🛠️  Hacking with Hamlet  👑

The work of a critic in peer review

SIGGRAPH reviews were sent out last night. As always, I am reminded of Anton Ego’s speech from the film Ratatouille. Ego is a food critic, feared by chefs around the world for his scathing reviews. Near the end of the movie, though, he has a change of heart. In a beautiful speech, he reflects on “the work of a critic” (though as you read his lines, you can substitute “peer reviewer” in place of “critic”). He begins:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.

Isn’t this familiar to academics the world over? We cannot help but think of how double-blind peer review facilitates abuse and bullying under the guise of maintaining standards of scientific rigor. We reflect on the reviewers we have encountered over the years, especially those who were heady with power and security, rarely satisfied and easily offended.

It is easy to contemplate this and sink into a quiet despair. Why should we bother? Why should we drag ourselves through the system, giving ourselves up year after year to the judgement of faceless bullies?

Here is Ego’s answer:

But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.

But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

Is the average piece-of-junk paper more meaningful than a reviewer’s fiery rejection? Think of the time and effort taken to write a paper—even a bad one—compared to the time taken to write a curt dismissal, think of the countless stories of seminal work that faced rejection after rejection years before its importance became evident to the world.

What is the reviewer’s role—to squash bad ideas, or to spot good ideas? In what direction are the consequences of error more severe? What is more impactful in a field content with citing and even celebrating unpublished preprints? What is the broader research community’s role in discerning the quality of a paper post-publication?

I open a blank Word document to type my rebuttal. I defend my work as best as I can. It is soul-gutting work. I type and type and type and I whisper to myself: The new needs friends. The new needs friends. The new needs friends.