Posts tagged ‘peer review’

Selfish Reasons to do Peer Review, and Other Program Committee Observations

I’ve been on several program committees in the last year and a half. As I’ve written earlier, getting a behind-the-scenes look at how things work significantly improved my perception of research and academia. This post is a more elaborate set of observations based on my experience. It is targeted both at my colleagues with the hope of starting a discussion, as well as at outsiders as a continuation of my series on explaining how the scientific community functions (that began with the post linked above) .

Benefits of doing peer review. Peer review is often considered a burden that one grudgingly accepts in order to keep the system working. But in my experience, especially for a junior researcher, the effort is well worth the time.

The most obvious advantage of being on a PC is that it forces you to read papers. Now if you’re the type that never needs external motivation to get things accomplished, this wouldn’t matter to you — you’d do literature study on a regular basis anyway. But many of us aren’t that disciplined; I’m certainly not.

There are also insights you get that you can’t reproduce by having perfect self-discipline. PC work gives you a raw, unfiltered look into the research that people have chosen to work on. This is a 6-month-or-so head start for getting on top of emerging trends compared to only reading published papers. You also get a better idea of common pitfalls to avoid.

Finally, peer review is one of the rare opportunities to read papers critically (it is harder with published work because it doesn’t have as many loopholes). This is not a natural skill for most people — our cognitive biases predispose us to confuse good rhetoric with sound logic.

Which type of meeting? I’ve been on PCs with all three types of discussions: physical meetings, phone meetings and online. I think it’s important to have a meeting, whether physical or phone. I learn a lot, and the outcome feels fairer. Besides, quite often one reviewer is able to point out something the others have missed. Chairs of online-only PCs do try to elicit some interaction between reviewers, but for hard-to-explain but easy-to-understand reasons, the bandwidth in an interactive meeting tends to be much higher.

Phone meetings are suitable for smaller conferences and workshops. In my experience, members mostly tend to go on mute and tune out except when the papers they reviewed are being discussed. I don’t necessarily see a problem with this.

In physical meetings, I’ve found that members often make comments or voice opinions on papers they haven’t really read. I don’t think this is in the best interest of fair reviewing (although I’ve heard a contrary opinion). I wonder if a strategy involving smaller breakout groups would be more effective.

The one advantage of not having a meeting is of course that it saves time. I’ve found that the time commitment for the meeting is about a third of the reviewing time (for both physical and phone meetings), which I don’t consider to be too much of a burden given the improved outcomes.

Overall, my experience from these meetings is that members act professionally for the most part without egos or emotions getting in the way. While there is inevitably some randomness in the process, I believe that the horror stories of careless reviewers — everyone has at least one to narrate — are exaggerated. One possible reason for this misunderstanding is that there is a lot that’s discussed at meetings after the reviews are written, and often this feedback doesn’t make it into the reviews.

Problem areas. Finally, here are some aspects of PCs that I think could be improved. I have deliberately omitted the most common problems (such as an untenable number of submissions and low acceptance rates) that everybody knows and talks about. Instead, these are less frequently discussed but yet (IMO) fairly important issues.

Lost reviews. Since reviewers aren’t perfect, sometimes bad papers with persistent authors manage to get published by being resubmitted to other venues until they hit a relatively sloppy panel of reviewers. The reason this works (when it does) is that past reviews of a recycled paper are “lost”. This is a shame; it wastes reviewer effort and lowers the overall quality of publications.

Community boundaries. As a reviewer I’ve started to realize how difficult it is to publish in other communities’ venues. As an example, at security conferences we often see papers by outsiders that have something useful to say, but are unfortunately inadequately familiar with the “central dogma” of crypto/security research, namely adversarial thinking. [1] While I can see the temptation to reject these papers with a cursory note, I think we should be patient with these people, explain how we do things and if possible offer to work with them to improve the paper.

Unfruitful directions. Sometimes research directions don’t pan out, either because the world has moved on and the underlying assumptions are no longer true, or because the technical challenges are too hard. But researchers naturally resist having to change their research area, and so there are lots of papers written on topics that stopped being relevant years ago. The reason these papers keep getting published is that they are assigned for review to other people working in the same area. I’ve seen program chairs make an effort to push back on this, but the current situation is far from optimal.

