What Makes a Good Reviewer?

I have to review a couple of papers in the robotics field and was asking myself today: “What makes a good reviewer?” Let’s see. Ultimately, a reviewer serves two purposes: a judge and confidant. As a judge, a reviewer should objectively look at a body of research documented in a paper and check a number of important criteria:

  • Does the research fit with the topic and tone of the place it is being published? Many research papers are good, but would be more appropriate if submitted to a different venue.
  • Does the research meet the quality standards of the place it is being published? Is the research thorough and are the results representative of what you would expect?
  • Does the paper present the research well? Is it clearly document the steps taken such that the results can be duplicated?

Of course, you could come up with many additional criteria by which to judge papers, and that is all well and good.

However, it is the second aspect to reviewing papers that I feel many people miss out on. A reviewer should be more than just an imperialist judge. In my opinion, what makes your ye-old standard reviewer into a good reviewer is the ability to act as a confidant. A confidant is somebody who you can share something important with and expect frank, but kindly advice. Your father, sibling, close friend. Somebody who will listen to you without condescension, frustration, or the ilk and really wish the best while advising you. Similarly, a researcher submitting their work for review is them sharing with you their not-yet published research. Just as a confident is somebody who is outside the situation and can offer advice, a reviewer should offer candid, yet kindly suggestions on how to make the research better. I have seen some reviewers who view their job as judge, jury, and executor in one, shredding good work and nitpicking small ideological issues. This is not to say that a reviewer shouldn’t be completely candid – sometimes the job of a confidant is to deliver unpleasant truth. They can note missing references, bring attention to errors, point out inconsistencies, indicate parts of the paper are unclear, make editorial corrections, etc. However, they should also offer insights that the authors might benefit from, suggest new avenues of future research, list more appropriate venues to publish, detail improvements that could be made, etc. And often it is not what you say, but how you say it.

The line between acting judge and confidant is hard to decide and act upon sometimes, but for the poor researcher slaving away at difficult problems for months and years on end, it is the least you can do. Put more than a quick scan and a few sentences into your reviews, and aim to be a good reviewer.

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