Tuesday, March 26, 2019

On PC submissions at SODA 2020

SODA 2020 (in SLC!!) is experimenting with a new submission guideline: PC members will be allowed to submit papers. I had a conversation about this with Shuchi Chawla (the PC chair) and she was kind enough (thanks Shuchi!) to share the guidelines she's provided to PC members about how this will work.

SODA is allowing PC members (but not the PC chair) to submit papers this year. To preserve the integrity of the review process, we will handle PC member submissions as follows. 
1. PC members are required to declare a conflict for papers that overlap in content with their own submissions (in addition to other CoI situations). These will be treated as hard conflicts. If necessary, in particular if we don't have enough confidence in our evaluation of a paper, PC members will be asked to comment on papers they have a hard conflict with. However, they will not have a say in the final outcome for such papers.  
2. PC submissions will receive 4 reviews instead of just 3. This is so that we have more confidence on our evaluation and ultimate decision. 
3. We will make early accept/reject decisions on PC members submissions, that is, before we start considering "borderline" papers and worrying about the total number of papers accepted. This is because the later phases of discussion are when subjectivity and bias tend to creep in the most. 
4. In order to be accepted, PC member submissions must receive no ratings below "weak accept" and must receive at least two out of four ratings of "accept" or above.  
5. PC member submissions will not be eligible for the best paper award.

My understanding is that this was done to solve the problem of not being able to get people to agree to be on the PC - this year's PC has substantially more members than prior years.

And yet....

Given all the discussion about conflicts of interest, implicit bias, and double blind review, this appears to be a bizarrely retrograde move, and in fact one that sends a very loud message that issues of implicit bias aren't really viewed as a problem. As one of my colleagues put it sarcastically when I described the new plan:

"why don't they just cut out the reviews and accept all PC submissions to start with?"
and as another colleague pointed out:

"It's mostly ridiculous that they seem to be tying themselves in knots trying to figure out how to resolve COIs when there's a really easy solution that they're willfully ignoring..."

Some of the arguments I've been hearing in support of this policy frankly make no sense to me.

First of all, the idea that a more heightened scrutiny of PC papers can alleviate the bias associated with reviewing papers of your colleagues goes against basically all of what we know about implicit bias in reviewing. The most basic tenet of human judgement is that we are very bad at filtering our own biases and this only makes it worse. The one thing that theory conferences (compared to other venues) had going for them regarding issues of bias was that PC members couldn't submit papers, but now....

Another claim I've heard is that the scale of SODA makes double blind review difficult. It's hard to hear this claim without bursting out into hysterical laughter (and from the reaction of the people I mentioned this to, I'm not the only one).  Conferences that manage with double blind review (and PC submissions btw) are at least an order of magnitude bigger (think of all the ML conferences). Most conference software (including easy chair) is capable of managing the conflicts of interest without too much trouble. Given that SODA (and theory conferences in general) are less familiar with this process, I’ve recommended in the past that there be a “workflow chair” whose job it is to manage the unfamiliarity associated with dealing the software. Workflow chairs are common at bigger conferences that typically deal with 1000s of reviewers and conflicts.

Further, as a colleague points out, what one should really be doing is "aligning nomenclature and systems with other fields: call current PC as SPC or Area Chairs, or your favorite nomenclature, and add other folks as reviewers. This way you (i) get a list of all conflicts entered into the system, and (ii) recognize the work that the reviewers are doing more officially as labeling the PC members. "

Changes in format (and culture) take time, and I'm still hopeful that the SODA organizing team  will take a lesson from ESA 2019  (and their own resolution to look at DB review more carefully that was passed a year or so ago) and consider exploring DB review. But this year's model is certainly not going to help.

Update: Steve Blackburn outlines how PLDI handles PC submissions (in brief, double blind + external review committee)

Update: Michael Ekstrand takes on the question that Thomas Steinke asks in the comments below: "How is double blind review different from fairness-through-blindness?".

Disqus for The Geomblog