Beki Grinter

Program Committee Meetings: Psychology and Structure

In academia, academic management, computer science, discipline, research on August 10, 2010 at 10:14 am

Matt Walsh wrote two blog posts, one about what he calls the psychology of Program Committees and one on the structure of Program Committees. When I read these posts I was reminded of all the things I take for granted because I have served on Program Committees, and I thought I would add some of my own reflections on the experiences. I remember that I wished I had known more about program committees before I served on one the first time. To calibrate my advice, the usual caveats apply. I’ve Chaired and been an Associate Chair for a variety of conferences in the HCI area. I’ve also served on some outside, Software Engineering, ICT4D for example.

First, Matt’s psychology post. I’ve those happen, and I’ve also seen people argue against those arguments. One of the things I like about the post is that by making these argumentation types clear it gives anyone who serves on a program committee the opportunity to reflect on whether that’s the argument that’s at work on a particular paper and decide whether that’s a fair or not criticism. One that’s missing, maybe because it’s more unique to HCI is the argument that turns on a mis-understanding that arises from the serious methodological differences that exist within our community. A challenge of HCI’s diversity is understanding how epistemological and ontological differences affect the work produced.

What Matt is very right about is that it’s easier to reject a paper and about the work it takes to champion a paper against a negative review.

The final point is that it is easy to argue to reject a paper; much harder to argue to accept a paper over other reviewers’ objections. If a reviewer is not really sure about the novelty or importance of a paper’s contributions, they often defer to the most negative reviewer, since nobody likes looking like an idiot in a PC meeting. Standing up and championing a paper takes a lot of guts, and by doing so you are taking responsibility for any faults in the paper that might arise later (if it turns out, say, that the exact same idea was published before, or there is a flaw in the experimental design). I think it’s important that every member of a program committee commit themselves to championing one or two papers during the meeting, even if they aren’t so sure about them — otherwise the process can get to be too negative. One way to view your role as a PC member is to identify that beautiful piece of work that would otherwise have been overlooked due to superficial problems that turn off the reviewers.

I’ve done this a few times, I like his idea of doing it more frequently. In a way I think it resonates with the advice that CHI reviewers get which is to not search for the fatal flaws but to weigh them against other concerns like novelty and interest of topic.

Moving on to the structure of the meeting. I’ve been involved in ones that review all the material submitted collectively, and also ones that review by topic. CHI is a review by topic, hence the importance of picking the right subcommittee.

Most of the program committees I’ve been in have started by reviewing and discussing the most highly ranked papers (working downwards by score), perhaps for the first session of the morning, say an hour and a half. The purpose of this is to start off with what the community considers to be the best. Then, say the next hour and a half session, I’ve been on committees that have reviewed the lowest ranked papers (working upwards by score). In some conferences that has been to review the very lowest scores, in others there’s a cut off.

Setting a cut off is quite complicated. A cut off needs to reflect an overall low score, but handle papers of high score variance. Typically I’ve seen scores set somewhere in the 2.X range (on a scoring system where 5 is strong accept and 1 is strong reject) but including lower ranked papers who have significant variance (e.g., scores of say 1 and 5 from different reviewers who were unable to reconcile their differences during pre-meeting online discussion. FYI online discussion among the reviewers is a fairly common part of the review process also). What everyone should know about cut offs is that I’ve never seen one set which didn’t also allow any AC to raise any paper they want discussed irrespective of the cut off. And AC’s do. So cut offs are not definitive, they serve as guidelines.

Terrifyingly even with cut offs being used I’ve been in meetings where there are very few minutes to discuss each paper. Another thing I learnt in meeting is that it’s important to focus on the most important details. For accepted papers (and I would love to hear comments on other things that should be discussed) explaining what it’s contributions are, and why you and the reviewers felt that those mattered seems like the most obvious thing to highlight. I’ll add that sounding enthusiastic and excited about them also helps to make the case, well I think so anyway. In the case of a rejection, I try to highlight what the problem(s) are in the paper and why they are not addressable in a edit cycle.

Back to the meeting. The third session of the day may focus back again on the top, where the previous session left off, and then back to the bottom in the fourth and final session of the day. At the end of the day there are papers in three categories, if not four: accepted, rejected, to rediscuss and shepherd. The rediscuss category means that a decision has not been made. One thing that happens at program committee meetings is that AC’s acquire extra papers to read overnight between the end of the first day and the beginning of the second.. Something I did not know when I attended my first program committee meeting was to budget time in the evening for reading papers and preparing reviews of them, many of which will get entered into the review system (have you noticed that sometimes at rebuttal your paper has 3 reviews and then when it’s returned finally there are 6, yes, that is where those come from).

The second day has to accomplish two major things. Discussing any papers that have not yet been discussed (those in the middle) and resolving all the open papers, i.e. those that were but for which further discussion is required. That I think is the time when the Psychology really comes out. Program Committee meetings are tiring, they are intellectually exhausting. Not only is there a lot going on as papers flurry past and decisions get made, but these are of course also opportunities to catch up with colleagues. A lot is going on.

Conflict management as Matt points out is a huge issue. I’ve been at some meetings where specific guidelines were used about what a conflict of interest constitutes, for example borrowing the same set of rules that the NSF uses to determine the candidate of ineligible reviewers. But I’ve also been in meetings where it’s left to the discretion of each AC to determine their conflicts. But the in and out of the room is a very chaotic experience. The reason that this happens is because its important that someone at Institution Z doesn’t know who the AC is for any paper at Institution Z, that’s a conflict of interest, the most obvious one. So it means each new paper discussed begins with a list of institutions who are authors on the paper and then they are invited to leave the room. I’m all for an iPhone app myself. Finding people who have left the room can be difficult, they get into discussion or decide to take a bio break, these are quite reasonable events, but I’ve certainly been in situations (and likely created ones) where the missing person unable to be found prompts a discussion of lets discuss another paper from the same institution, but in the interim someone has gone looking so you temporarily return only to be evicted from the discussion once again. I don’t think it’s possible to leave people with conflicts in the same room, even if they don’t discuss. It places a burden of knowledge on them that I know I certainly wouldn’t want. The question is whether something more reasonable can be done…. and if so what is it?

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