Thursday, May 19, 2011

Why Sam Madden is wrong about peer review

Yesterday my former PhD advisor, Sam Madden, wrote a blog post consisting of a passionate defense for the status quo in the peer review process (though he does say that the review quality needs to be improved). In an effort to draw attention to his blog (Sam is a super-smart guy, and you will get a lot out of reading his blog) I intend to start a flame war with him in this space.

At issue: The quality of reviews of research paper submissions in the database community is deteriorating rapidly. It is clear that something needs to be fixed. Jeff Naughton offered several suggestions for how to fix the problem in his ICDE keynote. A few days ago, I publicly supported his fifth suggestion (eliminating the review process altogether) on Twitter. Sam argued against this suggestion using five main points. Below I list each of Sam's points, and explain why everything he says is wrong:

Sam's point #1: Most of the submissions aren't very good. The review process does the community a favor in making sure that these bad papers do not get published.

My response: I think only a few papers are truly embarrassing, but who cares? Most of the videos uploaded to YouTube aren't very good. They don't in any way detract from the good videos that are uploaded. The cost of publishing a bad paper is basically zero if everybody knows that all papers will be accepted. The cost of rejecting a good paper, which then gets sent to a non-database venue and receives all kind of publicity there, yields tremendous opportunity cost to the database community. Sam Madden should know this very well since (perhaps) his most famous paper fits in that category. The model of "accept everything and let the good submissions carry you" has always proven to be a better model than "let's have a committee of busy people who basically have zero incentive to do a good job (beyond their own ethical standards) decide what to accept" when the marginal cost of accepting an additional submission is near zero. In the Internet age, the good submissions (even from unknown authors) get their appropriate publicity with surprising speed (see YouTube, Hacker News, Quora, etc.).

Sam's point #2: If every paper is accepted, then how do we decide which papers get the opportunity to be presented at the conference? It seems we need a review committee at least for that.

My response: First of all, there might be fewer submissions under the "accept everything model", since there will not be any resubmissions, and there is incentive for people to make sure that their paper is actually ready for publication before submitting it (because the onus of making sure their paper is not an embarrassment now falls on the authors and not on the PC --- assuming once something is published, you can't take it back). So it might be possible to just let everyone give a talk (if you increase the number of tracks). However, if that is not feasible, there are plenty of other options. For example, all papers are accepted immediately; over the course of one calendar year, it sits out there in the public and can be cited by other papers. The top sixty papers in terms of citations after one year get to present at the conference. This only extends the delay between submission and the actual conference by 4 months --- today there is usually an 8 month delay while papers are being reviewed, and camera-ready papers are being prepared.

Sam's point #3: Eliminating the review system will discourage people from working hard on their papers.

My response: I could not disagree more. Instead of having your paper reviewed by three people in private, every problem, every flaw in logic, every typo is immediately out there in the public for people to look at and comment on. As long as submissions cannot be withdrawn, the fear of long term embarrassment yields enough incentive for the authors to ensure that the paper is in good shape at the time of submission.

Sam's point #4: Having papers in top conferences is an important metric for evaluating researchers.

My Response: This is a horrible, horrible metric, and being able to finally eliminate it might be the best outcome of switching to an "accept everything" model. Everybody knows that it is much easier to get a paper accepted that goes into tremendous depth on an extremely narrow (and ultimately inconsequential) problem than to write a broad paper that solves a higher level (and important) problem, but has less depth. The "paper counting" metric incentivizes people to write inconsequential papers. Good riddance.

Sam's point #5: Having papers accepted provides a form of validation, a way to measure progress and success. There is also some kind of psychological benefit.

My response: People who measure themselves in this way are doomed for failure. If you have a paper accepted that nobody ever reads or cites over the long term, you have made zero impact. Just because you managed to get a paper through three poor reviewers is no cause for celebration. We should be celebrating impact, not publication. Furthermore, I strongly disagree with the psychological benefit argument. Getting a paper rejected does FAR more psychological damage than getting a paper accepted does good.

In conclusion, it's time to eliminate the private peer review process and open it up to the public. All papers should be accepted for publication, and people should be encouraged to review papers in public (on their blogs, on twitter, in class assignments that are published on the Web, etc). Let the free market bring the good papers to the top and let the bad papers languish in obscurity. This is the way the rest of the Internet works. It's time to bring the database community to the Internet age. Imagine how much more research could be done if we didn't have to waste so much time of the top researchers in the world with PC duties, and revising good papers because they were improperly rejected. Imagine how many good researchers we have lost because of the psychological trauma of working really hard on a good paper, only to see it rejected. The current system is antiquated and broken, and the solution is obvious and easy to implement. It's time for a change.