Reviewer conduct

Reviewer conduct

The following blog post was first published in March of 2017. In June SIGCHI was advised of the new ACM Policy Against Discrimination and Harassment for Members and Event Attendees. This blog post remains online as a record from March of 2017 of what was communicated to our membership then. Nothing stated in this post supersedes this ACM policy.


In early 2017 SIGCHI has been asked to consider the conduct of reviewers for our conferences, including in the open reviewing process of alt.chi. In addition, committee members and the chairs of various tracks in our conferences often face these questions: what is appropriate behaviour and language for reviewing?

Therefore, we take the opportunity to describe clearly the behavior we expect in the SIGCHI community.

First, since SIGCHI is a special interest group of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), we inherit its principles and policies. This is fortunate, as they do a good job of defining fundamental principles that govern our professional conduct, particularly in the ACM Policy (updated) . The policy begins with first principles: central to ACM’s goal is “the open exchange of ideas and the freedom of thought and expression”. We firmly endorse this, and then ask: what is required to achieve this goal?  Achieving this goal requires “an environment that… fosters dignity, understanding, and mutual respect, and that embraces diversity.” This in turn requires a harassment-free environment for all participants in events, programs and social media. This includes conferences and all the communication that precedes them, e.g., calls for participation, conference websites and reviewing systems, social media channels, etc.

We then must ask: what is harassment? ACM defines it as “unwanted and unwelcome words, deeds, actions, gestures, symbols, or behaviours that make the target feel uncomfortable”. This may seem intuitive, but ACM provides more specific guidance: harassment includes “unwelcome or hostile behaviour, including speech that intimidates, creates discomfort, or interferes with a person’s participation or opportunity for participation, in a conference, event or program… and the use of abusive or degrading language.” We emphasize: this behavior has no place in any ACM activity, and is particularly unwelcome in SIGCHI. We are a diverse community — so different methods and perspectives are welcome. We are an inclusive community — so no one can be silenced or shut down. We are a respectful community — so critiques must be grounded in a real understanding of the work being critiqued and must be offered in a civil and constructive manner.

Let’s return to the specific topic of reviewing. This is a crucial activity because the decisions made here affect people’s careers and their ability and desire to participate in our professional community.  Our conferences typically employ double-blind reviewing to conceal the author and reviewer identities from each other, or at the least, single-blind reviewing to conceal the identity of reviewers. However, the chairs of particular tracks can see and can be made aware of language used in reviews (or indeed rebuttals) that may constitute harassment. Chairs may choose to remove such language as necessary.

However, the open reviewing model that has been used by alt.chi raises more acute challenges, since reviewing becomes an open conversation. Thus, any intimidating, abusive, or degrading comments are much more visible and therefore have greater power to harm people’s professional advancement and careers and their willingness to participate in the SIGCHI community.

The ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct notes that “Quality professional work, especially in the computing profession, depends on professional reviewing and critiquing.” Therefore, writing a review is a serious matter and a privilege. The ACM Publication Policy, Rights and Responsibilitiesspecifically details that the ACM expects reviewers to, “Read the entire submission carefully, prepare the review with care, apply professional judgment, use appropriate language in a review, and fill out provided review forms in full and adequately document in their review the reasons behind their recommendations”. A review or public comment should provide a critical assessment of the work in a constructive manner without resorting to destructive, abusive, sarcastic or degrading language.

Finally, we emphasise that a person who does not comply with these principles is preventing someone else from participating fully in our community. Thus, the penalty for non-compliance can be severe: “Individuals violating these standards may be sanctioned or excluded from further participation at the discretion of the organizers or responsible committee”. SIGCHI will indeed warn, sanction, and, if necessary, exclude individuals who violate ACM’s — and our — standards.