Linking Research

Archive for February, 2015

General guidelines for reviewing a scientific publication

Posted by dgarijov on February 15, 2015

Lately I’ve been asked to do several revisions in different workshops, conferences and journals. In this post I would like to share with you a generic template to follow when reviewing a scientific publication. If you have been doing it for a while you may find it trivial, but I think it might be useful for people that have started recently in the reviewing process. At least, when I started, I had to ask for a similar one to my advisor and colleagues.

But first, several reasons why you should review papers:

  • Helps you to identify whether a scientific work is good or not. And refine your criteria by comparing yourself with other reviewers. Also, it trains you to defend your opinion based on what you read.
  • Helps you refining your own work, by identifying common flaws that you normally don’t detect when writing your own papers.
  • It’s an opportunity to update your state of the art, or learn a little on other areas.
  • Allows you contributing to the scientific community, and getting public visibility.

A scientific work might be the result of months of work. Even if you think it is trivial you should be methodic explaining the reasons why you think it should be accepted or rejected (yes, even if you think the paper should be accepted). A review should not be just an “Accepted” or “Rejected” statement, but also contain valuable feedback for the authors. Below you can see the main guidelines for a good review:

  • Start your review with an executive summary of the paper: this will let the authors know the main message you have understood from their work. Don’t copy and paste the abstract; try to communicate the summary in your own words. Otherwise they’ll just think you didn’t put much attention in reading the paper.
  • Include a paragraph summarizing the following points:
    1. Grammar: Is the paper well written?
    2. Structure: is the paper easy to follow? Do you think the order should have been different?
    3. Relevance: Is the paper relevant for the target conference/journal/workshop?
    4. Novelty: Is the paper dealing with a novel topic?
    5. Your decision. Do you think the work should be accepted for the target publication? (If you don’t, expand your concerns in the following paragraphs)
  • Major Concerns: Here is where you should say why do you disagree with the authors, and highlight your main issues. In general, a good research paper should describe successfully four main points:
    1. What is the problem the authors are tackling? (Research hypothesis) This point is tricky, because sometimes it is really hard to find! And in some cases the authors omit it and you have to infer it. If you don’t see it, mention it in your review.
    2. Why is this a problem? (Motivation). The authors could have invented a problem which had no motivation. A good research paper is often motivated by a real world problem, potentially with a user community behind benefiting from the outcome.
    3. What is the solution? (Approach). The description of the solution adopted by the authors. This is generally easy to spot on any paper.
    4. Why is it a good solution? (Evaluation). The validation of the research hypothesis described in point one. The evaluation is normally the key of the paper, and the reason why many research publications are rejected. As my supervisor has told me many times, one does not evaluate an algorithm or an approach; one has to evaluate whether such proposed algorithm or approach validate the research hypothesis.

When a paper has the previous four points well described, it is accepted (generally). Of course, not all papers enter the category of a research papers (like a survey paper or an analysis paper). But the four previous points should cover a wide range of publications.

  • Minor concerns: You can point out minor issues after the big ones have been dealt with. Not mandatory, but t will help the authors to polish their work.
  • Typos: unless there are too many, you should point the main typos you find in your review. Or the sentences you think are confusing.

Other advice:

  • Don’t be a jerk: many reviews are anonymous, and people tend to be crueler when they know their names won’t be shown to the authors. Instead of saying that something “is garbage”, state clearly why you disagree with the authors proposal and conclusions. Make the facts talk for themselves; not your bias or opinion.
  • Consider the target publication. You can’t use the same criteria for a workshop, conference or journal. Normally people tend to be more permissive at workshops, where the evaluation is not that important if the idea is good, but require a good paper for conferences and journals.
  • Highlight the positive parts of the authors’ work, if any. Normally there is a reason why the authors have spent time on the presented research, even if the idea is not very well implemented.
  • Check the links, prototypes, evaluation files and in general, all the supplementary material provided by the authors. A scientist should not only review the paper, but the research described on it.
  • Be constructive. If you disagree with the authors in one point, always mention how they could improve their work. Otherwise they won’t know how to handle your issue and ignore your review.

If you want to check more guidelines, you can check the ones Elsevier gives to their reviewers, or the ones by PLOS ONE.

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