NIPS Name Change


Dear members of the NIPS community,

As many of you know, there has been an ongoing discussion concerning the name of the Neural Information Processing Systems conference. The current acronym NIPS has unintended connotations that some members of the community find offensive.

Following several well-publicized incidents of insensitivity at past conferences, and our acknowledgement of other less-publicized incidents, we conducted community polls requesting alternative names, rating the existing and alternative names, and soliciting additional comments.

After extensive discussions, the NIPS Board has decided not to change the name of the conference for now. The poll itself did not yield a clear consensus on a name change or a well-regarded alternative name.

Instead, we ask for the community's support in implementing concrete steps to improve the inclusiveness of the conference. Our goal is to demonstrate that the name NIPS stands for the excellent work this community has produced, and not for incidents of poor behavior. We will undertake new, substantive diversity and inclusion initiatives and take further steps towards ensuring that the conference is welcoming to all participants. Let us elaborate.

1. The data (see Section 5 below for details on absolute numbers and plots)

Our survey was returned by 2270 participants who have attended NIPS in the last 5 years. Of the male respondents, about 28% are in favor of a conference name change. Of the female respondents, about 44% are in favor of a name change, 40% prefer the existing name, and 16% expressed no preference. Looking closer, about as many females are strongly in favor of a name change (74/294 = 25%) as are strongly opposed (76/294 = 26%). There is some imbalance regarding age and geography: for example, among the young American females, the fraction of participants in favor of a name change is larger than in other subpopulations. More details and some selected text comments can be found in Sections 4 and 5 below.

These data put us in a difficult situation: regardless of which decision we take, we are failing to accommodate the opinions of about half of the women in the community.

Some respondents wondered whether the name was deliberately selected for a double entendre. It was not. The name was selected in 1987, and sources such as Oxford English Dictionary show the slang reference to a body part did not come into usage until years later.

2. The alternative names

Our first poll resulted in a long list of alternative names. However, most of them were unsuitable for many reasons (existing brand, too close to names of other conferences, offensive connotations in some language). After curating the list, we were left with a short list of six names that were suggested in the second poll. However, none of these names were strongly preferred by the community (see Section 5 below). Even worse, for each alternative, respondents pointed out that the alternative could be mispronounced or distorted to create an offensive term. Changing the name of our conference is going to encourage such word play.

3. Moving forward

Much of the feedback on both sides recommended a focus on more tangible steps to promote inclusion and diversity. The Board has long considered ways of ensuring that the conference is welcoming to all individuals. Some steps we are taking in this direction include:

  • For NIPS 2018, we strengthened our Code of Conduct, which addresses participant behavior. All reviewers, authors, registrants, and sponsors must read and acknowledge the Code, which is also posted on the conference webpage. We formalized the process for reporting and responding to concerns about Code of Conduct violations.

  • For NIPS 2018, two Inclusion and Diversity chairs were appointed, who have been active in conference planning, bringing additional affinity groups into the fold, and examining the conference climate.

  • We are organizing an "Inclusion Town Hall" at NIPS 2018 to discuss inclusion issues with the entire community.

  • We are introducing childcare support for NIPS 2018, having resolved a longstanding liability issue. Supplementary funding has been secured to support parent expenses, and activity suggestions for children will be offered.

  • The conference facility will have gender-inclusive restrooms, information about accommodations for participants with disabilities has been publicized, and we have assembled a collection of suggestions for how conference participants can help create a more inclusive atmosphere.

  • We have been providing administrative and financial support to a satellite meeting for Women in ML (WiML) for many years. Starting last year, NIPS has been the home for Black in AI (BAI), and this year the affinity groups hosted by NIPS will also include Queer in AI@NIPS, LatinX in AI (LXAI), and Jews in ML. Registration slots have been reserved to ensure that many participants in WiML, Black in AI, and LatinX in AI are able to attend the main conference.

  • In recent years, our Executive Director, Mary Ellen Perry, has organized conference expeditions for high-school math and science organizations such as GirlsWhoCode who are near the conference venue.

  • We are coordinating mentoring breakfasts for women and other minorities.

The main goal of NIPS has always been to create a space where those in the field can exchange ideas freely. As the conference continues to grow and evolve so must our ideas around what it means to create that open space for the entire community. We welcome your suggestions for further expanding our efforts in Diversity and Inclusion. Please contact our diversity and inclusion chairs.

We thank everyone who took part in the polls and the discussions on name change. We are now in a stronger position to respond positively to the needs of our community.

4. Some quotes (with permission) from the text comments of the poll

  • Thanks for considering the name change. I am not personally bothered by the current name, which is semi-accurate and has no ill intent -- but I think the gesture of making a name change will send a much-needed inclusive vibe in the right direction.

  • If it were up to me, I'd call off this nice but symbolic gesture and use whatever time, money, and energy it requires to make actual changes that boost inclusivity, like providing subsidized child care so that parents can attend, or offering more travel awards to scholars from lesser-developed countries.

  • Please, please please change the name. It is sexist and a racist slur!!! I'm embarrassed every time I have to say the name of the conference.

  • As a woman, I find it offensive that the board is seriously considering changing the name of the meeting because of an adolescent reference to a woman’s body. From my point of view, it shows that the board does not see me as an equal member of the community, but as a woman first and a scientist second.

  • I am a woman, I have experienced being harassed by male academics, and I would like this problem to be discussed and addressed. But not in this frankly almost offensive way.

  • I am in favor of a name change, but this is cosmetic. Let's use the conversation started around this issue to show that the community truly cares about long-standing, systematic problems facing people in this discipline who do not fit the typical social/economic/racial/gender background.

  • There's a legitimate question of whether the original name was meant as a baudy joke. If yes, then of course change it. But if not, I don't see the benefit of changing the name. 

  • There are more important problems than the name, e.g. industrial vs academic research, reproducibility of results, attempts of fraud to get papers accepted, a more professional infrastructure to support the work of area and program chairs.

  • There are around 7000 languages. All the above acronyms above are all probably offensive to at least one speaker of at least one of them. I think a randomly generated hash code is the best way to avoid collision with any offensive terms. What about 27fb380bc013f01262acf6b2518d08bd?

5. Details of the data

The key question in the poll was: “Do you think we should change the name of the NIPS conference?” Here are the absolute number of answers:


Strongly disagree

(-2)


Disagree

(-1)


Neutral

(0)


Agree

(1)


Strongly agree

(2)

female

76

41

47

56

74

male

593

436

322

317

213

other gender
or no response

50

22

9

8

6

total

719

499

378

381

293

Here you can see the same answers, visualized as histograms: 

(“count“ shows the absolute number of answers; proportion shows the percentage in each of the two subpopulations, for example the number of males who voted for "+2", divided by total number of male answers; in the second row we merged the two negative categories -2 and -1 to „no“ and the two positive categories +1 and +2 to „yes“)


The following histograms are splitting the response distribution by gender (the non-binary and missing responses are omitted), age (less than 35, 35-50, and over 50), and geography (continents other than Asia, Europe, and North America are omitted).

Here are the results concerning alternative names of the conference: