Lessons on writing conference reviews

I’m on the SODA 2011 program committee and finding it, as everything this last year (grant writing, NSF panelling, grad student advising), a condensed learning experience.

Our reviews are almost due which means that this newbie has been through all but a a few of my stack. I asked for subreviews for roughly half my stack and [drum roll] incredibly, despite the procrastinating reputation of computer scientists, my wonderful subreviewers returned all their reviews in to me on time (and several were early).1

The most valuable aspect of these subreviews was not time-saving or expert-opinion-injecting (although that was greatly appreciated), but the stack of example reviews. Sure I’ve seen my share of reviews. But they were all reviews of my papers which has a certain bias. And sure, I’ve seen several reviews of other papers, but they were all reviews written by me. So, after reading this stack of reviews, I can only conclude that I have been a crappy conference subreviewer.

The review should obviously impart an opinion on the paper. But the ideal conference subreview should give enough details of the result to save the program committee member from having to read the paper (or at least, the entire paper). I’m pretty sure I’ve missed this idea writing subreviews in the past; I could cop this up to having never been taught how to write a review but I think it is more a failure of my ability to empathize with the program committee. I imagine I modelled my reviews on reviews of my own papers – in cases where such details were provided, I probably thought “This is boring. I know the results of my own paper, why is the reviewer telling me this?” – when they weren’t, I thought “why was my paper rejected?”2. Embarrassing that it took so long for me to understand this process: subreviews are targeted (mostly) at the program committee member and (direct) reviews are terse because of the large paper load and the ability of a committee member to make an opinion without taking the time to write out a thorough review.

I think a nice addition to conference reviews would be the equivalent of the grant panel summary. Perhaps not so important for accepted papers, but for rejected papers it would be useful for authors to receive high-level constructive criticism (submit to conference X, fix these issues and it should get into conference Y, etc.) Of course, I don’t want to increase the work load of a program committee. At least not this year.

1 One review was a day late but, after all, I could not process all the subreviews in one day, so I would hardly notice or mind.
2 Funny, I don’t have a problem when a paper is accepted!

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One thought on “Lessons on writing conference reviews

  1. Atri Rudra

    I agree that a summary of PC discussions would be very nice. I got PC summaries for my SODA 10 submissions so I’m guessing this was done for some (most? all?) submissions last year. Hopefully this can become a standard practice in theory conferences.

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