Reflections on the VMCAI 2021 artifact evaluation
This fall I worked as one of the two co-chairs of artifact evaluation for the 22nd International Conference on Verification, Model Checking, and Abstract Interpretation (VMCAI 2021). While I had prior experience with artifact evaluation, this was my first stint as chair of anything in an academic context. This post contains some notes and observations I made of the process. I should note that we merely continued the process devised for VMCAI 2020.
First, VMCAI is unusual in that artifact evaluation is done concurrently with paper evaluation. In principle, the quality of the artifact could then influence acceptance of the paper. Although since artifact submission is still optional, such influence could supposedly only be positive. In practice, the main advantage of concurrent artifact evaluation is that it shortens the entire submission review process. For most conferences, artifact evaluation happens during the several months between paper acceptance and publication. VMCAI has a tighter, more workshop-like timetable, where this would not fly. The main downside of concurrent evaluation is that we must evaluate far more artifacts than otherwise, as we have to look at potentially all submissions, not just the accepted ones. To cope with this, VMCAI places more rigid restrictions on artifacts than is commonly done.
During my previous experiences with artifact evaluation (as both reviewer and author), authors could and did submit almost anything - from ad hoc shell scripts, over Nix derivations, to full virtual machine images. It is then up to the reviewers to make sense of everything. VMCAI instead specifies a fixed virtual machine image, and requires that artifacts run inside it. Artifacts may require additional dependencies, but these must all be bundled in the artifact package - connecting to the Internet during the setup procedure, such as
apt-geting additional packages, is not allowed.
While these restrictions impose extra work on submitters, it tends to produce artifacts that are much more robust, and avoids “works on my machine”-situations. Further, the ban on downloading extra material from the Internet during artifact setup makes the artifacts self-contained, which will hopefully keep them working in the future. While there are some artifacts that will never fit into such a restricted framework (e.g. anything that needs more specialised hardware, such as GPUs), I think many will. The exceptions can be handled on ad hoc basis. If anything, I believe we should go further in this direction, and also require standardised interfaces for running the artifacts and obtaining the experimental results. Maybe I should take another look at CK…
As this was the first time I co-chaired such a committee, I was of course anxious that things would go wrong. Before every deadline, I was worried that the reviewers would not submit anything; an anxiety that was fueled by a near-absence of reviews just a few days before the deadline. Of course, I should have remembered the academic preference for deadline-scheduled work, and every review was ultimately submitted in time.
Some things did not go as well. VMCAI follows custom by handing out various artifact badges: “functional” for artifacts that are accepted, “available” for those that are publicly available, and “reproducible” for those that are exceptionally well documented and reusable. The two latter badges are problematic:
For the availability badge, do we expect submitters to register a DOI for their artifact (easy on Zenodo), or just promise (where?) that the artifact will be public?
For the reproducibility badge, we need firmer guidelines for what is expected. The standards are not clear. I would probably recommend discarding this badge entirely, and simply making the acceptance requirements higher.
The biggest problem we encountered was however the use of EasyChair for artifact submissions. My previous artifact evaluation experiences have all been through HotCRP. For resolving technical difficulties, it’s useful to have a low-latency communication channel between submitters and reviewers, but EasyChair does not support this. All communication is either done through review/rebuttal phases, or in an ad hoc manner by routing reviewer comments through the chairs, who will then send emails and post them on the submission discussion page. HotCRP does this much better, as it allows both authors and reviewers to post any number of anonymous comments that are then visible to both parties.
So in conclusion:
Artifact evaluation is still fun and worthwhile.
Continue to standardise the format of artifacts (but do provide lots of documentation and examples whenever you tighten them further).
Provide clear rules and expectations for the evaluation badges.
Use HotCRP as the submission platform.