07 December 2008

Two Reviewer Comments that Stuck with Me

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:

  1. "Other approaches don't have to be bad in order for your approach to be good."
  2. "If I were working in this area, I would want to know about these results."
You can guess what I might have written that had caused this reviewer to make the first comment. And actually I've come to think of these two comments as basically saying the same thing.

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.


DesiLinguist said...


That's a very insightful blog post.

In the few years I have been working on MT (I am in the US, so you can pretty much guess the project I am working on), I have encountered both the non-competitive, inclusive, "let's-all-work-together" AND the competitive, "my-foo-works-better-half-a-point-better-than-yours-ha!" sides of research. I realize we can never really do away with the latter---and may be that's good since competition can be a pretty good motivator--but it would be good to see a lot more getting along in our field.

Dmitry Kan said...


Thanks for the post.

Spent about 10 minutes reading your blog post and after-thinking. Came up with a list of article (research?) types:

1) Novel idea applied to an old task
2) Old idea applied to a task, to which it wasn't applied before
3) competitive approach by tuning (experimentally guessing?) some parameter values
4) looking to the past, present and foreseeing future - review

If one positions themselves as a cool originator of - even - a new idea, the life checks it and sends feedback. So need for an extra worry and nail-downing a neighbour.

Tuning (especially, when it is almost ideal and polishing gives a bit more of performance) is like eating grits when the loaf has been eaten by someone else. But life is real (not virtual) and this happens.

Making overview may be considered a waste of time (as no new ideas being brought, hence "less value"), however better structuring gives more clear ways to go.

Adam Lopez said...

These reviewer comments echo Simon Peyton Jones's advice on writing papers (hat tip to Liang Huang):

The truth: credit is not like money

Giving credit to others does not diminish the credit you get from your paper

Now that the season for conference paper writing and reviewing is underway in earnest, this is a good reminder.

Anonymous said...

+1, great post. insightful and inspiring. thanks!

now, if you'll excuse me, i'm off to do some computationalizing...

Anonymous said...

I think most of what we do is deeply inspired by the scientific zeitgeist.

I often feel that there's a way of modeling data I prefer (in that it feels somehow "right") and I want to write about that perspective, partly to explore it myself and partly to bring others along.

I'm always happy to find someone else has already done something I've been thinking about because it lends credence to my preferences and saves me work. Often they do it a whole lot better than I could have.

When I have a more "creative" idea outside of current thinking, the hard part is finding readers, not preventing competition. And it's not just me! Statistical NLP took a long time to catch on and is still gaining in popularity.

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Rachel Cotterill said...

I think (as a current PhD student!) that the issue of 'ownership' is a much bigger deal when you're hoping to get a degree for your original contribution... usually I'm the most sharing person, but doing a PhD makes even me a little jealous of my ideas!!!

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Anonymous said...

the loaf has been eaten by someone else. But life is real (not virtual) and this happens.
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Anonymous said...

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