Why review papers?

A few days ago, in response to my complaining about all the reviewing I’ve had to do lately, an undergrad researcher friend asked me, “what’s the incentive to sign up to join PCs and review papers? it seems like a lot of (free?) labor.”

Good question! Here are some reasons why someone might sign up to review academic papers. TL;DR: you should review papers in order to: provide a crucial service to the community; see a preview of new work in your field; advocate for the kind of work you want to see more of; build a reputation; see and learn from what other reviewers say; get better at writing strong papers yourself; better understand how arbitrary acceptance and rejection decisions can be; and feel good.

  • The most important reason to review papers is to provide a crucial service to the community. If you’re submitting papers, other people are reviewing your submissions, so you should “pay it forward” by doing some reviewing yourself. A paper submission usually gets somewhere between three and six reviews, so ideally, for every solo-authored paper you submit, you ought to review about that many. (If you’re like me, you don’t write many solo-authored papers, so adjust the math as needed; but it’s fair to say that if there are papers being submitted for which you’re one of the co-authors, then sooner or later you ought to be doing some reviewing.)
  • It gives you a chance to see a preview of new work in your field before anyone else does. One way to learn more about how researchers in your field are approaching an exciting new topic is to sign up to review papers on it.
  • It’s a chance to advocate for the kind of work you want to see more of and influence the direction of the important publishing venues in your field. I don’t want to say anything specific, or I’ll break my anonymity, but I believe I really have been able to use my influence as a reviewer to make an impact on what the program looks like at publishing venues I care about, and that’s exciting!
  • It allows you to build a reputation in the community. There’s the obvious sort of reputation, in which the community at large sees that you’re on the program committee and you get an extra item to put on your CV. But I think the more important kind of reputation-building you do when you’re on a program committee is with the other reviewers, who get to see how you think about things through your reviews and through the way you interact with them during the discussion period.
  • One of my favorite parts of the review process is that you get to see and learn from what other reviewers say once you’ve submitted your own review. This process can sometimes be delightful (hooray! someone you respect agrees with you!) and sometimes quite painful (oh, no! someone you respect disagrees vehemently with you!), but either way, you can learn something. If you and another reviewer disagree about an aspect of the paper, considering the paper from their point of view is often fruitful. On the other hand, if you agree, sometimes their review will express your point better than yours did, and from them you can learn ways to express yourself better in the future. Furthermore, after doing this enough, you’ll learn about community norms, where various community members stand in relation to those norms, and where you stand in relation to them. In time, you can discover like-minded collaborators (or, perhaps even better, not-so-like-minded ones) — or, if nothing else, you can at least discover some interesting people to talk with at the next conference.
  • When you see “how the sausage is made” from the reviewer’s side, you get better at writing strong papers yourself. From program committee discussions, you learn what kinds of things reviewers are looking for.
  • Being privy to PC discussions helps you better understand how arbitrary acceptance and rejection decisions can be. A lot of times, a paper is on the fence, and which way it tips is pretty arbitrary. For me, this keeps me from being too sad about my rejections, and it also keeps me humble about my acceptances.
  • Finally, every once in a while, when you suggest that the authors do something to improve a paper, and then they actually take your advice and do that in the final version, you feel good!

Now, as for the “free?” question: reviewing papers is definitely labor, but I think whether it counts as “free” depends. If I had a job that didn’t care whether I ever did any community service — where I got no credit at work for doing such things — then reviewing would indeed be free labor. But, in fact, I am expected to spend some amount of my time on that stuff. If I were a faculty member, then I’d be expected to devote even more time to service. In either of those cases, I think it’s disingenuous to say that reviewing is something we do for free, because we get paid a salary and reviewing is something that “counts” as work to our employer. Having said that, reviewing is the kind of work that expands to fill the available time, and it’s easy to sign up for too much and then regret it. (This post is not necessarily a suggestion that you should ask me to serve on your PC! Although I appreciate being asked, I’m overcommitted right now and will probably say no.)