I’m around 3 years into my PhD at this point and so far, I have reviewed for a couple of journals as well as conferences. Mostly journals. But recently I was approached to review for a highly selective conference. And with great paper selectivity comes great hatred towards reviewers.
Of course, I wanted to use this new great power with great responsibility, so I took upon myself, the role of the open minded, somewhat timid, yet trying-hard-to-do-justice, reviewer #1. Which also happened to be my assignment for 4/5 papers that I had to review (I was reviewer #2 for the last paper).
My past experiences with reviewing have been comparatively less challenging. Most of the journal papers that I was asked to review had a good amount of overlap with my own research; plus the review time for journal papers is way more flexible.
Of course, as years have passed I find that my critical thinking abilities have improved, at least in the area that I’m working on. I have cultivated the skill of being able to discern a good idea from a bad one.
Which is all good, but reviewing for this particular selective conference was a whole new challenge. Firstly, the trope. The memes. The reputation. You know what I’m talking about, right?
Well if you’re late to the reviewer’s banquet, there exists a Facebook page with around 22k members at this point, called Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped! Also brilliantly written blog posts on how not to be reviewer 2. The struggle is real. From my understanding of this meme, there are 2 broad categories of reviewers. Reviewer #1 is the nice, possibly new kid on the block who is kind and appreciative of the paper. Most possibly a frustrated grad student, she is very understanding of the position of the authors. Not too critical but brings up good points. Reviewer #2 (or interchangeably reviewer #3) is the bad cop. The one that puts the authors in deep existential crisis. That makes them question, why they even started pursuing the idea. Reviewer #2 is the dreaded one.
If I wanted to play into the stereotype of reviewer #1, I would have needed to review very responsibly for this conference.
Secondly, I don’t consider my knowledge base to be very broad. I was assigned five different papers with 4 different themes. The themes of course had a fair amount of overlap and I wasn’t allotted a paper that I found myself blanking out on. It was definitely a lot of information to take in, however, I wouldn’t consider that to be a problem. If anything, I only learned from the papers I read. And I did manage to critique a few things based on my understanding, to the extent of my ability. I think reviewing or critiquing, much like anything else, is a skill that one gets better at with practice.
I think reviewing also gave me an insight into how stochastic the process of getting a paper accepted can be. When I told one of my friends about me being a reviewer for this conference, he was taken aback and acted dismissively. He said that this was exactly why the academic reviewing process wasn’t as good as it needed to be. Because of not-so-competent PhD students instead of only well-versed researchers and professors reviewing papers.
I don’t agree. I think it makes sense to have a paper inspected by researchers with various levels of expertise. It’s only good outreach for the paper if it is readable and appeals to a bigger section of the audience. Also, this is exactly how we get trained to become better reviewers. So, I’ll say, reviewer #2, keep doing you. Maybe one day, I’ll be reviewer #2 myself. Until then, I’m happy to get to be good cop and also appear cool on my CV. (I swear, reviewers need more incentives).
As I say all of this, I anxiously await reviews for my own paper submission to the same conference. So here’s hoping I haven’t disappointed of reviewer #2 that much. And so the grind continues.
Meme courtesy http://www.drmalviniredden.com/