Myriam Lewkowicz: We want to attract young researchers

Myriam Lewkowicz is Full Professor in Informatics at Troyes University of Technology (France), where she heads the teaching program “Management of Information Systems”, and the pluridisciplinary research team Tech-CICO (UMR CNRS 6281). Her interdisciplinary research involves defining digital technologies to support existing collective practices or to design new collective activities. Over the past decade, the main area of application of this research has been health, with work on social support between people living in difficult situations (informal carers, isolated elderly people), and other work on coordination between health professionals. In 2017 she was elected next chair of the European Society for Socially Embedded Technologies (EUSSET).

The interview was conducted by Michael Koch & Alexander Richter on behalf of EUSSET in September 2017.

EUSSET: Myriam, you are part of the new generation of CSCW/HCI researchers and you have been especially active in the European CSCW community in the last years. How have you perceived the development?
Myriam Lewkowicz: It is interesting that in the last ten years we have seen a number of European conferences from our field that have considerably been dropping down, whereas at the same time the American conferences have flourished. Nevertheless, the European perspective on CSCW, like Volker described it in his interview, is well received. When you look at the publications, the American practice-focused research is growing. Additionally to what Volker said, I also think the American CSCW perspective was rather techno-centric before. It was dominated by the software industry. The studies in the beginning of the new Millennium were rather demonstrating a system and its evaluation. Now, I see many more papers that show how the system is based on an analysis of work practices and the use of the system is analysed more deeply. So, summarizing, the European perspective had a big influence on how studies were carried out. But the European community was lacking behind. The European researchers were very active and published at the big American conferences like ACM CSCW, ACM CHI etc. But at the same time the European conferences were dying. No people, no money. A little bit desperate. This is when it has been decided that the European community had to be renewed. We wanted to attract the young researchers.

EUSSET: Why should the European researchers send their papers to European conferences in the future? What is the added value of European CSCW conferences?
Myriam Lewkowicz: From a publication point of view there is no big difference. Perhaps now that ECSCW papers go into the JCSCW there is a small advantage by having your conference paper published in a journal automatically. But even more important than publishing, is building a network. If you want to stay in Europe, then you need a network. And we help people to build networks at the conferences. Moreover, we offer a focus. The conferences under the EUSSET auspices stay practice-focused. So participants get a good feeling for how this research is developing. ACM CHI and ACM CSCW are now so big and so broad that it is hard to explore new things. You basically stick to the people you know.

EUSSET: There are not only CSCW and CHI, but also other conferences, like information systems conferences (ECIS, ICIS). How do you relate to them? What is special about ECSCW or other EUSSET conferences?
Myriam Lewkowicz: Again, we are smaller and much more focussed. You will not find positivist research or a lot of quantitative research at ECSCW. At the same time, we are very interdisciplinary. We have social scientists and computer scientists. We think that complexity is not something bad, but something interesting.

EUSSET: Coming back to the history of ECSCW. There were times where there were academic fights between computer scientists and social scientists. There was much more work on systems, on design of systems. Today my feeling is that ECSCW is rather dominated by social sciences, one could say it has become a little bit too descriptive. What is the role of design nowadays?
Myriam Lewkowicz: Yes, I agree. Sometimes it is a bit frustrating to see merely descriptive papers that could also have gone to a social sciences conference. What is interesting for ECSCW is the mix. The current situation is based on a number of factors, like the ways program committees are composed. ACM CHI and ACM CSCW have the same issue. What CSCW did was creating a sub-committee dedicated to systems work. We would like to see more design work. We think it is important to have the designers and the social scientists at the same conference! They have to work together. Also very relevant in this context: funding schemes, which have a big impact here. Most of the money is coming from projects. And projects have a short life time i.e. 3-4 years. This is really too short if you really want to create an understanding, to build something, to create impact and to publish. Also, having an impact and answering the big questions is not the same. What do we want to do? Are the systems a way to understand phenomena? Or do we want to create impact, e.g. help the people? These are different approaches to build systems. What is new and what is relevant is not the same. Sometimes people are not clear about their contribution and different reviewers are interested in different types of contributions. What is a good system paper for ECSCW? We have to discuss this in the community.

EUSSET: In the information systems community there have been some discussions about ‘rigour’ (scientifically correct) vs. ‘relevance’ (creating impact), whereas it is not clear why it should not be both. Does this apply to this discussion about good systems papers, too?
Myriam Lewkowicz: In an ideal world it should be both. But we are suffering from a lack of systems papers and I think it can be enough to see an innovative, inspiring system that has not yet shown its promises. You can have other people taking this idea and rebuild the system in a way to create impact. Impact can also be on the long term – and that is more difficult to document in usual papers.

EUSSET: Openness of the community, interdisciplinarity, … what does EUSSET do to come to that?
Myriam Lewkowicz: On the scientific side, I am not sure. From the organisational point of view, we for example try to stay a single track conference to bring people together and discuss. In addition, we are organizing a summer school, exchange programs and PhD courses. We want to support our people, especially young researchers, to see different disciplines and approaches … and yet stay focused on practices. So, the differences are not so much in the conferences themselves, but in all the side issues. At the conferences you see things you want to do, but in the other events you learn how to do them.

EUSSET: Is there anything we can learn from or adopt from successful CSCW / HCI conferences like ACM CHI?
Myriam Lewkowicz: I do not think that CHI is a good example. CHI is successful in being a place where everybody wants to publish. But it is not a community-building event. CHI is huge. It is so big you cannot meet anyone. But we surely can further improve our conferences. One thing I like in the conferences of other fields is that people present preliminary work that is discussed intensively at the conference. In this year’s ECSCW I think the exploratory papers presentations were quite successful in this sense. It is a way to have a discussion during the conference and work it into the full paper afterwards. We will continue this effort.

EUSSET: About the content of the research – What should European CSCW try to achieve in the future?
Myriam Lewkowicz: At the same time we have lost some systems work we have also lost conceptual work. We do not have a lot of papers reflecting and giving new concepts to tackle coordination and collaboration. This also goes with new systems. Additionally, we also should look into what we could say to the world about work. Work is evolving – and the European CSCW community has a view on this that is quite different from the American and Chinese views. We have something to say and should do so.

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