Beki Grinter

Some Thoughts on Writing for CHI

In HCI, research on June 30, 2010 at 9:54 am

I was asked to write a post on writing for CHI. Let me start with some context and caveats. I’ve been attending CHI on and off since the 1990s. I’ve been a reviewer, Associate Chair, Papers Co-Chair, and Best Papers Chair (to all the people that I asked for help in all of these functions, a huge thank you). So, I’ve seen the archival track from a variety of angles. I suspect that my post will be more focused on the archival track because of these experiences. It is also written for the newer CHI writer, most particularly students I think.

The intention of this message is to provide suggestions. If you are a student, I’d urge you to talk with your advisor about writing for CHI. If this message helps to generate topics for that discussion then it has more than done its work. Advisors or mentors suggestions are inevitably better than a post since they know way more about you and your work. I apologise if anything here is obvious and invite comments to make this a stronger post.

1) Read the Instructions on the CHI website

CHI provides a lot of information about instructions for each category. That information is well worth reading. For the Papers/Notes category they have detailed instructions as well as a guide to successful submissions. While each iteration of the conference produces new details in the instructions (date of submission) much of the information remains similar if not the same, so even reading the ones associated with conferences past is useful.

2) Read accepted CHI submissions

There’s nothing like looking at accepted submissions from previous CHI conferences for inspiration. Ask yourself questions about what the authors have included. Not just the content but look at the structure of the paper itself (its sections and so forth). For some submissions, like workshops, you’ll see that there are several deliverables. You can read a description of the intellectual focus of the workshop in the Extended Abstracts, but the authors of the workshop also have to produce a schedule of the day’s events and a call for participation. So, for successful efforts, you should look at all of the materials. Many organizers have them online, but you can also always write to them and ask.

Another reason to read accepted CHI submissions is to get a sense of whether your research fits appropriately.

First, you want to know whether what you’re working on is of interest to the CHI audience. Accepted submissions are a statement of their interests. I want to be careful, if you do research that differs from what you’ve seen in CHI, it might still be relevant, just underrepresented. So, I’d probably recommend asking yourself what is common across multiple papers also.

Second, once you’ve determined that CHI is appropriate you’ll need to decide what type of submission category it is. First, you’ll have to decide whether it should be a workshop, a paper or something else. I’ve written about the way I make those decisions. If its a Paper, you’ll need to make a second decision, what subcommittee your paper best fits. The way I make this choice is to ask myself who I think would be the most appropriate reviewers for my paper. By appropriate I mean have the right kind of expertise to assess the contribution I am making through the research as written.

3) Review for CHI

There’s nothing like the review process for giving clarity to what makes an acceptable submission. Reviewing is answering that question. What criteria do you use when reviewing submissions? Talk to other people about how they go about reviewing, what criteria do they use? Some of the ones I use are:

  • has the author(s) communicated with me effectively (i.e., do I actually understand what the paper is doing?)
  • do the methods/approach/theory support the findings?
  • is the related work complete (or complete enough—there’s sometimes time to add a missing reference but not time ever enough to add an additional section)
  • a personal one, if I suggest where the authors could add more, I also try to identify where they could say less. I know the frustration of being told to add things in without knowing where to cut.

CHI Papers/Notes has a link to the review process.

4) Is your research ready?

The CHI deadline happens each Fall and it’s a rigid deadline in my experience. Research on the other hand has its own unique sense of time. It may work out, but it also may not. Given the investment made in the research itself, I’d probably advise most anyone not to rush the write up or the research itself to meet the deadline. I’ve heard of people worried that they might be “scooped” but I find this pretty hard to worry about myself. It’s possible, but is it probable? I’ve never personally thought so. Research and writing up require time, rushing seems like the enemy of clarity of thought and exposition.

5) Start early and prepare a draft for review.

You’ve decided to go for it. Congratulations. Your research is ready, you are excited about the contribution you can make to the community. I’d recommend starting early enough that you have a solid draft of your paper/note/workshop etc… to share with people for comments. CHI receives a lot of submissions, highly polished pieces that embody the hard work of writing and editing. Your research is worth the same treatment.

What I mean by draft is complete manuscript. You may outline, and you may discuss outlines with your advisor if you are a student, but my advice for sharing the document more widely would be to have a complete manuscript so that you can solicit feedback on the entire document (from content and structure all the way through to grammar).

I would pick at least two types of reviewer. First, people who are close to your area of research interest. They’ll be able to help with the arguments. Have you missed a piece of related work, which has implications for your results? Do your results have other discussion contributions to make?

Second, people who are familiar with CHI but outside of your area of interest. CHI is pretty diverse in terms of genres of papers (check the subcommittees as an example). But you’d like a reviewer familiar with CHI to understand enough about what you are saying to draw utility from your work if appropriate. Having an outsider read it can help you know whether your paper is accessible. This is also useful, at least in my experience, for dealing with the issue of perspective. You’ve been heads down in your research for a while, sometimes that can lead to a situation where you can’t see the woods for the trees. It can be really hard to remember what it’s like to not know what you do know. Outsiders can help you with that, they’ll ask you to explain more about the reasons you picked those methods, or why that problem was so important, and so forth.

I know it’s hard to find reviewers. Perhaps you can form a circle, a group of people who set interim deadlines to generate drafts, swap papers, and provide reviews (with ultimately the goal of everyone in the group reading and reviewing everyone else’s draft). I think you could probably do this in a co-located or a across distance.

Also, consider the type of review you’ll get from someone whose read your paper three times versus someone who has not.

I’d like to close with some thoughts about rejection. Everyone has papers rejected. I’ve had rejections from CHI, sometimes multiple times for the same paper. It’s a fact of research life unfortunately. I am still disappointed by rejection even though I’ve been in this business for 15 or so years. I think the reason that I’ve never gotten used to it is because I invest quite a bit of myself in the work that I do and supervise. (BTW: I always presume that that’s the case when I am reviewing, so I start my reviewing process by reflecting on the time and energy that I believe the authors to have put into the work, their excitement and commitment, and I find thinking about that helps me to write a balanced review even when the review is ultimately to reject a paper.)

So I have a strategy for dealing with rejection. I read the reviews and I let myself be disappointed. Then I set them aside. It may be for as much as a month or so. I return to them when the passage of time is sufficient and re-read them and the paper. Most times I start to understand the reviewers concerns. I may not agree with all of their concerns, but even when I don’t that’s usually a sign that I need to clarify something in the paper so that I can convince the next set of reviewers that my arguments are sound. I’ve been stumped by reviews, and then I will share them with colleagues, who  inevitably help me to see what the reviews are saying (thank you colleagues). Slowly then I begin to work on the revision, and that’s how I manage the rejection into what I hope will be an acceptance!

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  1. Beki,
    Thank you for the wonderful article. I’m a new PhD student, and this is incredible practical and insightful. It’s nice to have insight from someone who has and is walking both sides of the reviewer/reviewed process. Also, the part about rejection is really poignant. I’ve been given advice such as: 1.) always re-work and resubmit 2.) your second submission of a work will have a higher success rate.

    Thanks again, Lynn

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