Monday, March 28, 2005

Publising Woes

PhD students dread the following mail –

Dear Author,

We are sorry to inform you that your paper could not be selected for publication at this conference, this year. This does not reflect on the quality of your work. We had several good papers and we could only accept a few of them. We hope to see you at the conference. …

Regards,
Conference-Chair.

The recipient, with immediate effect, goes on a one-week international mourning. The research-flag is brought to half-mast. Fellow PhD students, to whom the news somehow spreads like wildfire, serially come into your office to express their deepest sympathies. Some try to liven you up with, “ come on, it’s not your fault. Go for the next conference…” However, the only thing going on in your head is “why, why …”

There could be one or more of the following problems with your paper.

First, the problem was not well motivated. Did the reviewer even understand what is it that you are trying to solve? There are two types of reviewers. One, who puts her “level of expertise” as “medium”. Actually, she means she knows nothing about your topic, but is ashamed of admitting it so. Second is one with “level of expertise: high”. Here, we are dealing with the seasoned professor, who can cut through your argument. She does not need to be motivated to read on. The “medium expertise” expert usually cuts the paper with the “not well motivated” argument. Actually, she has a point. She owns up that she is no expert. If you are unable to make her understand what the problem is, why do you think she will care about the solution. She is simply making everyone’s life easier – by creating some momentary hell for you.

Second, the solution was not novel. The feedback usually is, “the paper provides a (partially correct) solution with an incremental improvement”. The reviewer is simply saying that she was not impressed. Well, it depends on -- how hard to impress is she? If the paper came out of her own factory, perhaps she would show some more compassion. Anyways, this part of your paper is a true reflection of the depth of your thought-process. Also, are you able to present it succinctly? It’s a fine line. If the explanation is so simple that the reviewer says, “is that it!”, then you are in trouble. On the other hand, “this is beyond me”, will put the pressure on the reviewer to either invest time and understand, or behave like the proverbial “expertise: medium” reviewer.

The remaining part is the related-work. This is one area where you can actually do a good job. My friend, NightLife (for anonymity), who is a prolific paper reader, tells me that even for papers that were rejected he got plaudits from the reviewers. Not surprising!

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