HCI is continuing a trend towards using conferences, rather than journals or books, as the premier venue for published work. The speed of the submission-decision cycle often means that decisions are fast and binary: one shot and you’re in or you’re out. And in this process, a very small number of people hold a lot of power over your paper’s fate. In this post, I offer my position on the role and responsibilities of being an AC. The short version: peer reviewing is a critical, not a scientific, activity; it ought to be acknowledged as such; and people ought to be mentored in and held to the standards to which other academic critics hold themselves.
It is possible to argue that ACs and reviewers are simply there to verify that your science is good. Antti Oulasvirta has done precisely that, in a lengthy blog about CHI rejections that lays out 8 reasons “why your paper was rejected,” as determined by an AC. His 8 reasons all deal with issues of validity, research design, replicability, etc. Implied but not stated explicitly in Oulasvirta’s post is that if your paper didn’t get in, it’s your fault for doing bad science or reporting as if you had done bad science. Also implied but not stated is that if your paper didn’t get in, it’s not your AC’s fault. Oulasvirta’s post concludes with a cartoon that says, “Shouting at reviewers in your rebuttal is only going to make it worse.” I think this post reflects an assumption that the data (in this case, “your paper”) is presumed to speak for itself, and the reviewer or AC simply sees what is there. If your work lacks construct validity, or your work is not replicable, or your findings are inapplicable, then your reviewer discovers that fact and rejects you. The agency for the outcome is all in your paper.
I disagree with this position. I don’t disagree that papers get rationally rejected because of scientific flaws. I disagree with the implied proposition that the data speaks for itself, that the AC and the reviewers are not responsible for their decision, because the paper itself is.
ACs and reviewers are chosen not on the basis that they represent (as part of a sample) a community, but because they are exceptional: they are presumed to know the topic especially well and to be in a uniquely qualified position to judge a paper. Judging a human-made work to assess its contribution to a community and the world is criticism. It entails a complex and holistic decision that weights factors ranging from the timeliness of the topic, the rigor of the science, the framing of the problem space, the relevance of the contribution, the nature of the contribution, the applicability of the contribution, and so forth. Poor rigor is seldom a winning recipe for publication, of course! At the same time, some flaw or compromise in the rigor can be found in most papers. The issue is not the ability of a reviewer to note the fact that there was such-and-such flaw in the methodology: the issue is how seriously to judge that flaw as a part of the whole contribution.
So in my view, ACs need to stop acting like a paper’s acceptance or rejection is simply causally related to whether that paper adheres to prevailing standards of scientific rigor. ACs make judgements based on their expert point of view: they should and they must. This judgment, because of its consequences, needs a rational justification. This is what the metareview is for–though it is not always effectively used that way. ACs and reviewers need to be accountable to their own position of power–and how responsibly they wield it. And if they fail in that duty, then they deserve to be yelled at in the rebuttal. And if you are an AC or reviewer that gets yelled at in a rebuttal, before browbeating disempowered authors with your copy of The Basics of Social Research, how about a little introspection? Because at CHI today no one else can or will demand it of you, thanks to a combination of (a) reviewer anonymity and (b) structural power imbalance. Let’s explore this:
- Reviewers and ACs decide what is accepted and rejected, both shaping what constitutes mainstream discourse at CHI and also influencing people’s careers (tenure, etc.). Authors have no such power over reviewers or ACs.
- Reviewers and ACs each can write as much as they want about a paper. Authors can reply via a one-time rebuttal with up to 5,000 characters (not words!) to all ACs and reviewers. Reviewers can write as much as they want in reply to rebuttals, but authors can’t see or reply to these responses. ACs and reviewers can hold secret conversations that authors are not privy to. ACs meet in a secret meeting to make final decisions, and questions and comments are raised in that meeting that authors will never hear or have any chance to respond to.
- Authors don’t know who these people are who are wielding this power over them.
Now I am aware of all the practical reasons that have led to such structural outcomes. I am not declaring a need to replace them with a new process (though personally I support both the CSCW’12 and alt.chi’08 and ’12 models). But I want to make one thing very clear: ACs and reviewers have very little structural accountability in the current CHI Papers and Notes model. If ACs or reviewers make an honest mistake, or, worse, if they are negligent through laziness, intellectual narrowmindedness, or personal conflicts, there is very little consequence for them, opportunity to correct it, or recourse for authors.
Hence my main thesis: if we continue to use the existing reviewing structure, then to ensure the most rational reviewing process, we need to work proactively to ensure that ACs and reviewers are competent and act with integrity inasmuch as they are critics (a job separate from whatever their area of subject expertise is).
In the spirit of contributing to this work, I have taken the time to lay out some of the key expectations every AC should be held to. To see them, continue on to Part 2.