On Rejection (Part 2: Valley of the Voodoo Dolls)

Previously in this series: On Rejection (Part 1: The Descent)

Research is fundamentally a human endeavor: it is about the communication of ideas between human beings, engaged in an eternal quest to understand the world around us and make it better. There is therefore nothing worse than putting all your heart and soul into writing a paper in an effort to communicate your latest and greatest ideas to others, only to receive the following message in your inbox:

On behalf of the TopCon 2015 program committee, I regret to inform you that your paper #123 has not been selected to appear in the conference.  Your reviews are included below.  We hope you find them useful in revising your paper for publication in another forum.

Yes, this message is signed by another human being.  Yes, that human being appears to be generous, offering you feedback in a sincere effort to help you improve your work.  But no, in fact, this is not a message from another human being, and there is nothing sincere about it.  It is a form letter, filled out by a machine, a machine that says coldly, “You are not worthy.”

Of course, we all know that the mechanical nature of that rejection is a façade, a charade, an ultimately futile attempt to conceal the identities of the true culprits who are responsible for the mistreatment of your work: the reviewers.  Those bastards have deliberately misunderstood your contribution for their own twisted ends, and the machine is covering for them.  But not for long!  It is time to go down to the cellar, switch on the lonely light bulb, and dust off…the voodoo dolls.

Ah, the voodoo dolls.  They have been with you, like the stuffed animals they are, from the very beginning, since your first rejection.  Some are old and tattered, with repeated wounds from your early years as a budding researcher.  Others are new and pristine — you may not even remember acquiring them.  But they are all there, one for each of your colleagues: no one is above suspicion.

You begin to read over the TopCon reviews again as if you were a Talmudic scholar scouring the Torah for obscure clues to God’s true intent.  Except here you are looking for anything — a turn of phrase, an absurd claim, an idiosyncratic style of capitalization — anything that might tip you off to who has done this terrible thing to you, so that you can mete out the Old Testament justice the evildoer so richly deserves.

Let’s see: Reviewer B’s obvious self-citation was a dead giveaway of their identity, but you have never actually met this person and don’t know much about their work, so it’s hard to get much satisfaction out of skewering them.  I mean, maybe their paper from <noname conference> <last year> was actually interesting.  Probably not, but who knows.  You certainly can’t be bothered to go read it now and find out.

As for Reviewer C: they did give you a weak accept after all, but at the same time they had the temerity to suggest that your paper might be better off as a journal article.  A journal article?!  Nobody, and I mean nobody, reads journal articles.  [Note: If you are not a computer scientist and this sounds like a bizarre comment to you, please stay tuned for a future post on conferences vs. journals in CS.]  The whole point of your submitting to TopCon was so someone would actually read your paper, and now Reviewer C is telling you that, because your paper is too deep and important to explain clearly in the space of a conference paper, you should go submit it to a venue where no one will read it?  What bullshit!  You start to rile yourself up into a lather of rage, until you realize that unfortunately the review was bland enough to have been written by absolutely anybody, so you’ll have to direct your bloodlust elsewhere.

Your glance returns to the first review.  There aren’t too many people Reviewer A could be.  First of all, this person seems to be actually familiar with the recent work in your area and has made intelligent comments in the “detailed” section of their review that suggest they know to some extent what they’re talking about.  Second, the reviewer is clearly on the PC of TopCon and is not conflicted with you.  That narrows it down to about two people, an American and a Brit.  And of those two, you know it has to be the Brit, since they complimented you on your “jolly good use of colour”.

The identity of the culprit is not surprising, but it’s rather disappointing.  This person is someone you actually respect.  They write good papers, they study important problems, they have high standards.  How could they have come to the conclusion that your work is too “complex”?  You clearly stated otherwise in the introduction to your paper!  “Our approach simplifies and unifies many existing approaches, as well as extending their expressive power.”  Did they miss that sentence?  Plus, haven’t they read their own papers?  In this field, everybody’s work is super-complicated.  It’s a hard topic, and simple solutions don’t scale.  What are they complaining about?

Anyway, it’s time for justice to be served.  You prepare the implements of torture, and after a brief moment of silence for your fallen paper, you grab hold of the effigy of Reviewer A with determination.  You are finally face-to-face with the murderer of your masterwork, and ready to exact vengeance!

Only, at the last second, there’s one thing that gives you pause: you’re a reviewer, too.  What if you rejected someone else’s paper recently and they figured out it was you?  What if they’re about to attack a voodoo doll of you in their cellar?  In fact, given what a hardass reviewer you are, and how shamelessly you cite your own papers when writing reviews, this is almost certainly the case.  Come to think of it, you have been feeling some sharp pains in your abdomen lately.

“Ah, that’s foolishness.  No one believes in this voodoo stuff anyway!” you think to yourself.  At this point, you notice that you are holding a creepy-looking doll in one hand and a power tool in the other.  You put them down, turn off the light, and go upstairs.

To be continued…

On Work-Life Balance (Part 1: Lamentations)

These poems date back to the early 2000s, in the first few years when Rose and I were living together.  I believe Rose wrote the first, I wrote the second (you can tell I was hot for Dorothy Parker at the time), and the third we wrote together.  But in honor of the sacrosanct rules of academic authorship, we’ll just maximize our publication counts and say we co-wrote all of them.

