Yesterday someone told me “more than half of ML papers are bad” and “most of the proofs are wrong.”
I don’t necessarily agree with this person (who comes from statistics), but they had some decent points about our current system of peer reviewing and together we came up with some suggestions to improve the state of things. First the problems:
Problem 0: Conferences are facing a deluge of papers, many of them “low quality.” How do we keep the bar high while not becoming an exclusive club, in which only known labs can publish papers?
Problem 1: There aren’t enough (high-quality) reviewers. ML conferences often email out last minute requests for more reviewers, and many reviewers are first-year graduate students. How can we expect first-year graduate students to give decent feedback or even know where the bar is? (I’m saying this as an early second year graduate student.)
Problem 2: Reviewers don’t have enough time to review papers. Reviewers for ML conferences are often given a week to review 6 - 10 papers, some of which might include very long proofs. These proofs are often relegated to the appendix and never even glanced at during the review process.
These problems have contributed to the consistent degradation in the quality of papers over time. And even when papers are wrong no one bothers to retract them! Just try looking for CS / ML papers on retractionwatch.com.
As far as solutions go, there are at least two points we can improve: the source of the papers and the filtering process.
Potential Filter Fix: Journals are for papers, conferences are for talks.
Many of our problems stem from the fact that few people in ML read journals or assign any value to the papers published there. We are a conference driven field. However, journals have many reedeeming qualities.
For example, a conference must review every single paper submitted before the day of the conference, or else some papers will be forever ignored. Journals don’t have this problem: instead, they have a rolling queue for admissions, since a paper can always simply be published in the next issue. Because of this, journals don’t have to scrounge for first-year graduate student reviewers; they have a few high-quality reviewers who can really dig into papers with high standards. The trade-off is that the queue for getting reviewed for a journal is much longer.
Because of this higher reviewing standard, people in other fields assign higher value to journal papers. If you want to get your work out there, you can still submit to conferences. But in some fields, you only submit abstracts to conferences. If the abstract is interesting, then you give a talk.
There are already a few ML journals, but I don’t know about any of them. How can we build a journal’s reputation, so that it has the same value as publishing at a conference?
Potential Source Fix: Lower author caps.
Now, we could try to be the change we want to see in the world: simply don’t submit papers unless you are confident in the quality of the work. Unfortunately greed and ignorance will likely interfere with this strategy. Our incentives are not aligned with restraint in publishing papers. Many published papers == money and fame, regardless of actual paper quality. In a game theoretic sense, there will always be those bad actors who screw things up for the rest of us.
But even without ill-will, most people don’t even know where the bar is. I didn’t last year, and I’m not sure my bar’s high enough today. I guess I’ll find out when I get my next round of reviews back.
You might claim that it’s the advisor’s job to raise the bar for graduate students. Some do, some don’t know where the bar is, and some ignore it because of mis-aligned incentives. One way we could potentially force advisors to raise the bar is to limit how many papers you can submit to a conference (as last author). If a professor knows they can only have 5 papers from their lab submitted, they’ll be more careful about which they choose and give honest feedback about quality.
Potential Incentive Fix: Don’t count papers, count citations?
I just thought of this one, but maybe instead of counting papers we should count the number of citations those papers get? (And by “we” I mean whoever’s checking grant / job applications.) Of course we’d want to filter self-citations and circular citations (between friendly groups). Is this already done?
Anyway, this remains a hard problem. But, like I talked about in my previous post, I believe we should view the scientific community as a big “truth-seeking machine,” which occassionally will need some remodeling and elbow grease.