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.  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.
 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.