Over the years I've gotten a number of positive reviews and negative reviews. I usually remember few of the details of any more than a few months after the good or bad news. Two reviewer quotes, however, have really stuck with me. They were both in overall positive reviews, though one of them is more negative sounding. Obviously I don't know who wrote them, but they've actually had a strong impact on most of my research and my own reviewing since:
- "Other approaches don't have to be bad in order for your approach to be good."
- "If I were working in this area, I would want to know about these results."
I feel like we too often see research in a competitive light. There are two things that can cause this. The first is funding. Short-term funding (in the US) is essentially a zero-sum game, which means that I can win only if you lose. (There are models where this is less true, but usually that has other -- not necessarily desirable -- outcomes.)
The second is the scooping effect: many times when we have (what we think is) a cool idea, we want to "beat" everyone else to the punch. I recall a comment John Langford made on his blog (which I cannot seem to find now because I can't figure out what search terms to use) quite some time ago along these lines... saying that for many problems he doesn't care who finds a solution so long as the solution is found. I usually have mixed feelings. For some topics, I definitely feel this way. Indeed, for some topics I actually don't want to be the person who figures it out, either because I don't feel I have the necessary skills or because I don't have the necessary time. For some topics, I do get a feeling of ownership and really want to be the person who does it. My thesis work was like that, as was my document/abstract alignment work. This is definitely highly personal: I know plenty of people who care a lot more about ownership than I do, and many who care a lot less.
What I took away from this comment is essentially the realization that we are all working toward some vague future goal, which has to do with computationalizing language processing (or some other topic, for the non-NLP audience). Progress is good. If I've done work that has something interesting and novel to say about this goal, then it's not bad -- and is often good -- that this builds on and improves on your work.