Wednesday, December 23, 2009

How to get your papers accepted

Like most faculty, I serve on a lot of conference program committees. I estimate I review O(10^2) papers a year for various conferences and journals. When reviewing so many papers, it is amazing to me how many authors make simple mistakes that make it so much more difficult to review (let alone accept!) their papers. Keep in mind that when reviewing 25+ papers for a program committee, you have to do them fairly quickly and the easier it is for the reviewer to digest your paper and get to the core ideas, the more likely they are to look favorably on the paper. I tend to review papers while on the elliptical machine at the gym, which also helps to tamp down any physical aggression I might feel while reading them. (Of course, I have to go back and write up my comments later, but usually in a post-exercise state of unusual mental clarity.)

A few hints on getting papers accepted -- or at least not pissing off reviewers too much.

1. Spellchcek.

Seriously, how hard is it to run your paper through a spellchecker before submission? Whenever I see a paper with typos - more than one or two - I figure the authors were too rushed or lazy to get something as simple as spelling right, and this casts doubt on the technical content of the paper as well. Sometimes typos creep through that a spellchecker won't catch - like using "their" instead of "there". You were supposed to learn that distinction in high school. (I have some bad habits of my own. For some reason, I always type "constrast" instead of "contrast" -- no doubt a holdover muscle memory from my days programming LISP.)

2. Get the English right.

This is a major problem for papers coming from non-native speakers, and although one is supposed to overlook this, nothing grates on a reviewer more than having to slog through a paper full of grammatical mistakes and strange wording choices. Sometimes the nature of the grammatical and stylistic problems can reveal the provenance of the authors: Asian writers tend to confuse singular and plural, while Indian writers tend to use convoluted "Indianized" expressions held over from the days of the Raj. (One paper I once reviewed used the Indian term crore -- meaning 10,000,000 -- as though everyone knew what that meant.) If in doubt, get a native (that is, American) English speaker to review the paper before submission. Be sure to throw a couple of "Go U.S.A.!"s in there for good measure; it'll mask your foreign identity.

3. Make the figures readable!

I can't tell you how many times I have been unable to read a figure because it was formatted assuming the reader would be looking at a PDF on a color screen, and able to zoom in to read the tiny letters in the legend. This is not yet possible with printed paper, and I tend to print in black and white, as I suspect many reviewers do. When formatting figures, I try to use colors that will have adequate contrast even in black and white, use thick lines with a variety of dash styles that make them easy to distinguish, and set 18 pt Helvetica font that will be legible when squashed down to figure size.

4. "Related work" is not just a list of citations.

In general I really dislike "related work" sections that merely list off a bunch of related papers without explaining how they differ from the paper at hand. The point behind this section is not to simply give a shout out to potential reviewers or to prove you've done your homework: it is to contrast the contributions of your paper from what has come before. Also, your goal is not to shoot down every other paper you have read, but rather to place your work in context and explain the lineage. It is OK if another paper has worked on a similar problem and even shown good results. This suggests you may not be barking completely up the wrong tree.

5. Make sure the intro kicks ass.

It is not uncommon for me to decide whether I'll mark a paper as "accept" or "reject" after reading the first page. Actually, more likely I'll have decided on a "reject" early on, and withhold any "accept" decision until I've read the whole thing. Still, a beautifully written introduction that makes a compelling case for the ideas in your paper goes a LONG way towards influencing the reviewer's disposition. David Patterson is the master at this. After you read the intro to, say, the Case for ROC paper, you think to yourself, "but of course! This is the best idea ever!" and then feel really crappy for not having thought of it yourself.

6. Get to the point.

The first paragraph of the introduction is an opportunity to dive into the subject of your paper, not an excuse to toss out some lazy canned problem statement copied from a dozen other papers you read last year. The first sentences from my last three papers were:
Wireless sensor networks have the potential to greatly improve the study of diseases that affect motor ability.

The unused portions of the UHF spectrum, popularly referred to as “white spaces”, represent a new frontier for wireless networks, offering the potential for substantial bandwidth and long transmission ranges.

Resources in sensor networks are precious.
All three tell you immediately what the paper is about; these are not throw-away statements.

7. State your contributions!

I can't believe how many papers never explicitly state the contributions of the work. Giving a numbered list of your contributions is essential, since it gets the reviewer focused on what you think is important about the paper, and it defines the scope of the eventual review. Too many papers lay forth platitudes of how the work will cure cancer and world hunger, but it's hard to tease that apart from how you've tweaked a timing parameter in 802.11. By the same token, contributions should be focused and concrete. Tell us specifically what you did, what the results were, and why it matters.

8. Don't bullshit.

Finally, don't exaggerate your results or claim more than you have really done. Nothing irks me more than a paper that promises to solve a huge problem and ends up showing a tiny sliver of the solution in a carefully-concocted setting. It is far better to understate your results and impress the heck out of the reviewers than overstate the results and let the reader down. Everyone knows that the path from design to prototype to results is filled with pitfalls, and you will be excused for having cut some corners to demonstrate the idea; but make sure the corners you cut were not too essential to the core contributions you are trying to make.

Following these eight simple rules, I guarantee your paper will be accepted to any program committee that I serve on! (Hope you're planning a SIGCOMM'10 submission!)


  1. Is it ethical to reject a paper, just because it has spelling mistakes or it is not written in a desired format.
    I think so, your post is just BS, and it shows you are more concerned about the presentation issues, rather then the important ideas and their implementation.

