Don't "invite" people to your program committee; ask them to serve

Recently, a friend told me that one of their pet peeves was being “invited” to do things like review papers on a program committee, rather than being asked to serve on said committee. I had never considered the difference between inviting people and asking them to serve, but as soon as my friend pointed it out, I realized that I had sent a few of these so-called “invitations” myself not so long ago.

The tools we use seem to encourage this use of “invite”. For example, the EasyChair conference management system has an “Invite PC members” menu item, and the default subject line for the resulting emails is “invitation to [*ACRONYM*] program committee”.

When it became my turn to write such emails, I chose a subject line starting with “Invitation to…” without a second thought, even though I wasn’t using EasyChair to send the emails. I suppose that after having seen a bunch of those default EasyChair emails over the years, “invitation” seemed like the obvious word to use.

So, what’s so bad about “inviting” people to program committees? After all, it can feel really good to receive such an “invitation”! The word connotes a festive social occasion. You feel like part of a prestigious, exclusive group that’s about to do something exciting and fun. Who would want to say no?

After some reflection, though, I think that’s precisely the problem with “invite”. Its connotations, whether intentional or not, mask the fact that the thing one is being invited to do is work. This is not to say that program committee work can’t be fun; it can, in fact, be lots of fun (although it can also be a slog). But a program committee isn’t a dinner party. Work is work.

It’s a small thing, but the next time I’m in the position of putting such a committee together, I’ll try to make a point of not “inviting” anyone to it. Asking people to serve is more honest: I can’t promise that reviewing papers will be fun, since that depends on the papers and on who ends up reviewing them, and prestige isn’t something I can really control, either. But I can at least promise that the committee will be an opportunity to meaningfully serve.