Writing Technical Reviews
In many professions, people give back to their community by doing volunteer work. In technical fields such as computer science, we volunteer our time by reviewing papers that are written by other researchers in our field. I recommend that you approach your reviews in this spirit of volunteerism. Sure, your reviews make you a gatekeeper in helping decide which papers are ready for publication. Just as important, however, is to provide feedback to the authors so that they may improve their work. Try to write your review in a way that the authors can benefit from your review.
I like reading a paper and then thinking about it over the course of several days before I write my review. "Living" with a paper for a few days gives you time to make thoughtful decisions about it. This is the best way to come up with helpful suggestions for improving the paper. To do this, you need to carve out some time in your day to think about the paper that you are reviewing.
The tone of your review is important. A harshly written review will be disregarded by the authors, regardless of whether your criticisms are true. If you take care, it is always possible to word your review diplomatically while staying true to your thoughts about the paper. Put yourself in the mindset of writing to someone you wish to help, such as a respected colleague who wants your opinion on a concept or a project.
Here are some specific issues to keep in mind as you write your reviews:
- Short reviews are unhelpful to the authors and to other reviewers. If you have agreed to review a paper, you should take enough time to write a thoughtful and detailed review.
- Be specific when you suggest that the writing needs to be improved. If there is a particular section that is unclear, point it out and give suggestions for how it can be clarified.
- Don't give away your identity by asking the authors to cite several of your own papers.
- If you don't think the paper is right for the SIGGRAPH Technical Papers program, suggest other publication possibilities (journals, conferences, workshops) that would be a better match for the paper.
- Avoid referring to the authors by using the phrase "you" or "the authors." These phrases should be replaced by "the paper." Directly talking about the authors can be perceived as being confrontational, even though you do not mean it this way.
- Be generous about giving the authors new ideas for how they can improve their work. Your suggestions may be very specific (for example, "this numerical solver would be better for your application") or may be more general in nature. You might suggest a new dataset that could be tried, or a new application area that might benefit from their tool. You may tell them how their idea can be generalized beyond what they have already considered.
A thoughtful review not only benefits the authors, but may well benefit you, too. Remember that your reviews are read by other reviewers, including several who know your identity. Being a helpful reviewer will generate good will toward you in the research community.
Greg Turk, March 2008