Thursday, March 21, 2013

Reviewing with help from Harriet

Paper-writing season is apparently closely followed by paper-reviewing season---not a surprise really, given that my professional service to the communities whose conferences I care about often includes serving on the program committees of those conferences.  Over the last few weeks, I have reviewed nearly a dozen papers, which can take up a startling amount of time.

I had help, fortunately.  Harriet's not very happy to have her father's attention focused on a piece of paper rather than her, but the paper itself is of great interest.  As I was writing up one batch of reviews, Harriet was sitting near me on the bed, flapping her arms and playing away by herself with great gusto.  I had my pile of papers to finish writing about on the left, and as I finished the first of these, I set it over to my right, to start a pile of completed papers.  A few moments, later, I realized that my "done" pile was apparently within grabbing range of our barely-still-sessile baby:

Babies appreciate the kinesthetic properties of the scientific literature.
After that, my course was clear.  As I finished each paper, I turned it over to the local biological shredder for careful destruction.  She pounced on each with great delight, examining them, crinkling them, and in her joy giving me space enough to finish my task.

For me, though, the stiutation is a little bit more complicated.  I put in a lot of effort when I review, mostly from the Golden Rule perspective: I want to give the people I review the same sort of depth and fairness that I myself would want in feedback for a paper.  I try to be constructive, too, saying "This specific thing would help the paper in that way" rather than just "The paper is lacking in substance."  But sometimes a paper really tries my patience.

Good papers are a delight to review.  Really bad papers aren't very enjoyable, but at least they're fairly easy, because they are so, so terrible.  The worst paper I have ever reviewed was quite some time ago, and was a manuscript that had been produced by a clearly mentally deranged person.  In addition to its flaws from a scientific perspective, the text constantly changed color and font, and the "figures" were clip art.  But honestly, I didn't mind reviewing it that much, because the flaws were right there in front of your eyes.

No, the papers that are a true trial for me to review are those that are on the borderline in substance and are also heavily dependent on mathematical formalism.  A wonderful heuristic for mathematical papers that my advisor, Gerry Sussman, once told me, is to compare the length of the definitions section to the length of the theorems and proofs.  The higher the ratio of definitions to proofs, the more likely that you are dealing with shallow over-formality rather than any sort of significant result.  It's a failure mode that I totally understand: it just feels more "sciencey" to say, "Let B be a purely inertial spherical object whose state S^B(T) at time T is described by a tuple (x,y,x',y'), where S^B(0) = (0,2,10,0), and where y'' = g." rather than "Consider a ball thrown at 10 meters per second, beginning 2 meters above the ground in normal Earth gravity."  And it's a lot harder to write prose that is both lucidly transparent and scientifically precise.

But I definitely hate reviewing that sort of over-formalized material, because the flaws are never obvious, but are buried in a sea of mathematical notation, from which they must be carefully extracted.  The text is tedious to read, and I'm always worried that I'll be wrong because maybe I didn't understand or remember some turn of notation relevant to what I'm complaining about.

So I do it, and I curse and I sweat, and I simply pray that my own papers are not causing the same reaction in another reviewer at the same time, somewhere on the other side of the world.

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