NIPS: Decision Time
Thursday 28th August
In the last two days I’ve spent nearly 20 hours in teleconferences, my last scheduled conference will start in about 1/2 an hour. Given the available 25 minutes it seemed to make sense to try and put down some thoughts about the decision process.
The discussion period has been constant, there is a stream of incoming queries from Area Chairs, requests for advice on additional reviewers, or how to resolve deadlocked or disputing reviews. Corinna has handled many of these.
Since the author rebuttal period all the papers have been distributed to google spreadsheet lists which are updated daily. They contain paper titles, reviewer names, quality scores, calibrated scores, a probability of accept (under our calibration model), a list of bot-compiled potential issues as well as columns for accept/reject and poster/spotlight. Area chairs have been working in buddy pairs, ensuring that a second set of eyes can rest on each paper. For those papers around the borderline, or with contrasting reviews, the discussion period really can have an affect, we see when calibrating the reviewer scores: over time the reviewer bias is reducing and the scores are becoming more consistent. For this reason we allowed this period to go on a week longer than originally planned, and we’ve been compressing our teleconferences into the last few days.
Most teleconferences consist of two buddy pairs coming together to discuss their papers. Perhaps ideally the pairs would have a similar subject background, but constraints of time zone and the fact that there isn’t a balanced number of subject areas mean that this isn’t necessarily the case.
Corinna and I have been following a similar format. Listing the papers from highest scoring first, to lowest scoring, and starting at the top. For each paper, if it is a confident accept, we try and identify if it might be a talk or a spotlight. This is where the opinion of a range of Area Chairs can be very useful. For uncontroversial accepts that aren’t nominated for orals we spend very little time. This proceeds until we start reaching borderline papers, those in the ‘grey area’: typically papers with an average score around 6. They fall broadly into two categories: those where the reviewers disagree (e.g. scores of 8,6,4), or those where the review are consistent but the reviewers , perhaps, feel underwhelmed (scores of 6,6,6). Area chairs will often work hard to try and get one of the reviewers to ‘champion’ a paper: it’s a good sign if a reviewer has been prepared to argue the case for a paper in the discussion. However, the decisions in this region are still difficult. It is clear that we are rejecting some very solid papers, for reasons of space and because of the overall quality of submissions. It’s hard for everyone to be on the ‘distributing’ end of this system, but at the same time, we’ve all been on the receiving end of it too.
In this difficult ‘grey area’ for acceptance, we are looking for sparks in a paper that push it over the edge to acceptance. So what sort of thing catches an area chair’s eye? A new direction is always welcome, but often leads to higher variance in the reviewer scores. Not all reviewers are necessarily comfortable with the unfamiliar. But if an area chair feels a paper is taking the machine learning field somewhere new, then even if the paper has some weaknesses (e.g. in evaluation or giving context and detailed derivations etc) then we might be prepared to overlook this. We look at the borderline papers in some detail, scanning the reviews, looking for words like ‘innovative’, ‘new directions’ or ‘strong experimental results’. If we see these then as program chairs we definitely become more attentive. We all remember papers presented at NIPS in the past that lead to revolutions in the way machine learning is done. Both Corinna and I would love to have such papers at ‘our’ NIPS.
A paper that is a more developed area will be expected to have done a more rounded job in terms of setting the context and performing the evaluation. Papers in a more developed area will be expected to hit a high level in terms of their standards.
It is often helpful to have an extra pair of eyes (or even two pairs) run through the paper. Each teleconference call normally ends with a few follow up actions for a different area chair to look through a paper or clarify a particular point. Sometimes we also call in domain experts, who may have already produced four formal reviews of other papers, just to get clarification on particular point. This certainly doesn’t happen for all papers, but those with scores around 7,6,6 or 6,6,6 or 8,6,4 often get this treatment. Much depends on the discussion and content of the existing reviews, but there are still, often, final checks that need carrying out. From a program chair’s perspective, the most important thing is that the Area Chair is comfortable with the decision, and I think most of the job is acting as a sounding board for the Area Chair’s opinion, which I try to reflect back to them. In the same manner as rubber duck debugging, just vocalising the issues sometimes causes them to be crystallised in the mind. Ensuring that Area Chairs are calibrated to each other is also important. The global probabilities of accept from the reviewer calibration model really help here. As we go through papers I keep half an eye on those, not to influence the decision of a particular paper so much as to ensure that at the end of the process we don’t have a surplus of accepts. At this stage all decisions are tentative, but we hope not to have to come back to too many of them.
