Multidisciplinary Column: Inclusion at conferences, my ISMIR experiences

Author: Cynthia C. S. Liem
Affiliation: TU Delft
EditorsCynthia C. S. Liem and Jochen Huber

In 2009, I attended my very first international conference. At that time, I recently had graduated for my Master’s degree in Computer Science, and just was starting the road towards a PhD; in parallel, I had also started pursuing my Master’s degree in Piano Performance at the conservatoire. As a computer scientist, I had conducted my MSc thesis project on cover song retrieval, which had resulted in an accepted paper at ISMIR, the yearly conference of the International Society of Music Information Retrieval.

That something like ‘Music Information Retrieval’ (Music-IR) existed, in which people performed computer science research in the music domain, fascinated me deeply. While I was training to become both a musician and a computer scientist, up to that point, I mostly had been encouraged to keep these two worlds as segregated as possible. As a music student, I would be expected to be completely and exclusively committed to my instrument; I often felt like a cheater when I was working on my computer science assignments. As a computer scientist, many of my music interests would be considered to be on the ‘artistic’, ‘subjective’ or even ‘fluffy’ side; totally fine if that was something I wanted to spend my hobby time on, but seriously integrating this with cold, hard computer science techniques seemed quite unthinkable.

Rather than having gone to a dedicated Music-IR group, I had remained at Delft University of Technology for my education, seeing parallels between the type of Multimedia Computing research done in the group of Alan Hanjalic, and problems I wanted to tackle in the music domain. However, that did mean I was the only one working on music there, and thus, that I was going to travel on my own to this conference…to Kobe, Japan, literally on the other end of the globe.

On the first day, I felt as impressed as I felt intimidated and lonely. All those people whose work I had read for years now became actual human beings I could talk to. Yet, I would not quite dare walking up to them myself…surely, they would have more interesting topics to discuss with more interesting people than me!

However, I was so lucky to get ‘adopted’ by Frans Wiering from Utrecht University, a well-known senior member of the community, who knew me from The Netherlands, as I had attended a seminar surrounding the thesis defense of one of his PhD students in the past. Before I got the chance to silently vanish into a corner of the reception room, he started proactively introducing me to the many people he was talking to himself. In the next days, I naturally started talking to these people as a consequence, and became increasingly confident in initiating new contacts myself.

With ISMIR being a single-track conference, I got the chance to soak up a very diverse body of work, presented by a very diverse body of researchers, with backgrounds ranging from machine learning to musicology. At one point, there was a poster session in which I discussed a signal processing algorithm with one of the presenters, turned around, literally remaining at the same physical location, and then discussed historical music performance practice with the opposite presenter. At this venue, the two parts of my identity which I so far had largely kept apart, turned out to actually work out very well together.

I attended many ISMIRs since, and time and time again, I kept seeing confirmations that a diversity of backgrounds, within attendees and between attendees, was what made the conference strong and inspiring. Whether we identify as researchers in signal processing, machine learning, library sciences, musicology, or psychology, what connects us all is that we look at music (and personally care about music), which we validly can do in parallel, each from our respective dedicated specialisms.

We do not always speak the same professional language, and we may validate in different ways. It requires effort to understand one another, more so than if we would only speak to people within our own niche specializations. But there is a clear willingness to build those bridges, and learn from one another. As one example, this year at ISMIR 2017, I was invited on a panel on the Future of Music-IR research, and each of the panelists was asked what works or research directions outside of the Music-IR community we would recommend for the community to familiarize with. I strongly believe that discussions like this, aiming to expand our horizons, are what we need at conferences…and what truly legitimizes us traveling internationally to exchange academic thoughts with our peers in person.

I also have always found the community extremely supportive in terms of reviewing. Even in case of rejections, one would usually receive a constructive review back, with multiple concrete pointers for improvements. Thanks to proactive TPC member actions and extensive reviewer guidelines with examples, the average review length for papers submitted to the ISMIR conference went up from 390 words in 2016 to 448 words in 2017.

