Sunday, July 25, 2010

Pay it Backward

I just finished writing peer reviews for an academic conference. The peer review system is the established method of quality control for scientific publications. When work is submitted for publication to an academic journal, experts judge it for correctness, importance, clarity, etc. It is then published or rejected. In computer science, conference publications, which are at least as important as journal publications, also go through the review process.

The question for this post is: how much peer reviewing ought one (researcher) do?

One easy answer is that you can't do more than you're asked to do. So if you're not being asked to review papers, no need to feel guilty! But when can you start to feel like you're doing too much reviewing? How much is the ideal amount?

The average paper gets reviewed by about 4 people, so it's not hard to compute what your "fair share" of reviewing should be. For each paper you submit, whether it is ultimately accepted or not, add to a running total: 4 divided by the number of coauthors on the paper. This sum, perhaps rounded up and say taken yearly, would be your fair share.

But just like taxes are progressive, so is reviewing load. We cannot expect a someone submitting his first paper to review 4 papers in payment. This person isn't yet known in the community and won't be asked to peer review, and either way he wouldn't yet be considered an "expert" in the field. To make up for this, more senior people have to do more reviewing -- it's only fair. Every established scientist had to submit her first paper without having "payed" for it upfront.

Only the situation is even more lopsided. Scientists need to make up for more than the reviewing burden they've placed on others when they were getting started. Research is very bottom heavy; for instance lots of graduate students leave research right after (or even before) finishing their Ph.D.s. These graduate students (at least in computer science) usually submit some publications, but don't review nearly their "fair share." So those who remain in research need to compensate, and they should -- research is their game.

Of course we have to take into account that very senior people do other forms of service that the rest of the researchers benefit from like chairing conferences, editing journals, and serving on committees. This should perhaps reduce their reviewing load.

My feeling is that in computer science a good time for the amount of reviewing you do to become as large as the amount of reviewing you ask of others is when you're a post-doc. You've stayed past graduate school, and you've become an expert in something -- time to pay your dues.

This year I've done at least as much reviewing as I've "used," but that's how it should be. It's not always the most pleasant work, but I realize it needs to be done. And if I'm lucky enough to stay in research, I expect my reviewing load to continue to increase.

Not the worst price to pay for having a job you love.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Staying Connected

When I visited Japan three years ago, I was stunned to see how many people poked at their phones as they rode the trains or walked along the streets. I had heard a lot about Japan's high-tech industry, and I thought this strange phenomenon was a local quirk limited to Japan, whose society is known for its attachment to technology.

In this respect, Japan was just ahead of the curve. Now, three years later, Manhattan is no different. During my daily commute, I spend considerable effort avoiding bumping into the many people staring down at their plams. I am even occasionally guilty iWalking myself. Whenever we're bored, our phones offer an easy escape to another world of email, tweets, and blogs.

Of course, I realize I'm not pointing out anything new -- countless articles are written on this subject, many coming to different conclusions about what the new phenomena of information at our fingertips, constant connectivity, and faster computing mean for our society: we're getting stupider, we're becoming smarter, the singularity is near, etc. One of the more fun conclusions from this trend is that the reason we haven't met any aliens is because they're busy playing computer games.

I don't know where this technological progress will lead. Information technology allows science to advance at a faster and faster rate, forming a positive feedback loop. Being constantly connected is addictive, and I imagine as technology improves, this trend will get stronger and stronger. I see myriad benefits, but also some downsides. As we spend our minutes checking email and tweets, we leave fewer hours for things that are immediately less fun but ultimately more fulfilling -- like reading a long novel or even simply thinking deeply without interruption.

I got thinking about all this during my recent trip to Israel, where I didn't have the constant connectivity I am now used to. I had no iPhone reception, the internet connection in my hotel was spotty, and I even used physical maps to navigate while driving. I didn't have much chance to blog (hence the big break between posts). And even though it was a bit frustrating, in many ways it was nice to be off the proverbial digital leash.

While I think that technology, including information technology, is a big net plus for society, there's also some real danger of us ending up like those imagined aliens. I don't know if we have any power to change the course this arrow is taking, but I want to stay connected to the real world, even as I inevitably become more connected to the virtual one.

So while I'm happy you're reading this post, maybe it's time for a walk -- without your phone.