September 15, 2010

One academic world, two divergent ways to live it

The academic world is like the media industry. Some actors understand the opportunities offered by digital world, the others are still unable to revolutionize themselves in order to fit with our century.

On one hand, you have the unexpected success of a Q&A website devoted to Theoretical Computer Science. Anybody can post question, anybody can suggest answers, anybody can vote on the relevance of these answers. A reputation score is given according to the number of received votes, this reputation score allowing you to slowly become a kind of administrator. Such a website is often associated with chatting teenagers. In this case, more than one thousand of serious academic people subscribed (a third of the whole community?), and now these serious people everyday chat about problems related with theoretical computer science. The bootstrap was uneasy, but the success is here. For example, quantum computing was a hot topic today with two threads. Active participants include PhD students, unknown people, distinguished professors...

Wait, these guys who are expected to review the crappy papers I submitted to prestigious journals are wasting their time chatting with friends instead of doing their job? Well, it seems that the emerging conversation between scientists is worth spending a significant time on the website.

On the other hand, you have the editor of a journal in the network community. I reviewed a bad-but-not-so-bad paper two months ago. The editor sent me a kind email yesterday in order to inform me that, based on the different reviews (two or three reviews I suppose) the paper has been rejected. I kindly requested the other reviews. I just want to know what other scientists who read the same paper as me have thought about this paper. Were they as harsh as me? Were they annoyed by the same weaknesses as me? Did I miss important flaws? Did I misunderstand some points? I received a kind reply "Sorry we don't do that". The reviews exist, but the reviewers cannot access them because the editor has decided so. In parallel, I am in a Program Committee (PC) for a workshop. The reviewing platform does not authorize me to look at the papers that have not been assigned to me. I complaint te PC chair, but his reply was "The main task of TPC members is to give their technical opinion about the papers assigned to them. It would not be of any use if you could access the other papers, since those papers will have their own TPC members." And if I just want to do something that has no use for you, but has interest to me? And if I want to review other papers just for fun? And if I found that a paper that has not been assigned to me deals with a topic I find interesting? And if I want to contribute to the discussions about an exciting paper?...

I am not surprised that it is more and more difficult to find motivated reviewers able to write their reviews on time. What is the incentive to write a review if it is not part of a conversation? The collaborative work about the P vs NP story has demonstrated that collaborative reviewing is far better than just a sum of blind reports.

We could obviously go farther. Here is a list of small changes, ranked from the easiest to the most difficult to admit:
  • all TPC members access all papers,
  • all TPC members access all reviews,
  • all TPC members write reviews for any paper,
  • all authors access all papers,
  • all authors access all reviews,
  • all authors write reviews for any paper,
Would it be a perfect way to prepare a workshop where participants actually discuss?

No comments:

Post a Comment