Waiting on Work:

I’ve been anxiously awaiting
a young working man named Derek.
The length of time he’s been away
is nothing if not barbaric.
But it’s slow-going, I understand,
for his research is most esoteric.

Lament IV:

My man is so brilliant,
his work so profound,
his mind so resilient,
he’s never around.

A Fine Head (I Hope):

At twenty his hair started thinning.
Before long there emerged a spot.
In the next years the baldness was winning.
Soon whatever hair had been was not.



On Saarbruecken (Part 1: Interstellar Perversion)

I had a mad impulse to throw you down on the lunar surface and commit interstellar perversion.  — Woody Allen, Manhattan

Went to see “Interstellar” tonight with Rose.  Meh — it was entertaining enough, I guess, but pretty hokey.  Anyway, about five minutes into the movie — which in Germany means 35 minutes after the movie is scheduled to begin — this crazy guy wanders into our row, desperate to find his seat.  He asked me in German if I knew where his seat (E7) was, and I said I didn’t, at which point he got all flustered and kept trying out different random seats in the (mostly empty) row.  He then began to make lots of grunts and giggles, talking to himself, lying down on the seats, noisily flipping through magazines, and — here’s the kicker — doing lines of cocaine!  I must say, I’ve been to many movies in many big cities in the world, from Paris to London to New York to Chicago — but only in Saarbruecken (population: 190,000) have I seen a man snorting cocaine right next to me in the movie theatre.  This was a first.

I think my favorite part of the whole thing was that the guy, despite being coked out of his mind, was very keen on sitting in his assigned seat.  So German.

On Rejection (Part 1: The Descent)

Two months ago you submitted a paper to TopCon, the top conference in your branch of computer science. This paper is some of the best work you’ve ever done. As soon as it was submitted, you posted it on your website, so that your peers — who undoubtedly check your website every five minutes to find out what you have been up to — can download and print out your latest masterwork and read it on the beach during their vacation.

Periodically, over the next few months, when you are in the middle of doing nothing, you visit your own website and download the masterwork. You want to get a sense of what the experience is like to read it for the first time. You glance longingly at the title, you smell the abstract. That introduction which is so gentle, so economical in its summary dismissal of prior work, so clearly structured to guide the reader to the inevitable conclusion that what you are doing is important and groundbreaking — it’s guaranteed to make any reader swoon, even if you did write it at the very last minute before the submission deadline. Admittedly, the bulk of the paper is taken up with a technical section that gets a bit hairy, with a couple pages in there that even you can’t quite follow — you let your student write them — but this is not kids’ stuff we’re talking about here, this is cutting-edge research, so hey, at some point you’ve got to lose the reader. And anyway, that related work section at the end of the paper, also written at the last minute and unintentionally omitting a few key citations, brings everything into perfect perspective. No doubt.

At some point, you realize you have been downloading your own paper and admiring it a bit too often. Even by your own obsessive standards, you are acting a bit obsessed. You start to wonder if this is maybe a subtle sign that you are secretly worried about one niggling detail: the paper has not yet been accepted.

No, no, you’re not really worried about this — your paper is a clear accept — but there’s that fly in the ointment: the paper must be reviewed by a jury of your peers. And have you checked out your peers lately? They write terrible papers. When you review their papers, you think that the vast majority of them don’t seem to know what they’re talking about, or maybe they know what they’re talking about, but you certainly don’t know what they’re talking about. You look at the program committee of TopCon this year, and your worst fears are confirmed. The only person on the PC who properly understands your work is a frequent collaborator of yours — conflicted out of reviewing your paper — and the rest have probably not read your last 5 papers, a detailed understanding of which is necessary in order to truly appreciate the brilliance of your latest masterwork.

But wait a sec! Aren’t these the same peers you were hoping would download and read your paper on their vacation? You respect these people, in theory at least. Calm down. Your introduction is so clear, your abstract so fragrant, your related work so related, and of course your technical section so damn impressive…that there is nothing to worry about. The brilliance of the paper will shine through, even to the most Neanderthal reviewer.

Then you receive the reviews.

Reviewer A:

Wow, this is a BIG paper. It is tackling a hard problem, and throwing every trick in the book at it. The pieces all seem to fit together, but it is not clear exactly how or what the reader is supposed to get out of it, or how this work is to be differentiated from the many other recent papers in this line of work. Offhand, the approach taken here seems awfully complex, suggesting that the authors have not yet hit upon the right solution to the problem.

Reviewer B:

The paper presents an interesting thesis.  However, it seems to me the problem it is attacking is already largely solved by <insert reviewer’s name here> in their <noname conference> <last year> paper.

Reviewer C:

I think this is a solid paper, but I am not very knowledgeable in the topic.  The results seem good but I cannot verify correctness. The appendix submitted with the paper is very large, which suggests that maybe the paper would be better suited for journal publication.

Reviewer C was your only (weak) “accept”, and they gave themselves low confidence. Your masterwork has been rejected from TopCon — there will be blood.

Next in this series: On Rejection (Part 2: Valley of the Voodoo Dolls)