How Good Does The Writing Need To Be?

One of the hard parts about reviewing for a conference is trying to rank imperfect papers. Does the novel paper without an evaluation get ranked higher than the incremental work with beautiful experiments? Does the interesting paper in a near-dead area get ranked above the borderline paper that is attacking an important problem?

Over the weekend I reviewed a dozen conference submissions that ended up being quite a bit more interesting than I had feared, but a good 5 or 6 of them had presentation problems. One paper described strong work and was well written in all respects except that it contained literally 50 or 60 errors of this general form:

One of the major reason for…

Obviously this hurts the paper, but how much? The larger context is that although English is the dominant language for scientific publishing, papers are increasingly coming from all over the world. More and more, none of the authors has English as a first language and it’s easy to imagine circumstances where it’s hard for the authors to find someone to do a solid proofreading pass. Having lived overseas for several years when I was younger, I can sympathize with how difficult it is to operate in a foreign language.

The position I’ve arrived at is to try to get a paper rejected when the level of presentation is so poor that it seriously interferes with the technical message, but to let errors slide otherwise. Ideally, I’d also include a detailed list of grammatical mistakes in my review, but in practice this is prohibitively time-consuming when papers contain many dozens of errors.

10 thoughts on “How Good Does The Writing Need To Be?”

  1. I’ve given up on grammatical errors and small things like this, unless, as you say, it really impedes the presentation. I figure that this is what journal paper are for 🙂

  2. Is “One of the major reason for” grammatically incorrect, or is it considered a “weasel word”?

    I am one of those for whom English is not his first language. When a statement sounds awkward, I search it on Google and see if it is commonly used or not. Using this technique with “One of the major reason for” I get a lot of hits (http://goo.gl/91Pkn), so I would say it is correct, but maybe my method is flawed.

    By the way, a good resource for checking doubts about the use of the English language is the SE site http://english.stackexchange.com/.

  3. Seems like the work that gets published in good venues doesn’t have too many writing problems of this sort (though different ones are common …). I wonder if they tend to all get weeded out in review, or whether the get fixed for the CRC.

  4. I agree, Carl. If usable PDF markup software became more ubiquitous and conference paper management systems accepted marked-up copies, this could work really well.

    Alejandro, it should be “One of the major reasons for”. The google idea is a good one, it is crazy that the buggy version of this phrase returns so many hits. But anyway, as Suresh and I say, this isn’t the kind of thing that’s going to get a paper rejected.

    MS Word 2007’s grammar checker does correct “one of the major reason for” to “one of the major reasons for”.

  5. Rob, I agree that papers at top venues tend to be much more well-written, but notice that — at least in systems — the top venues have historically been (and to a large extent still are) dominated by papers from a smallish group of research institutions in the USA. The groups that produce these papers always have some really good writers on board. It seems clear that the dominance of US institutions at these venues is ending, or at least becoming less pronounced.

  6. These days, I almost never correct grammatical errors in my reviews. I wore myself out too early in my career, circling typos in the comments of the programs that I was grading.

  7. “when papers contains many dozens of errors”: intentional? 😉

    “to find sometime” also feels unnatural to me, although I might say it in speech. In writing I’d just say “to find time”, or “to find the time”.

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