Monday 1st September
Corinna finished her last video conference on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday (Labor Day) were filled with making final decisions on accepts, then talks and finally spotlights. Accepts were hard, we were unable to take all the papers that were possible accept, as we would have gone way over our quota of 400. We had to make a decision on duplicated papers where the decisions were in conflict, more details of this to come at the conference. From remembering what a pain it was to do the schedule after the acceptances, and also following advice from Leon Bottou that the talk program emerges to reflect the accepted posters, we finalized the talk and spotlight program whilst putting talks and spotlights directly into the schedule. We had to hone the talks down to 20 from about 40 candidates and spotlights we squeezed in 62 from over a hundred suggestions. We spent three hours in teleconference each day, as well as preparation time, across Labor Day weekend putting together the first draft of the schedule. It was particularly impressive how quickly area chairs responded to any of our follow up queries to our notes from the teleconferences. Particularly those in the US who were enjoying the traditional last weekend of summer.
Tuesday 2nd September
I had an all day meeting in Manchester for the a network of researchers focussed on mental illness. It was really good to have a day discussing research, my first in a long time. I thought very little about NIPS until on the train home, I thought to have a little look at the conference shape. I actually ended up looking at a lot of the papers we rejected, many from close colleagues and friends. I found it a little depressing. I have no doubt there is a lot of excellent work there, and I know how disappointed my friends and colleagues will be to receive those rejections. We did an enormous amount to ensure that the process was right, and I have every confidence in the area chairs and reviewers. But at the end of the day, you know that you will be rejecting a lot of good work. It brought to mind a thought I had at the allocation stage. When we had the draft allocation to each area chair, I went through several of them sanity checking the quality of the allocation. Naturally, I checked those associated with area chairs who are closer to my own areas of expertise. I looked through the paper titles, and I couldn’t help but think what a good workshop each of those allocations would make. There would be some great ideas, some partially developed ideas. There would be some really great experiments and some weaker experiments. But there would be a lot of debate at such workshop. None or very few of the papers would be uninteresting: there would certainly be errors in papers, but that’s one of the charms of a workshop, there’s still a lot more to be said about an idea when it’s presented at a workshop.
Friday 5th September
Returning from an excellent two day UCL-Duke workshop. There is a lot of curiosity about the NIPS experiment, but Corinna and I have agreed to keep the results embargoed until the conference.
Saturday 6th September
Area chairs had until Thursday to finalise their reviews in the light of the final decisions, and also to raise any concerns they had about the final decisions. My own experience of area chairing is that you can have doubts about your reasoning when you are forced to put pen to paper and write the meta review. We felt it was important to not rush the final process to allow any of those doubts to emerge. In the end, the final program has 3 or 4 changes from the draft we first distributed on Monday night, so there may be some merit in this approach. We had a further 3 hour teleconference today to go through the meta-reviews, with a particular focus on those for papers around the decision boundary. Other issues such as comments in the wrong place (the CMT interface can be fairly confusing, 3% of meta reviews were actually placed in the box meant for notes to the program chairs) were also covered. Our big concern was if the area chairs had written a review consistent with our final verdict. A handy learning task would have been to build a sentiment model to predict accept/reject from the meta review.
Monday 8th September
Our plan had been to release reviews this morning, but we were still waiting for a couple of meta-reviews to be tidied up and had an outstanding issue on one paper. I write this with CMT ‘loaded’ and ready to distribute decisions. However, when I preview the emails the variable fields are not filled in (if I hit ‘send’ I would send 5,000 emails that start “Dear $RecipientFirstName$, which sounds somewhat impersonal … although perhaps more critical is that the authors would be informed of the fate of paper “$Title$,” which may lead to some confusion. CMT are on a different time zone, 8 hours behind. Fortunately, it is late here, so there is a good chance they will respond in time …
Tuesday 9th September
I was wide awake at 6:10 despite going to sleep at 2 am. I always remember when I was Area Chair with John Platt that he would be up late answering emails and then out of bed again 4 hours later doing it again. A few final checks and the all clear for everything is there. Pressed the button at 6:22 … emails are still going out and it is 10:47. 3854 of the 5615 emails have been sent … one reply which was an out of office email from China. Time to make a coffee …
1678 submissions 414 papers accepted 20 papers for oral 62 for spotlight 331 for poster 19 rejected without review
Epilogue to Decision Mail: So what was wrong with those variable names? I particularly like the fact that something different was wrong with each one. $RecipientFirstName$ and $RecipientEmail$ are not available in the “Notification Wizard”, whereas they are in the normal email sending system. Then I got the other variables wrong, $Title$->$PaperTitle$ and $PaperId$->$PaperID$, but since neither of the two I knew to be right were working I assumed there was something wrong with the whole variable substitution system … rather than it being that (at least) two of the variable types just happen to be missing from this wizard … CMT responded nice and quickly though … that’s one advantage of working late.
