Machine Learning (Theory)


Avoiding Bad Reviewing

Tags: Reviewing jl@ 11:08 am

If we accept that bad reviewing often occurs and want to fix it, the question is “how”?

Reviewing is done by paper writers just like yourself, so a good proxy for this question is asking “How can I be a better reviewer?” Here are a few things I’ve learned by trial (and error), as a paper writer, and as a reviewer.

  1. The secret ingredient is careful thought. There is no good substitution for a deep and careful understanding.
  2. Avoid reviewing papers that you feel competitive about. You almost certainly will be asked to review papers that feel competitive if you work on subjects of common interest. But, the feeling of competition can easily lead to bad judgement.
  3. If you feel biased for some other reason, then you should avoid reviewing. For example…
  4. Feeling angry or threatened by a paper is a form of bias. See above.
  5. Double blind yourself (avoid looking at the name even in a single-blind situation). The significant effect of a name you recognize is making you pay close attention to a paper. Since not paying enough attention is a standard failure mode of reviewers, a name you recognize is inevitably unfair to authors you do not recognize.
  6. Don’t review fast. For conferences there is a tendency to review papers right at the deadline. This tendency can easily result in misjudgements because you do not have the opportunity to really understand what a paper is saying.
  7. Don’t review too much. “Too much” is defined on a per-person basis. If you don’t have time to really understand the papers that you review, then you should say “no” to review requests.
  8. Overconfidence is the enemy of truth. If you are not confident about your review, you should not state that you are. Bad reviews are often overconfident reviews.
  9. Always try to make review comments nonpersonal and constructive, especially in a rejection.

Given the above, observations, a few suggestions for improved review organization can be derived.

  1. Double blind. A common argument against double blind reviewing is that it is often defeatable. This is correct and misses the point. The reason why double blind reviewing is helpful is that a typical reviewer who wants to review well is aided by the elimination of side information which should not effect the acceptance of a paper. (ICML and AAAI are double blind this year.) Another reason why double blind reviewing is “right”, is that it simply appears fairer. This makes it easier on average for authors to take rejections in a more constructive manner.
  2. Staggered deadlines. Many people can’t prioritize reviews well, so the prioritization defaults to deadline proximity. Consequently, instead of having many paper reviews due on one day, having them due at the rate of one-per-day (or an even slower rate) may be helpful. These should be real deadlines in the sense that “you get it in by this date or you are excluded from conversation and decision making about the paper”.
  3. Large PCs. There is a tendency to value (and romanticize) the great researcher. But a great researcher with many papers to review can only be a mediocre reviewer due to lack of available attention and time. Consequently, increasing the size of the PC may be helpful for small PC conferences.
  4. Communication channels. A typical issue in reviewing a paper is that some detail is unintentionally (and accidentally) unclear. In this case, being able to communicate with the authors is helpful. This communication can be easily setup to respect the double blind guarantee by routing through the conference site. This communication does not change the meaning of a reviewers job. ICML and AAAI are allowing author feedback. I mean something more spontaneous, but this is a step in that direction.
  5. Refusal. In many cases, it is not possible to tell that you have a conflict of interest in a paper until after seeing it. A mechanism for saying “I have a conflict of interest, please reassign the paper” should exist, and it’s use should be respected.
  6. Independence. Access to other reviews should not be available until after completing your own review. The point of having multiple reviews is reducing noise. Allowing early access to other reviews increases noise by decreasing independence amongst reviewers. Many conferences (but not all) follow this pattern.

If you have more ideas, please add them.

One Comments to “Avoiding Bad Reviewing”
  1. Ingo says:

    I’d like to add: Try to be constructive and make the most of the reviewing system given, *especially* when you don’t like the paper. Constructive criticism is the best thing that can happen to a paper writer and I’d rather receive well-founded criticism than unfounded praise.

    Sometimes, paper reviewing systems can make this hard, but most can be interpreted creatively. I recently received a review consisting only of grades, with no explanations provided for them. However, one of the reviewers ‘abused’ the request box to add some explanations. I was very grateful for that! The fact that he apparently quite liked the paper didn’t hurt, of course :)

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