Monday, February 08, 2016

Who owns a review, and who's having the conversation ?

I had floated a trial balloon (this is election season after all!) about making reviews of my papers public. I had originally thought that my coauthors would object to this plan, for fear of retribution from reviewers, or feelings of shame about the reviews (things that I was concerned with).

What I didn't expect was strong resistance from potential reviewers, with people going as far as to say that a) they might refuse to review my papers in the future or b) I'd be deterring reviewers from doing any kind of reviewing if my idea caught on.

I was surprised by this response. And then I was surprised by my surprise. And I realized that the two perspectives above (mine, and the commenters) come from fundamentally different views on the relation between reviewer, author and arbiter (aka the PC/journal).

This post is an attempt to flesh that out.

Dramatis Personae:

There are three players in this drama: the (A)uthor, (R)eviewer, and the PC chair/editor whom we'll call the (J)udge. A submits a paper, R reviews it, and J (informed by R) makes a final decision.

So how do they interact ?

View 1: A and R have a conversation.

My idea of publishing reviews comes from this perspective. R looks over the paper and discusses it (anonymously) with A, facilitated by J. The discussion could be one-shot, two-shot, or a longer process. The discussion is hopefully informative and clarifying. Ideally it improves the paper. This is an approximation of what happens in a journal review, and I think is how many authors imagine the process as working.

Posting the discussion is then helpful because it provides some context for the work (think of it like the comments section of a page, but chaperoned, or an overheard research discussion at a cafe).

It's also helpful to keep all parties honest. Reviewers aren't likely to write bad reviews if they know it might become public. In fact, a number of conferences that I'm involved with are experimenting with making reviews public (although this is at the behest of J, not A).

View 2: J and R have a conversation

J requests that R make an assessment of the paper. R reads it over, forms an opinion, and then has a short conversation with J. In a conference setting, J has other constraints like space and balance, but R can at least provide a sense of whether the paper is above the bar for publication or not. This is how most reviewers imagine the process working.

At the end of the process, J decides (in concert with R) how much of the review to share with A, ranging from just the decision bit to the entire review (I don't know of any conference that shares the conversation as well).

Who owns the review, and who's having the conversation? 

The difference between these two perspectives seems to be at the root of all the complaining and moaning about peer review in our community (I'm not talking about the larger issues with peer review in say the medical community). Authors think that they're operating in View 1, and are surprised at the often perfunctory nature of the review, and the seeming unwillingness of reviewers to engage in a discussion (when for example there's a rebuttal process).

Reviewers on the other hand live in View 2, and are begrudging at best with comments that are directed at the author. In fact, the harshness and seeming arbitrariness of the review (as perceived by the author) can be explained simply as: they weren't really written for you to read !

The view also changes one's perspective on ownership. If a review is a conversation between J and R, then it's an outrageous idea to let A (who's only getting the review out of kindness) publish it for all to see. But if the review is meant to help A write a better paper, then why can't A publish the discussion ?

So what's the upshot of all of this ? 

There are many good reasons not to publish my reviews. Probably the most important reason (as was pointed out to me) is that the very fact that I can speculate out loud about doing this demonstrates a kind of privilege. That is to say, if I do publish critical reviews of my work, I'm likely to take less of the blame and more of the credit than coauthors who are more disadvantaged (students, minorities, women). If you don't believe me, I encourage you to read Tamara Munzner's series on a major brouhaha in the Vis community triggered by a public review (posted by a reviewer).

Another good reason is that if some of my coauthors object (and so I don't post reviews for papers with them) and others don't (and so I do), that in itself sends signals of the "what are you afraid of" form that can again fall disproportionately on my coauthors.

A third reason is that anonymous never stays that way. Eventually, if enough reviews get posted, some enterprising NLPer will write a simple predictor to identify styles in reviews, cluster reviews likely written by the same individual, and then cross-reference with any leaked information (for example if they're on a PC) to leak some information.

But here are some bad reasons (that were posted in response to my post):

  • Reviewers will be scared away and it's hard enough to get them to review in the first place ? Really? Reviewers have such fragile egos ? This is a classic slippery slope argument with no real basis in truth. And given how many younger researchers are desperate to get a chance to review papers, I suspect that as soon as someone stops, someone else will pick up the slack.
  • Reviewers own the copyright of their writing, and it would be a copyright violation. IANAL, but I don't think the people raising this point are either. And this is very backwards reasoning. We can decide in good faith whether we think posting reviews is a good idea or not, but using legal arguments seems like a cop-out. There are always ways to fix that at PC formation time. 
  • It's ethically wrong to post reviews. I don't understand how it's an ethical issue. The only way there could be an ethical issue is if reviewers were promised that the reviews would stay confidential. But that's never the case: reviewers are exhorted to share the reviews with the authors. And again, this has the causality backward. Whether we should publish reviews or not should not depend on what we currently might have in the way of expectations. 
I should note that NSF proposal reviews (that are much more secret) are shared with the author without conditions, and there's no prohibition against posting them. In fact seeing proposal reviews can be a great way to understand how reviewers think. 

Bottom line: I won't be posting my reviews any time soon, which is a pity because I genuinely think that this provides a degree of accountability for reviewers that they currently don't have. But it was very interesting to think through this out loud and understand the perspective others brought to the discussion. 

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