Epilogue on Acceptances: At the time of the conference there were only 411 papers presented because three were withdrawn. Withdrawals were usually due to some deeper problem authors had found in there own work, perhaps triggered by comments from reviewers. So in the end there were 411 papers accepted and 328 posters.
So the decisions have been out for a few days now, and of course we have had some queries about our processes. Every one has been pretty reasonable, and their frustration is understandable when three reviewers have argued for accept but the final decision is to reject. This is an issue with ‘space-constrained’ conferences. Whether a paper gets through in the end can depend on subjective judgements about the paper’s qualities. In particular, we’ve been looking for three components to this: novelty, clarity and utility. Papers with borderline scores (and borderline here might be that the average score is in the weak accept range) are examined closely. The decision about whether the paper is accepted at this point necessarily must come down to judgement, because for a paper to get scores this high the reviewers won’t have identified a particular problem with the paper. The things that come through are how novel the paper is, how useful the idea is, and how clearly it’s presented. Several authors seem to think that the latter should be downplayed. As program chairs, we don’t necessarily agree. It’s true that it is a great shame when a great idea is buried in poor presentation, but it’s also true that the objective of a conference is communication, and therefore clarity of presentation definitely plays a role. However, it’s clear that all these three criteria are a matter of academic judgement: that of the reviewers, the area chair and the quad groups in the teleconferences. All the evidence we’ve seen is that reviewers and area chairs did weigh these aspects carefully, but that doesn’t mean that all their decisions can be shown to be right, because they are often a matter of perspective. Naturally authors are upset when what feels like a perfectly good paper is rejected on more subjective grounds. Most of the queries are on papers where this is felt to be the case.
There has also been one query on process, and whether we did enough to evaluate on these criteria, for those papers in the borderline area, before author rebuttal. Authors are naturally upset when the area chair raises such issues in the final decision’s meta review, but these points weren’t there before. Personally I sympathise with both authors and area chairs in this case. We made some effort to encourage authors to identify such papers before rebuttal (we sent out attention reports that highlighted probable borderline papers) but our main efforts at the time were chasing missing and inappropriate or insufficient reviews. We compressed a lot into a fairly short time, and it was also a period when many are on holiday. We were very pleased with the performance of our area chairs, but I think it’s also unsurprising if an area chair didn’t have time to carefully think through these aspects before author rebuttal.
My own feeling is that the space constraint on NIPS is rather artificial, and a lot of these problems would be avoided if it wasn’t there. However, there is a counter argument that suggests that to be a top quality conference NIPS has to have a high reject rate. NIPS is used in tenure cases within the US and these statistics are important there. Whilst I reject these ideas: I don’t think the role of a conference is to allow people to get promoted in a particular country, nor is that the role of a journal: they are both involved in the communication and debate of scientific ideas. However, I do not view the program chair roles as reforming the conference ‘in their own image’. You have to also consider what NIPS means to the different participants.
NIPS as Christmas
I came up with an analogy for this which has NIPS in the role of Christmas (you can substitute Thanksgiving, Chinese New Year, or your favourite traditional feast). In the UK Christmas is a traditional holiday about which people have particular expectations, some of them major (there should be Turkey for Christmas Dinner) and some of them minor (there should be an old Bond movie on TV). These expectations have changed over time. The Victorians used to eat Goose and the Christmas tree was introduced from Germany by Prince Albert’s influence in the Royal Household, and they also didn’t have James Bond, I think they used Charles Dickens instead. However, you can’t just change Christmas ‘overnight’, it needs to be a smooth transition. You can make lots of arguments about how Christmas could be a better meal, or that presents make the occasion too commercial, but people have expectations so the only way to make change is slowly. Taking small steps in the right direction. For any established successful venture this approach makes a lot of sense. There are many more ways to fail than be successful and I think that the rough argument is that if you are starting from a point of success you should be careful about how quickly you move because you are likely end up in failure. However, not moving at all also leads to failure. I think this year we’ve introduced some innovations and an analysis of the process that will hopefully lead to improvements. We certainly aren’t alone in these innovations, each NIPS before us has done the same thing (I’m a particular fan of Zoubin and Max’s publication of the reviews). Whether we did this well or not, like those borderline papers, is a matter for academic judgement. In the meantime I (personally) will continue to try to enjoy NIPS for what it is, whilst wondering about what it could be and how we might get there. I also know that as a community we will continue to innovate, launching new conferences with new models for reviewing (like ICLR).