In conclusion, my opinion is that peer review in my community is a relatively well-functioning process, albeit with a lot of scope for improvement. I believe this improvement can be accomplished in an evolutionary way without having to change anything too radically.

[1] The crypto/security community essentially derives its identity from adversarial thinking. Incidentally, I feel that it is not always suitable for privacy, which is why I believe computer scientists who study privacy should stop viewing ourselves as a subset of the security community.

May 2, 2012 at 9:37 am Leave a comment

An Update on Career Plans and Some Observations on the Nature of Research

I’ve had a wonderful time at Stanford these last couple of years, but it’s time to move on. I’m currently in the middle of my job search, looking for faculty and other research positions. In the next month or two I will be interviewing at several places. It’s been an interesting journey.

My Ph.D. years in Austin were productive and blissful. When I finished and came West, I knew I enjoyed research tremendously, but there were many aspects of research culture that made me worry if I’d fit in. I hoped my postdoc would give me some clarity.

Happily, that’s exactly what happened, especially after I started being an active participant in program committees and other community activities. It’s been an enlightening and humbling experience. I’ve come to realize that in many cases, there are perfectly good reasons why frequently-criticized aspects of the culture are just the way they are. Certainly there are still facets that are far from ideal, but my overall view of the culture of scientific research and the value of research to society is dramatically more positive than it was when I graduated.

Let me illustrate. One of my major complaints when I was in grad school was that almost nobody does interdisciplinary research (which is true — the percentage of research papers that span different disciplines is tiny). Then I actually tried doing it, and came to the obvious-in-retrospect realization that collaborating with people who don’t speak your language is hard.

Make no mistake, I’m as committed to cross-disciplinary research as I ever was (I just finished writing a grant proposal with Prof’s Helen Nissenbaum and Deirdre Mulligan). I’ve gradually been getting better at it and I expect to do a lot of it in my career. But if a researcher makes a decision to stick to their sub-discipline, I can’t really fault them for that.

As another example, consider the lack of a “publish-then-filter” model for research papers, a whole two decades after the Web made it technologically straightforward. Many people find this incomprehensibly backward and inefficient. founder Richard Price wrote an article two days ago arguing that the future of peer review will look like a mix of Pagerank and Twitter. Three years ago, that could have been me talking. Today my view is very different.

Science is not a popularity contest; Pagerank is irrelevant as a peer-review mechanism. Basically, scientific peer review is the only process that exists for systematically separating truths from untruths. Like democracy, it has its problems, but at least it works. Social media is probably the worst analogy — it seems to be better at amplifying falsehoods than facts. Wikipedia-style crowdsourcing has its strengths, but it can hit-or-miss.

To be clear, I think peer review is probably going to change; I would like it to be done in public, for one. But even this simple change is fraught with difficulty — how would you ensure that reviewers aren’t influenced by each others’ reviews? This is an important factor in the current system. During my program committee meetings, I came to realize just how many of these little procedures for minimizing bias are built into the system and how seriously people take the spirit of this process. Revamping peer review while keeping what works is going to be slow and challenging.

Moving on, some of my other concerns have been disappearing due to recent events. Restrictive publisher copyrights are a perfect example. I have more of a problem with this than most researchers do — I did my Master’s in India, which means I’ve been on the other side of the paywall. But it looks like that pot may finally have boiled over. I think it’s only a matter of time now before open access becomes the norm in all disciplines.

There are certainly areas where the status quo is not great and not getting any better. Today if a researcher makes a discovery that’s not significant enough to write a paper about, they choose not to share that discovery at all. Unfortunately, this is the rational behavior for a self-interested researcher, because there is no way to get credit for anything other than published papers. Michael Neilsen’s excellent book exploring the future of networked science gives me some hope that change may be on the horizon.

I hope this post has given you a more nuanced appreciation of the nature of scientific research. Misconceptions about research and especially about academia seem to be widespread among the people I talk to both online and offline; I harbored a few myself during my Ph.D., as I said earlier. So I’m thinking of doing posts like this one on a semi-regular basis on this blog or on Google+. But that will probably have to wait until after my job search is done.

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February 7, 2012 at 11:05 am 2 comments


I’m an associate professor of computer science at Princeton. I research (and teach) information privacy and security, and moonlight in technology policy.

This is a blog about my research on breaking data anonymization, and more broadly about information privacy, law and policy.

For an explanation of the blog title and more info, see the About page.

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