in, and things that are work in progress get in only if they are promising\substantiated.

    This is not to say the review process that chooses what actually gets rejected is optimal, but I don’t know the ins and outs of that process, so I won’t go into it.

    One last point – it seems to me that in addition to the “research merit” based rejection there is an invisible financial based rejection. Salt Lake City is not an expensive place to hold a meeting, and given that applying to the conference is free, the registration price seems reasonable too. However, if the workshops are to be thought of as an integral part of the conference, holding them in Snowbird is, to put it bluntly, a way of using research funds to finance ski vacations. That is the thing I think is the most wrong with COSYNE, and hopefully could change (another disclosure – I don’t ski).

  2. What is really missing is a conference that brings together molecular and cellular neurobiologists with theorists. I’m fine with COSYNE staying “medium-sized” and selective. But I suspect that many posters are rejected for being “too different” from the perceived focus of the conference. (Disclosure – my poster was rejected; the biggest criticism being that it was too focused “cell/molecular” topics).

    So yes, there is a serious problem when many deserving posters are rejected. But I think the bigger problem is how the high rejection rate encourages theorists to limit the scope of their work to fit the pre-conceived focus of the conference. It stifles creativity.

    I think it is a problem that many people view COSYNE as “the” premier conference for computational neuroscience. If COSYNE wants this distinction, it shouldn’t be limited solely to systems neuroscience. On the other hand, if people prefer to have more specialized conferences, then “repeating the process of growth and rebirth” is a better solution.

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