One way that many conferences in machine learning assign reviewers to papers is via bidding, which has steps something like:
- Invite people to review
- Accept papers
- Reviewers look at title and abstract and state the papers they are interested in reviewing.
- Some massaging happens, but reviewers often get approximately the papers they bid for.
At the ICML business meeting, Andrew McCallum suggested getting rid of bidding for papers. A couple reasons were given:
- Privacy The title and abstract of the entire set of papers is visible to every participating reviewer. Some authors might be uncomfortable about this for submitted papers. I’m not sympathetic to this reason: the point of submitting a paper to review is to publish it, so the value (if any) of not publishing a part of it a little bit earlier seems limited.
- Cliques A bidding system is gameable. If you have 3 buddies and you inform each other of your submissions, you can each bid for your friend’s papers and express a disinterest in others. There are reasonable odds that at least two of your friends (out of 3 reviewers) will get your papers, and with 2 adamantly positive reviews, your paper has good odds of acceptance.
The clique issue is real, but it doesn’t seem like a showstopper to me. If a group of friends succeeds at this game for awhile, but their work is not fundamentally that interesting, then there will be no long term success. The net effect is an unfocused displacement of other perhaps-better papers and ideas.
It’s important to recall that there are good aspects of a bidding system. If reviewers are nonstrategic (like I am), they simply pick the papers that seem the most interesting. Having reviewers review the papers that most interest them isn’t terrible—it means they pay close attention and generally write better reviews than a disinterested reviewer might. In many situations, simply finding reviewers who are willing to do an attentive thorough review is challenging.
However, since ICML I’ve come to believe there is a more serious flaw than any of the above: torpedo reviewing. If a research direction is controversial in the sense that just 2-or-3 out of hundreds of reviewers object to it, those 2 or 3 people can bid for the paper, give it terrible reviews, and prevent publication. Repeated indefinitely, this gives the power to kill off new lines of research to the 2 or 3 most close-minded members of a community, potentially substantially retarding progress for the community as a whole.
A basic question is: “Does torpedo reviewing actually happen?” The evidence I have is only anecdotal, but perhaps the answer is “yes”. As an author, I’ve seen several reviews poor enough that a torpedo reviewer is a plausible explanation. In talking to other people, I know that some folks do a lesser form: they intentionally bid for papers that they want to reject on the theory that rejections are less work than possible acceptances. Even without more substantial evidence (it is hard to gather, after all), it’s clear that the potential for torpedo reviewing is real in a bidding system, and if done well by the reviewers, perhaps even undectectable.
The fundamental issue is: “How do you chose who reviews a paper?” We’ve discussed bidding above, but other approaches have their own advantages and drawbacks. The simplest approach I have right now is “choose diversely”: perhaps a reviewer from bidding, a reviewer from assignment by a PC/SPC/area chair, and another reviewer from assignment by a different PC/SPC/area chair.