Graham Cormode on how to not review a paper

I think during my time hanging out with machine learners, no topic has received as much attention as the quality of the review process for competitive conferences. My father passed along this paper by Graham Cormode on “the tools and techniques of the adversarial reviewer”, which should be familiar to many. I had not seen it before, but a lot of the “adversarial” techniques sounded familiar from reviews I have received. I also wonder to what extent reviews I have written could be interpreted as deliberately adversarial. I don’t go into the review process that way, but it’s easy to ascribe malign intent to negative feedback.

Cormode identifies 4 characteristics of the adversarial reviewer: grumpiness, elitism, peevishness, and arrogance. He then identifies several boilerplate approaches to writing a negative review, specific strategies for different sections of the paper, and the art of writing pros and cons for the summary. My favorite in this latter section is that the comment “paper is clearly written” really means “clearly, the paper has been written.”

As Cormode puts it himself at the end of the paper: “I am unable to think of any individual who consistently acts as an adversarial reviewer; rather, this is a role that we can fall into accidentally when placed under adverse conditions.” I think this is all-to-true. When reviewing the 9th paper for a conference with 3 weeks to do all 9, the patience of the reviewer may be worn a bit thin, and it’s easy to be lazy and not take the paper on its own merits. What’s certainly true, however, is that “editors and PC members” often do not “realize when a review is adversarial.” In part this is because as a research community, we don’t want to acknowledge that there are real problems with the review process that need fixing.