Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

The Public Referee Reports Debate

I think the wave was started by Seb this time as he hints we should consider publishing reviews when an academic paper is submitted.

A reply comes from Lance who says we should kill this idea quick. I think his counterargument is badly flawed. For example, he describes the review process as iterative:

The referees read the paper and write a report on whether to recommend the paper for publication and give suggested changes. They send this report to the editor who relays this information to the authors without revealing the identities of the referees. The authors will comment on the referee reports and revise the paper. The paper often goes back to the referees and the process repeats until the editor is happy with the paper or decides the paper is not worthy of the journal.

Here’s what I replied:

The back in forth you refer to is not present in 99% of conferences I know. You submit paper, random reviewers write a review, you get the result, end of story. Because the selection process is based on a percentage of acceptance, even a good review is not sufficient: you need to have the random reviewers be delighted at your work. Now, I claim that more than half the reviewers don’t even read the papers. So, what do you think happens? Papers who are sufficiently fashionable get through, others get canned. The only way I can imagine to get this process fixed is to publish reviews.

Then he actually explains why he thinks public reviews are a bad idea:

The process of refereeing requires considerable back and forth conversation between the three parties: the authors, the editor and the referees. Posting the original reports will give a misleading view of the process and will cause referees to act far too cautiously about pointing out problems in a paper.

I’m sorry but how is having your name as the referee of a paper going to entice you to be lenient? How many people wants to go down in history as having accepted a paper that’s flawed?

Quite the opposite from Lance, I believe that reviewers, in a public review system, have a strong incentive at being extremely hard. Nobody will care about the reviews a rejected paper got… nobody but the author… or if the review is really terrible… But people will read the reviews an accepted bad paper got and if they see that a certain individual is letting bad papers pass, his reputation will go down.

I argue quite the opposite: a public review system would make it very hard to get bad papers through.

As for the possible argument that it would make it harder to find reviewers. This argument (which Lance doesn’t push) is probably valid. First of all, you’ll have to work much harder to find capable reviewers willing to invest the time needed to produce thoughtful reviews. However, these people would get rewarded for their work since their review becomes public and hence, contribute to their status in the community.