Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Author Feedback, or "Conference Review process considered harmful"

Author feedback is the latest attempt to put a band-aid on the bleeding carcass of the conference review process. We had author feedback at SoCG, and it's a common feature at many other conferences. The ostensible purpose of author feedback is to allow authors to clarify any misconceptions/confusions the reviewer might have so as to make the review process a bit more orderly (or less random?).

Usually, the process works like this: reviewers submit their reviews and have the option of requesting clarification on specific points from the authors. Authors get the questions, are required to submit a rebuttal/response by a certain date, and then deliberation continues. Variations on this include:
  • Length of the author response
  • When it's asked for (before discussions start, or after)
  • Whether it's called a 'rebuttal' or a 'response' or even just 'feedback' - I think the choice of word is significant
  • Whether the reviewers' current scoring for the paper is revealed or not.
While a good idea in principle, it can cause some headache for program committees, and often devolves into a game of cat and mouse: the reviewer carefully encrypts their questions so as not to tip their hand, the author tries to glean the reviewers' true intent from the questions, while trying to estimate which reviewer has the knife in, and so on and so forth.

What I want to rant about is the author feedback system for a conference I recently submitted to. The reviews came back long and vicious: as far as one reviewer is concerned, we should probably go and hide under a rock for the rest of our pathetic (and hopefully short) lives.

That doesn't bother me as much as it used to - I've grown a thick hide for these sorts of things ;). However, a combination of things has sent me into a fury:
  • The reviewer is actually wrong on most counts. This is isn't a matter of disagreeing over motivation, relevance etc. It's just a basic "please read section 5, column 1, sentence 3" type problem.
  • The author feedback limit is 2048 characters (which is a rather tiny amount if you're counting at home)
There's a basic issue of fairness here. Why does a reviewer get to go off on a rant for pages, while we have to limit our response to essentially sentences of the form "Yes. No. Maybe" ? Especially when the reviewer is basically wrong on a number of points, it takes a while to document the inaccuracies. At the very least, we should get as many characters in our response as the reviewers got in theirs ! (point of note: the set of reviews were 11225 characters long, and the specific reviewer I'm complaining about had a 2500 character long review)

This paper is not getting in, no matter what we say: that much is clear. I've almost never heard of a paper successfully rebutting the reviews, and in all fairness the other reviewers have issues that are matters of opinion and can't be resolved easily. That is a little disappointing, but perfectly fine within the way the review process works. But I'm annoyed that there's no good way to express my dissatisfaction with the reviewing short of emailing the PC chair, and it's not clear to me that this does any good anyway.

Overall, I think that author feedback in the limit gets us to journal reviews, which is a good thing (and my colleague actually suggested that conference reviewing should have more rounds of author feedback and less time for actual paper reviewing). But the way it's done right now, it's hard to see it as anything other than 'reviewing theater', to borrow a Bruce Schneier term. It looks nice, and might make authors and PCs feel good, but has little value overall.

Update: in case it was implied, this conference is NOT SoCG :)
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