As this was the baseline I was originally used to, my surprise was great when I first got confronted with the feared ‘two-line review’…as sadly turned out, that actually turned out the more common type of review in research at large. We recently have been discussing this within the SIGMM community, and in those discussions, more extensive reviewer guidelines seemed to be considered a case of ‘TL;DR’ (‘reviewers are busy enough, they won’t have time to read that’). But this is a matter of how we want our academic culture to be. Of course, a thorough and constructive review needs more time commitment than a two-line review, and this may become a problem in situations of high reviewer load. But rather than silently trying to hack the problem as individual reviewers (with more mediocre attention as likely consequence), maybe we should be more consciously selective of what we can handle, and openly discuss it with the community in case we run into capacity issues.

Back to the ISMIR community, more institutionally, inclusion has become a main focus point now. In terms of gender inclusion, a strong Women in MIR (WiMIR) group emerged in the past years, enabling an active mentoring program, and arranging for travel grant sponsoring to support conference attendance of female researchers. But impact reaches beyond gender inclusion. WiMIR also introduced a human bingo at its receptions, for which conference attendees with various characteristics (e.g. ‘has two degrees’, ‘attended the conference more than five times’, ‘is based in Asia’) need to be identified. A very nice and effective way to trigger ice-breaking activities, and to have attendees actively seeking out people they did not speak with yet. That the responsibility to get included at events should not only fall upon new members, but actively should be championed by the existing ‘insiders’, also recently was emphasized in this great post by Eric Holscher.

So, is ISMIR the perfect academic utopia? No, of course we do have our issues. As a medium-sized community, fostering cross-domain interaction goes well, but having individual specializations gain sufficient momentum needs an explicit outlook beyond our own platform. And we also have some status issues. Our conference, being run by an independent society, is frequently omitted from conference rankings; however, the independence is on purpose, as this will better foster accessibility of the venue towards other disciplines. And with an average acceptance rate around 40%, we often are deemed as ‘not sufficiently selective’…but in my experience, there usually is a narrow band of clear accepts, a narrow band of clear rejects, and a broad grey-zone band in the middle. And in more selective conferences, the clear rejects typically have a larger volume, and are much worse in quality, than the worst submissions I have ever seen at ISMIR.

In any case, given the ongoing discussions about SIGMM conferences, multidisciplinarity and inclusion, I felt that sharing some thoughts and observations from this neighboring community would be useful.

And…I really look forward already to serving as a general co-chair of ISMIR’s 20th anniversary in 2019—which will be exactly 10 years after my first, shy debut in the field.

About the Column

The Multidisciplinary Column is edited by Cynthia C. S. Liem and Jochen Huber. Every other edition, we will feature an interview with a researcher performing multidisciplinary work, or a column of our own hand. For this edition, we feature a column by Cynthia C. S. Liem.

Dr. Cynthia C. S. Liem is an Assistant Professor in the Multimedia Computing Group of Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands, and pianist of the Magma Duo. She initiated and co-coordinated the European research project PHENICX (2013-2016), focusing on technological enrichment of symphonic concert recordings with partners such as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Her research interests consider music and multimedia search and recommendation, and increasingly shift towards making people discover new interests and content which would not trivially be retrieved. Beyond her academic activities, Cynthia gained industrial experience at Bell Labs Netherlands, Philips Research and Google. She was a recipient of the Lucent Global Science and Google Anita Borg Europe Memorial scholarships, the Google European Doctoral Fellowship 2010 in Multimedia, and a finalist of the New Scientist Science Talent Award 2016 for young scientists committed to public outreach.

Dr. Jochen Huber is a Senior User Experience Researcher at Synaptics. Previously, he was an SUTD-MIT postdoctoral fellow in the Fluid Interfaces Group at MIT Media Lab and the Augmented Human Lab at Singapore University of Technology and Design. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science and degrees in both Mathematics (Dipl.-Math.) and Computer Science (Dipl.-Inform.), all from Technische Universität Darmstadt, Germany. Jochen’s work is situated at the intersection of Human-Computer Interaction and Human Augmentation. He designs, implements and studies novel input technology in the areas of mobile, tangible & non-visual interaction, automotive UX and assistive augmentation. He has co-authored over 60 academic publications and regularly serves as program committee member in premier HCI and multimedia conferences. He was program co-chair of ACM TVX 2016 and Augmented Human 2015 and chaired tracks of ACM Multimedia, ACM Creativity and Cognition and ACM International Conference on Interface Surfaces and Spaces, as well as numerous workshops at ACM CHI and IUI. Further information can be found on his personal homepage:

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