🛠️  Hacking with Hamlet  👑

Dear area chair, this paper has good bones

I am, for the first time in my academic career, reviewing a paper. It is poorly written, offers little in the way of novel ideas, and evaluates them in a manner that is confusing at best and misleading at worst.

But isn’t that most papers? In a field teeming with hastily written publications—not to mention the ocean of preprints on ArXiv, which blur the lines of “publication”—and Twitter, which gives researchers a platform to promote work outside the confines of peer review—and in a broader scientific community grappling with the flaws of the peer review system—I wonder whether my role as reviewer should really be one of gatekeeping.

What if I write my review assuming that this paper will be published—and widely read—no matter what my review says? What if my job is to find a paper’s “bones”: the pieces that are persuasive, valuable, and worth building on? To help the authors best present their ideas, to try to minimize factual errors, to lay a robust trail of breadcrumbs to related work—in short, to make the paper as helpful as possible to someone reading it one, ten, or a hundred years from now?

I sit in my office writing my review. My mouse hovers over the “weak reject” button, then strays to “weak accept.” I stop. I close my eyes. I think of Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones.”

Good Bones
by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.