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The Nastiness Problem in Computer Science


Bertrand Meyer

Are we malevolent grumps? Nothing personal, but as a community computer scientists sometimes seem to succumb to negativism. They admit it themselves. A common complaint in the profession is that instead of taking a cue from our colleagues in more cogently organized fields such as physics, who band together for funds, promotion, and recognition, we are incurably fractious. In committees, for example, we damage everyone's chances by badmouthing colleagues with approaches other than ours. At least this is a widely perceived view ("Circling the wagons and shooting inward," as Greg Andrews put it in a recent discussion). Is it accurate?

One statistic that I have heard cited is that in 1-to-5 evaluations of projects submitted to the U.S. National Science Foundation the average grade of computer science projects is one full point lower than the average for other disciplines. This is secondhand information, however, and I would be interested to know if readers with direct knowledge of the situation can confirm or disprove it.

More such examples can be found in the material from a recent keynote by Jeffrey Naughton, full of fascinating insights (see his Powerpoint slides). Naughton, a database expert, mentions that only one paper out of 350 submissions to SIGMOD 2010 received a unanimous “accept” from its referees, and only four had an average accept recommendation. As he writes, "either we all suck or something is broken!"

Much of the other evidence I have seen and heard is anecdotal, but persistent enough to make one wonder if there is something special with us. I am reminded of a committee for a generously funded CS award some time ago, where we came close to not giving the prize at all because we only had "good" proposals, and none that a committee member was willing to die for. The committee did come to its senses, and afterwards several members wondered aloud what was the reason for this perfectionism that almost made us waste a great opportunity to reward successful initiatives and promote the discipline.

We come across such cases so often—the research proposal evaluation that gratuitously but lethally states that you have "less than a 10% chance" of reaching your goals, the killer argument  "I didn't hear anything that surprised me" after a candidate's talk—that we consider such nastiness normal without asking any more whether it is ethical or helpful. (The "surprise" comment is particularly vicious. Its real purpose is to make its author look smart and knowledgeable about the ways of the world, since he is so hard to surprise; and few people are ready to contradict it: Who wants to admit that he is naïve enough to have been surprised?)

A particular source of evidence is refereeing, as in the SIGMOD example.  I keep wondering at the sheer nastiness of referees in CS venues.

We should note that the large number of rejected submissions is not by itself the problem. Naughton complains that researchers spend their entire careers being graded, as if passing exams again and again. Well, I too like acceptance better than rejection, but we have to consider the reality: with acceptance rates in the 8%-20% range at good conferences, much refereeing is bound to be negative. Nor can we angelically hope for higher acceptance rates overall; research is a competitive business, and we are evaluated at every step of our careers, whether we like it or not. One could argue that most papers submitted to ICSE and ESEC are pretty reasonable contributions to software engineering, and hence that these conferences should accept four out of five submissions; but the only practical consequence would be that some other venue would soon replace ICSE and ESEC as the publication place that matters in software engineering. In reality, rejection remains a frequent occurrence even for established authors.

Rejecting a paper, however, is not the same thing as insulting the author under the convenient cover of anonymity.

The particular combination of incompetence and arrogance that characterizes much of what Naughton calls "bad refereeing" always stings when you are on the receiving end, although after a while it can be retrospectively funny; one day I will publish some of my own inventory, collected over the years. As a preview, here are two comments on the first paper I wrote on Eiffel, rejected in 1987 by the IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering (it was later published, thanks to a more enlightened editor, Robert Glass, in the Journal of Systems and Software, 8, 1988, pp. 199-246). The IEEE rejection was on the basis of such review gems as:

  • I think time will show that inheritance (section 1.5.3) is a terrible idea.
     
  • Systems that do automatic garbage collection and prevent the designer from doing his own memory management are not good systems for industrial-strength software engineering.

One of the reviewers also wrote: "But of course, the bulk of the paper is contained in Part 2, where we are given code fragments showing how well things can be done in Eiffel. I only read 2.1 arrays. After that I could not bring myself to waste the time to read the others." This is sheer boorishness passing itself off as refereeing. I wonder if editors in other, more established disciplines tolerate such attitudes. I also have the impression that in non-CS journals the editor has more personal leverage. How can the editor of IEEE-TSE have based his decision on such a biased an unprofessional review? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

"More established disciplines": Indeed, the usual excuse is that we are still a young field, suffering from adolescent aggressiveness. If so, it may be, as Lance Fortnow has argued in a more general context, "time for computer science to grow up." After some 60 or 70 years we are not so young any more.

What is your experience? Is the grass greener elsewhere? Are we just like everyone else, or do we truly have a nastiness problem in computer science?

 

 


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