Tips for Reviewing Research Papers
The NeurIPS 2021 review period is about to begin, and there will likely be lots of complaining about the quality of reviews when they come out (I’m often guilty of this type of complaint).
I decided to write a post describing how I approach paper-reviewing, in the help that it can be useful for others (especially those who are new to reviewing) in writing high quality reviews.
I’m mostly an RL researcher, so a lot of the tips below are mostly from my experience reading RL papers. I think many of the ideas are applicable more generally, but I acknowledge some may be more RL-specific.
If you have feedback on any of the points below (or if you feel there are points I’m missing), let me know!
The reason I like this setup is that it avoids me having to print anything, I can access my annotated papers from anywhere, and it’s easier to keep track of papers that I have/want to read.
I start reviewing pretty much as soon as the review assignments come out. This means I can review at a fairly leisurely pace and I have enough buffer time for papers that require more attention.
There is apparently some correlation between paper ID and acceptance rate, and there are likely many causal factors that explain that correlation. But to try to avoid any such biases, I try to review the papers in some type of random order (or at least not just front-to-back or back-to-front).
I annotate the PDFs of the papers I’m reviewing and write down an initial assessment (accept, weak accept, etc.), but I don’t enter my review or score into CMT/OpenReview/etc until I’m done reviewing all the papers. The reason I do this is because it allows me to calibrate myself across all the papers (e.g. I may have reviewed the first paper more leniently/harshly than I did the later papers).
Doing the reviews
Each section below explores different aspects I consider when reviewing.
Problem and contribution
What is the problem the paper is addressing? How is this paper contributing to understanding/solving the problem?
Alternatively: What is the main message of the paper? Is it clearly stated? Could I summarize the paper in one or two sentences?
This is useful not just for contextualizing the results, but also when entering the reviews as you are typically asked to provide a summary. It is also for the other reviewers and AC of the paper, as it helps ensure that the different reviewers understood the paper in the same way.
Can future research build on these results?
There is often an unfortunate tendency to require “state-of-the-art” results for a paper to be accepted. In my view, this is the wrong yardstick on which to evaluate scientific merit. I think the value of a paper should come from whether I feel future work can build on it.
In the meta-reviews I received for one of my papers the AC said there was a fair bit of discussion between the reviewers, but in the end they decided to accept it because they felt future research could build off of it. I’m happy to see that it is in fact the case.
Of course, state-of-the-art results are important and can be meaningful, but only if it the methodology is reproducible, well-explained, and robustly evaluated (more on this below).
Are the theoretical results clearly presented, meaningful, and useful?
Theory is nice, but in my view it needs to serve a purpose. You don’t get extra points just for including a theorem in your paper if that theorem is just showing a completely vacuous bound.
On the other hand, demonstrating how an algorithmic contribution can be derived from theoretical principles is a great way for motivating design decisions.
I’m not going to lie, reviewing theoretical results can be hard. But just reading the theorem/proposition is not enough! Please make an effort to go through the proofs and try to understand the development. I have found errors in the proofs of a number of papers I have reviewed (often the authors were able to fix the proofs in time).
If you don’t understand something in a proof, it’s ok to ask questions! Try to honestly gauge your level of expertise. If you feel like you should be able to follow proofs of the type you’re reading, then it’s possible the authors did a poor job of presenting it. Ask the authors to clarify the proof, it will only help in clarity (and may sometimes even reveal a bug in the proof!).
I find some theoretical papers can go a little overboard with notation; this can include very long theorem statements (I once reviewed a paper with a theorem that took a full double-column page to state!) and excessive use of variables (I once reviewed a paper that ran out of Greek letters!). These papers are extremely hard to read, even for experts; as stated above, the contributions made should be clear so others can build on it. Proof sketches, high-level theorem summaries, and illustrative examples can go a long way in helping clarify things without sacrificing mathematical correctness.
Were the experiments well-designed, carefully executed, clearly explained, and fairly evaluated?
There have beeen a number of papers in the past few years pointing out the lack of rigour in empirical evaluations: cherry-picking seeds, unfair comparisons against baselines, insufficient independent runs, etc.
Things I look out for in evaluating empirical results are:
- How many independent runs were used? In my opinion 3 is the bare minimum, but 5 is ok especially if running on expensive environments like the ALE.
- Do their performance curves report variance via confidence intervals, standard deviation, or other? If not: ask for them! Is the choice of confidence level (e.g. 90%, 95%, etc.) justified? Ask what method they used to compute the confidence intervals; they should probably be using bootstrapping, but that is not what most people use.
- Are the authors comparing against reasonable baselines? If not, ask them why!
- It is common for authors to bold the “winners” in tables (typically their method). This should only be done if the confidence intervals between the compared methods don’t overlap; if they do overlap, then the result is not significant and the authors should not be bolding! Note that non-overlapping confidence intervals is a good first order approximation, but a more rigorous statistical test would really be best.
- If the new algorithm and the baseline share hyperparameters and these were tuned for the new proposed algorithm, were they also tuned for the baseline? If not: ask why!
- Is the algorithm/method understandable? Do you feel like you could implement it based on the description given? Diagrams/figures can go a long way in helping clarify architectures and multi-component systems. Remember: one of the important points for accepting a paper is whether others can build off of the idea!
- Is there code provided? This is becoming increasingly important as there are often implementation details which, while seemingly unimportant, can be crucial to an algorithm’s success. I will often at least glance through the code to make sure it seems to match what is being described in the paper.
Read the supplemental material!
Although we’re typically not required to look at supplemental material, I find it important to do so. Often there are important details there (proofs, extended empirical evaluations, hyperparameter settings, code) that are important in properly evaluating a paper.
Occasionally I have suggested to authors that certain parts of the supplemental should be put in the main paper, replacing some other main section that I found less important to the paper’s central message.
Do I know this field well enough and do I feel I understood the paper well enough?
Please be honest with yourself. It’s ok to say you are unfamiliar with the field and/or that you were not able to follow the paper; if other reviewers were also confused then it might be a good indication that the authors did not do a good job presenting their work. Making an honest assessment of your confidence on your review can also help the AC properly weigh the various points made.
Participate throughout the discussion period!
Get started early in the discussion period! If no one has started the discussion, start it yourself! It’s important to read the other reviews to see on what points you’re in agreement/disagreement. If you seem to be in disagreement with most of the other reviewers, that’s ok, but be prepared to defend your position!
Also: it’s ok to change your mind! That’s part of why the discussion period is there! Don’t feel shy to challenge other reviewers (even if they’re more senior than you) in a respectful manner, and don’t feel embarassed to say “I was mistaken, I’m going to change my score”.
Reviewing is a very important part of academia, but it takes time to do well. If you feel you don’t have the time to review, then it may be better to not accept invitations to review. My rule for accepting invitations is:
- Always review for conferences where I’m submitting
- Always review journal papers that are in my area of research
- (Mostly) always review for LatinX in AI, Black in AI, and similar workshops.
I’ve learned a lot from reviewing papers: good things to include in my own papers, bad things to avoid, proof techniques, and interesting algorithmic ideas. View it as a learning opportunity and as a way to improve our field; you’ll want high quality reviewers for your own papers!
Finally, I approach reviewing the way I approach interviewing candidates:
Look for reasons to accept the paper, rather than looking for reasons to reject the paper.
Thanks, and good luck!
Thanks to Marlos C. Machado and Johan Samir Obando-Ceron for their feedback in improving this post!
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