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  • A non-native speaker's guide to TPC meetings and paper reviews
    In English 2010. 5. 4. 23:30

    Have you ever devoted a weekend on piles of undecipherable papers wondering
    whether it is bad writing or your poor English that made your life as a reviewer
    particularly challenging?  If so, this is for you.

    Before you are invited to serve in a program committee,
    you don't get to read lots of badly written papers.
    Most papers presented in decent conferences are well organized and reasonably written
    and those are the only papers you probably have read in classes and for your research.
    Come TPC service, and for the first time in your life you are given lots of all sorts
    of papers.  Many of them are poorly written in one way or another.

    For those papers that have serious grammatical errors are easy.  You just reject them.
    That is, in theory.  The review writing is a different story.  However bad the paper is,
    your review should be encouraging and constructive.  You have to think hard to
    say nice things about the paper.  Sometimes you have to try really hard.

    Then there are those papers that confuse you with their twisted or elusive style of
    writing.  You wonder if it's your comprehensive capability that is challenged
    or it's just a bad paper.  This type of paper leaves you baffled.
    You probably spend lots of time on this type of paper to decipher and write the review.
    -- The first time I heard a native speaker complain that s/he couldn't understand
    a paper at a TPC meeting, boy, I almost had a heart attack!  It was okay to
    blame it on the paper!  But as a non-native speaker, I put too much blame on me.
    Please don't.

    Finally come those few beautifully well-executed papers.
    These papers are a pleasure to read.  And you learn a lot.
    But then you have to think hard to find flaws or see different perspectives for feedback. 
    Again you're pulling your hair.

    In total you have read 30 papers x 14 pages/paper = 420 pages
    plus 2 page-long reviews of your fellow reviewers per paper = 60 more pages
    on such a broad spectrum of topics from 
    differential privacy, 3d-DCT, VM management in cloud computing to GPU acceleration.
    -- When was the last time you read "war and peace"?  Yeah, that feeling.
    Plus you have to get expert witness if you really feel unqualified to evaluate
    a paper (or all the papers?).

    Even if you never thought you were a slow reader, you will feel slow
    in reading and writing, especially when you hear some friends say they only 
    spend an hour to review a paper.  You must be a decent technical writer
    of your own work (that's what got you into the TPC at the first place!).
    But we're talking about outcome of million revisions.  If you think slowly
    in English than you can type, you're a slow writer by definition.

    When the reviews are done, comments fly between reviewers intermittently.
    You read other people's reviews and wonder how they can write so long.
    Sometimes as long as the paper itself!
    You wish you had that much time for your own paper.
    At the same time you'll be busy making travel arrangements.
    Your secretary will complain that this trip cannot be billed to this project or that
    because no such itemization has been done before in other disciplines.
    You'll have to convince her/him that the TPC meeting is truly of professional nature.
    Year-end budget review is another story and I'll skip it here.

    Now you pack and take the long flight to attend the TPC meeting.
    Don't be surprised if you're the only one with jetlag because
    the TPC meetings are almost always on the East Coast of the US
    or in Europe once in a blue moon.  The meeting typically begins at 9am
    at the latest and goes on through sandwich-box lunch and no break.
    After 3pm everyone gets tired.  You are not only tired.  
    You're fighting not to fall asleep and look singularly out of place.
    But the disucssion goes on.

    There would be some people who read all their assigned papers and more just for fun.
    And add opinions to every other paper discussed.  You wonder if they had
    some mechanical reader that fed papers directly to their brain and
    where you could get it.

    After seemingly endless discussion about papers in categories like
    accept if we're desparate, reject unless absolutely unavoidable, 
    keep only if we want to embarrass ourselves, etc., the day will come to an end eventually.

    Now you go out with colleagues for some nice dinner and relax.
    Or you fly out empty-stomached.
    Because you've flown the longest, your schedule is the worst.
    Others go home in half a day; you'll be back in two days.
    For a day-long meeting, you lose 4 days.
    If you participate in more than one TPC meeting a year, that costs you a week! 

    Now you know why there aren't that many non-US and non-Europe folks in a typical
    TPC-mtg-required CS conference TPC.  You don't serve in TPC, 'cause you're smart.
    TPC service is not appreciated in your project review, year-end review, 
    or domestic community visibility.  People wonder why any smart ass
    would waste days and weeks on such a meeting.  Stay put instead of traveling
    and do some real work, others think.  In particular, your colleagues in other
    real science departments.

    And you won't have to worry long 'cause the older you get, the smarter you become,
    unless you're genetically re-engineered at this point to
    enjoy the long cattle-class flight and work hard always.

    Start praying now that CS will become just like other science displines
    where journal reviews be executed promptly,
    and people somehow move on from conference to journal publications for their tenure.
    So that no longer you'd be improving your reading and writing speed
    through every TPC service as if you had gone thru a navy seal boot camp and 
    just extended your in-water lung capacity by one minute.
    You won't time your research output to conference deadlines and worry about
    publication venues; instead you'll just work and publish when enough progress has been made.
    You won't be shuffling budget all year around to choose TPC meetings and conferences
    to attend based on your paper's fate, your budget and class schedule.
    You'll know what conferences to attend at the beginning of a year, almost sure
    that your friends will all come and your secretary won't have last-minute budget crisis.
    One day, I say.

    Till then, good luck!

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