  2. I am certainly not suggesting that I would reject a paper based on things like typos. But, a bunch of typos can certainly make a reviewer more skeptical about the technical content, and generally annoyed at the authors for being sloppy.

    My post was only about things that authors of otherwise good papers do wrong that irk reviewers; nobody is suggesting that presentation issues are the only things that matter.

  3. Okay I am sorry, I got carried away.
    But I do think that people get huge advantage if they are good writers. Everyone should strive to write good papers, but over dependence on presentation issues atleast in the world of science, should not be encouraged.

  4. I think presentation/grammar matters. A lot of times, due to extremely poor English, authors are not able to convey the idea properly. A reviewer can't do anything in those cases. English is a global language now, and you have to learn to use it properly. Otherwise you are free to arrange a conference in your own language and submit your excellent papers over there.

  5. @Anonymous before:
    I am a native english speaker and I know many people who speak perfect english and are not americans. I am only against the idea of giving lots of weight to the presentation of the paper Writing is an art, and it should be differentiated from science. And if you are an american, you have no bloody right to tell people to use the English language properly.
    A "real" native english speaker.

  6. Seems surprising people did not know any of these points before! the main reason why it still happens is students/profs NEED to produce papers to maintain credibility and hence the lack of clarity and the points you have stated

  7. Every element of a paper ocntributes to the reviewer's perception of it. In my experience, reviewers tend to go out of their way to allow for spelling, grammar, and style errors, and try to focus on the technical content. But no matter how you slice it, *how* the paper is written is extremely important, and I think it's better to warn authors of that fact than to pretend that somehow the quality of the writing is completely factored out of the accept/reject decision.

    And to be honest, there's no excuse for bad writing. Every CS department or research lab, regardless of country, has at least one decent English language writer in it. Just ask that person to copy edit the paper for you before you submit it.

  8. Here is another way to look at it. The goal of a research paper is to communicate research results. So by definition, both the research itself and the communication have to be good for the paper to be a success. If you're not interested in the quality of your communication, then you aren't really interested in being part of a research community.

  9. Some people have no sense of humor! "And if you are an american, you have no bloody right to tell people to use the English language properly." I guess my "Go U.S.A." joke did not make it clear that I was being sarcastic. Next time I'll use a smiley - oh, but do Brits know what those mean? :-)

    I guess those of you who don't think writing is that important will be left scratching your heads when your otherwise brilliant but badly written papers don't get accepted to top venues. It's clear from the number of badly-written papers I have to review that not everyone thinks this is important. This is not just a personal bias - there does seem to be a general consensus amongst top program committees that writing does matter.

    Of course, good writing is a necessary but not sufficient condition for getting a paper accepted. The technical content has to be there first and foremost. You are not being judged explicitly on the writing: but if I have trouble understanding your ideas because the paper is a mess, I'm a lot less likely to argue that it should be accepted.

  10. Many of these points can also be used for "How to give a good talk". The chances that your work will have impact are much lower if you can't effectively communicate your contributions. I'm pretty sure most conferences want papers that have the highest potential for impact.

  11. I am not a native english speaker and I also found the difficulty in representing ideas. for a 10 pages long paper there is large chance for those non-native english guys to make some grammatical or syntax errors. But that is not the excuse for those kind of erros, english writing is a fundamental requirement not only for paper submission but also for whole career. You need to write reports, presentations, technique documents and many other articles. so I think I'd better practise more in school. otherwise your further bosses or customers will not care whether you are native english guys. they just want best results, including tremendous english writings.

  12. Good grammar or not; good spelling or not; if it takes me more than reading the same paragraph twice to understand what it is saying, it has already failed.

  13. Regarding the concept of rejecting papers for typos or grammar mentioned in the earlier posts...
    The reason we learn to write is to convey ideas. The rules of the language create a shared basis for dialog between the author and the reader. When the author betrays that, the reader is jarred. Hence, the importance of writing is that it allows the author to convey the idea smoothly to the reader who can concentrate on understanding the subject matter rather than on parsing the sentence structure. Further more, when a paper is rejected for grammar, I assume that the reviewer hasn't been left with the impression that the author can effectively convey his idea to readers or listeners. While some standards may seem arbitrary, quality of writing is not.

  14. I agree that exaggerating the results is not right but is it ok to exaggerate the motivation or the applications or usage of the system being presented?

  15. Could I reject a paper for doing the old "old wine in new bottle" trick ? Yes, I can and I would. But, it seems a few papers in those SIG* conferences get through only because they happened to better present an idea that appeared originally in a lower-profile or non-American conference. That too without citing the original work. So presentation matters, eh ? Though this is mostly because of the ignorance of the authors rather than malicious intent.

    I know this is begging for a [citation needed] response but I cannot provide any because it will blow my anonymity away.

  16. Very good article it is! and would be precious to the graduate students preparing papers.
    @ an engineering prof.

  17. To those that protest against good writing being necessary: scientific writing is not much of an art. There is a relatively easy-to-follow formula for how you write it, and nobody will complain about formulaic prose as long as you get the message across in an unambiguous and succinct fashion. Presenting your work is, and always will be, a crucial part of most scientists' lives.

    To those that protest against native speakers having an advantage: the fact is that most of us aren't native speakers, but we all use English. Get over it, and get good at it, or at least spend some serious time trying.

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