Thursday, October 06, 2016

To PC or Not To PC

As I'm sure a lot of scientists do, I get a lot of requests to join program committees and review papers.  It's always a mixed blessing: on the one hand, I like to help out and it exposes me to a lot of interesting ideas. On the other hand, there are never enough hours in the day. So: how does one decide when to triage?

My reviewing commitments (not counting as an organizer) show a clear need for careful triage.

For myself, I tend to come down on the side of saying yes.  Maybe it means I'm stretched a bit thinner, but I frequently find the investment of time to be worth my while, for some combination of the following reasons:
  • If I want some event in my field to exist, I'd better be willing to contribute to it.  Even if it's going to exist anyway, being willing to serve helps make sure that the things I'm interested in have a fair and interested evaluation.
  • Reviewing papers exposes me to a wider swath of the literature.  I always need to read more, but there's always so many other things competing for my time that it often slips. Reviewing a paper, I have to pay real attention, too, which forces me to engage with material that I might otherwise have just skimmed over.
  • Reviewing papers introduces me to new communities.  There are places and people that I now keep track of regularly who I was first introduced to when they invited me to review or when I was invited to review their work.
  • Reviewing papers challenges me.  If I don't like a talk at a conference, I can just blow it off and tune into my email.  If I don't like a paper, I'd better be prepared to explain myself in a way I'm comfortable defending.  This forces me to understand my own views much more deeply than when I'm living in the echo chamber of my own research group and collaborators.
  • Reviewing papers makes me a better writer. Reviewing exposes me to both a lot of good writing and a lot of bad writing.  From the good papers, I can learn other ways to present that are effective but that are different from my own style.  As for the bad papers: it's always easier to see the flaws in another's work than in one's own.  From the really bad ones, I learn nothing, but I also see a lot of good work presented badly, and a lot of good ideas that have been badly developed, and I can learn from these mistakes.
So if it's a conference I actually go to, I'll definitely say yes; if it's a place I'm generally aware of and interested in, I'll almost certainly say yes; and if it's got people I recognize and an interesting subject, then probably.  Though I must say, sometimes I feel I desperately need a way to express myself as fully and vehemently about papers as my daughter used when she was an infant...

Baby Harriet helps with reviewing, back in early 2013
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