Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Death by peer review

I recently had the occasion to give some advice a friend who was considering making the switch from industry to academia. One of my key pieces of advice was to keep in mind that success (or failure) in academia is largely based on peer review -- by program committees, proposal review panels, tenure committees. While peer review has many good things going for it, it can also be extremely, dishearteningly random. Being an academic means living your life one peer-review decision to the next, and in many cases, those decisions are simply not the right ones. After a while, a string of semi-random decisions can be psychologically draining.

From http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1778. Yes, I own the t-shirt.
The law of large numbers certainly applies here. Good work eventually gets published and funded, given enough iterations. Good researchers get their papers in, eventually. Peer review feedback can be incredibly helpful for refining a piece of work and improving it over time. But in the vast majority of cases, papers or proposals, whether accepted or rejected in the end, get a wide range of scores -- it is quite rare for even a good paper to get all "accept" reviews. Whether a paper gets accepted often depends on who the reviewers are, whether they've had enough coffee in the PC meeting, whether they are confident enough to stand up for the work, and so forth. Above a certain threshold, the objective merit of the work has little to do with the outcome.

This situation can get really bad. NSF proposal reviews are, historically, quite random, in part because NSF's conflict-of-interest policy prevents anyone who might actually be an expert in the area from reviewing your work (unless they forgot to submit their own proposal). I have submitted substantially the same NSF proposal multiple times and had vastly different scores. My best proposal never got funded; my worst proposal actually did.

To be clear, we also use peer review at Google, in particular for things like promotions. I've served on quite a few promotions committees, and I can tell you it can be just as random as, say, a conference program committee. Get four people into a room and they will have four different opinions about a given candidate. So I don't think this problem is specific to the academic peer review process.

But I want to contrast the peer-review process with the "industry process." At least at Google, I feel that hard work is generally rewarded if it has impact and leads to good products. My expectation is that the same is true at most companies. Rather than the success or failure of a project coming down to the dreaded Reviewer #3, it comes down to the team's ability to execute, targeting the right market, and attracting users.

Of course, many of these factors are just as out of the control of an engineer on the team as the capriciousness of a program committee. However, I believe the industry process is far less arbitrary. Yes, projects can (and do) get canceled by higher-level management. I've personally canceled projects on my teams, for a range of reasons. But the reasons for project cancellation are, in most cases, made after careful deliberation and by people who have a vested interest in the team. Even if the decision ends up being wrong, at least it's a decision that makes sense -- not the crapshoot you face every time you submit a paper or proposal to a random committee.

Do companies make bad decisions? Absolutely. Are decisions made that I personally disagree with? Of course. Do I have to work for a company that continually makes bad decisions that I don't agree with? Hell no. I'd much rather face my chances against a principled leadership organization that I trust and agree with than an ad hoc collection of anonymous reviewers.

While I have many thoughts on how the process of peer review could be improved, I don't argue that we should dispense with it entirely. I don't know of a better model for most things that academics need to be evaluated on. But aspiring academics should how much of your success hinges on the purely stochastic nature of the process. Industry is still a game, but it's a different kind of game, and one that I think tends to be more rational.