My Case for Reverse-Blind Reviewing

I’ve been trying recently 1 to avoid serving on technical program committees, particularly for conferences in sensor networking—​an area I’m no longer working in. But when I received the invitation to review papers for RealWSN, I was intrigued. After carrying out my own personal experiment with reverse-blind reviewing for the past few years, this was the first time I have observed an entire workshop giving this approach a try. Maybe reverse-blind reviewing is about to go mainstream—​and if so, it’s about time.

Reverse-Blind Reviewing

What is reverse-blind reviewing? It’s my term for a natural complement to computer science’s two existing approaches to reviewing technical papers:

  • double-blind reviewing: where reviewers identities are hidden from authors and, through anonymization, authors identities are hidden from reviewers; and

  • single-blind reviewing: where reviewers identities are hidden from authors but authors identities are known to reviewers.

Both of these approaches have well-established pros and cons and both defenders and critics. But they both share the position that reviewers identities should be hidden from authors. In fact, this tenet is so standard that it’s actually codified as part of the ACM’s Policy on Reviewer Anonymity, which "assures that [sic] ACM will maintain the anonymity of reviewers."

In contrast, I propose to introduce the term:

  • reverse-blind reviewing: where reviewers identities are revealed to authors, but authors identities are hidden from reviewers.

Read to Reject

I’ve been conducting my own experiment in reverse-blind reviewing since starting my faculty appointment in 2011. When asked to join a program committee, I notify the chairs of my intention of signing my reviews to ensure that they are comfortable with that decision. Nobody has ever had a problem with this, and by now I think that many people know this about me. And then I sign my reviews by including my name and email address at the bottom of each review.

Having the months or years you spent working on a project dismissed in several sentences by an anonymous reviewer who clearly spent about ten minutes reading your paper is possibly one of the most disheartening things I’ve ever experienced.My initial impetus to experimenting with this approach was the many terrible paper reviews I received as a graduate student—​both for rejected and accepted papers. Having the months or years you spent working on a project dismissed in several sentences by an anonymous reviewer who clearly spent about ten minutes reading your paper is possibly one of the most disheartening things I’ve ever experienced. (And still is.) If the paper happens to be accepted that provides some comfort, but confused and erroneous reviews still make you nervous about what will happen next time.

There are all kinds of things contributing to poor-quality reviews: increasing reviewer burden that goes along with a growing field, a general culture of overcritical negativity within computer science 2, unsupervised delegation of reviews to graduate students with less experience in the field, and our tendency to be impressed—​rather than worried—​about colleagues that are serving on dozens of program committees a year.

The combination of reviewer overload and a culture that supports unbridled negativity 3 frequently leads to the deployment of the "read to reject" algorithm:

  1. Read a sentence of the paper.

  2. Can I reject the paper yet? If so HALT. Otherwise GOTO 1.

Obviously while this algorithm does a great job of helping a review optimize the process of reviewing many papers, it produces reviews that are neither accurate nor helpful. After receiving a review like this you only really know the first place where a rushed reviewer got stuck. And writing for "read to reject" reviewers also becomes an exercise in defensiveness, with faculty teaching students how to write papers that won’t get rejected by overcritical reviewers. I am not arguing against clarity and persuasiveness, but there is something a bit sycophantic and unexciting about overly defensive papers, and certain arguments can’t be made in ways that are guaranteed not to confuse or offend anyone.

My Experiment

So the main reason I started signing my reviews was that I wanted to write good reviews. If that required a lot of time and energy, so be it. And if it meant serving on fewer program committees, that’s alright too 4. As noted above, there are plenty of contributing factors to poor reviews and few consequences for writing them. This is my attempt at a personal counterbalance.

If enough of my colleagues can and will punish me (and my students) because of a well-intentioned, careful, but negative review, then in the long run I’ll probably be happier doing something else with my life.I’m aware of the risks. Signing my rejections makes it possible for vindictive researchers to retaliate against me and my group, including by rejecting our papers when it’s their turn to review. I don’t know if this will happen or is happening, but I’ve always felt that to succumb to this concern is to accept a very dark view of my field. If enough of my colleagues can and will punish me (and my students) because of a well-intentioned, careful, but negative review, then in the long run I’ll probably be happier doing something else with my life. The protection provided by double-blind conferences also helps address this concern, and hopefully more will move in the direction of author anonymization 5.

Overall I’m happy to report that the tangible results from this four-year experiment have been positive. Signing my reviews has only led to one ugly encounter with an author, who had complaints that were at least partly-justified. In other cases, making myself available to authors has led to productive post-submission interactions and clarifications, and at least once these have played a very small role in turning a rejected paper into an accepted submission.

But more importantly, signing my reviews helps me achieve my goal of writing better reviews. Are my reviews perfectly accurate? No: I make mistakes like every other reviewer, and I’ve heard about them from a few authors. But I take ownership of those mistakes, and the worry that I’ve made a critical one in my signed review has more than once caused me to go back and reread parts of the paper. Overall I also find my reviews to be more positive and constructive, because—​like most people, I suspect—​when stripped of the cloak of anonymity I’m less willing to say things that are nothing more than mean and dismissive. I’ve noticed that my reviews when I’m recommending rejection are usually far longer than those that recommend acceptance, which seems appropriate. Accepted papers speak for themselves, while authors of rejected papers frequently benefit from more feedback on how to continue or better explain their work.

And although I’m ashamed to admit it, one of the ways that I know signing my reviews helps is that in a couple of cases when I haven’t been able to do reviews that I was proud of, I didn’t sign them. So at least for me, putting my name on a review creates a higher bar than I’d normally set.

The RealWSN Experiment and Beyond

Reverse-blind reviewing has helped me write better reviews. Would it help others as well? Perhaps a fully reverse-blind program committee will create a reviewing process that’s more focused on improvement rather than binary assessment, less reflexively critical and more open to new ideas and approaches, more like a conversation within a community and less like a competition.

We’ll see, because that’s what RealWSN 2015 is aiming to try. Kudos to Anna, Elena, James and Thiemo for initiating this experiment, and to the other program committee members who have been willing to participate. If you want to take part in it yourself, please consider submitting a paper. It will be exciting to see how it goes.

On a broader level, experiments like this one recognize that it’s worthwhile to tinker in order to improve our publishing culture and methods. Despite the creativity that computer researchers bring to what they do, we’re remarkably hidebound when it comes to how we do it. Professor must sit alone in office. Professor must hold weekly 30-minute meetings with graduate students. Papers must be two-column format. Conferences must be 2.5 days long. Reviewers identities must be hidden from authors. And so on. As the world around us changes, some of these traditions carry on as best practices—​but others perpetuate out of habit, laziness, or the fear of the unknown. And so they’re all worth revisiting periodically using the same method I remind my students to use whenever we don’t know how something will turn out: perform the experiment!

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