The ACH/ALLC Abstract Review Database

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Elli Mylonas

    Brown University

  2. 2. Todd Hettenbach

    Brown University

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The ACH/ALLC Abstract Review Database
Elli Mylonas
Brown University
Todd Hettenbach
Brown University
Keywords: html, distributed abstract review, database
Each year, the ACH and ALLC send forms out to the reviewers of the abstracts that are submitted to the annual conference. These forms ask the reviewers to identify themselves and the abstract, to evaluate relevant expertise, and certainty of judgement, then ask for numeric rankings of different aspects of the abstract (significance, technical knowledge, rigour, clarity, references, etc.). Finally, there is space for comments to the author and to the program committee. Until this year, the forms were sent out and returned via email, but the information on it was not rigidly structured. Program committees and local organizers "processed" them by hand.

Since the process was already electronic, this year we decided to automate part of the tabulation process. To this end, we decided to implement a database that was accessible through the WWW, so the program committee could view and sort reviews according to different criteria, as well as see all the comments. As our conference does not traditionally have a program committee meeting to decide on papers, this would allow the whole program committee to see all the reviews. The program committee could collectively decide which papers were important to discuss and re-read, and would also be able to contextualize their discussion with respect to all rankings. This approach dovetailed extremely well with the decision of the local organizers to put all paper abstracts online. Now, all reviewers could look at all papers, and papers and reviews could be linked for the program committee.

Our solution
The program committee felt that email was still the best way to communicate with reviewers, and did not want to require WWW forms capabilities. Therefore, we decided to continue with distributing and collecting review forms by email. We created a structured review form, which contained substantially the same information as those from previous years, but used an SGML like "pointy bracket" syntax to identify the different fields. We asked reviewers to be careful not to delete any of the tags as they filled in their reviews. As we shall see later, the creativity of the ACH/ALLC reviewers proved this to be our biggest mistake.

The specifications for the database were that it should create a record for each review, and be able to display reviews by paper number and by Summary score (a score assigned by the reviewer). It also had to be able to keep track of reviewers, so that it was possible to learn any reviewer's average review scores, but to keep reviewers' names hidden from database users. As implemented, an overview displayed the paper number, followed by the average Summary score, as well as each Summary score that the abstract had received. This provided both ranking and an analytical view, at a glance. From this view, it was possible to read the abstract itself, see each complete review, or just see all the comments from all the reviewers for each abstract. We also wanted a reviewer module that would show the averege and analytical score for each (anonymous) reviewer. This would let the program committee decide that a score of 6 from a reviewer who assigned only 3s elsewhere was stronger support than an 8 from a reviewer who assigned all 8s.

We used Sybase as our database and SyPerl as the CGI scripting language. We also had to write verification and cleaning routines to make the email review forms that we received. The database worked as described, except for the reviewer overview which we did not have time to implement.

When it was finally in place, the whole system worked well, and we had generally positive feedback from the program committee. Most of their complaints had to do with the speed of the connection, especially from Europe (they asked for a mirror site), and with inconsistencies in the data, which are discussed below. They felt that it was useful to be able to scan through all the reviews and to see the paper rankings. We were also able to easily discuss and re-review that crucial number of papers that are in the middle, neither clear acceptances, nor clear rejections. In the past, these were usually singled out by the program chair or the local organizers, and sent out for discussion to the program commmittee. We all felt that we wanted more time to work with the database of reviews and to make our decisions (the last reviews came in just a few days before the notification deadline).

Because it compiles all the comments that reviewers write for each paper, this system also makes it easier to mail out authors' comments to them when the reviewing process is over.

Almost all the serious problems we encountered as we loaded and tried to use this reviewing aid were due to inconsistencies and mistakes in the data. It became abundantly clear, from the very first reviews that came back, that email forms were not a good idea. The most prominent mistakes were that reviewers filled in incorrect or invalid information for the name and number of the paper and the rankings; they forgot or refused to fill in some fields; and they deleted tags by mistake as they typed. We were able to write checking routines to catch some of these mistakes, but we kept finding new problems as we loaded the database and viewed the information on the web. The only comfort was that reviewers tended to make the same mistake consistently, so once a problem was found it was possible to eradicate it from all the reviews it appeared in.

The next version
The next version, currently being worked on, uses WWW forms for submitting reviews. The paper name and number and the reviewer's email (used for indentification) can therefore be entered automatically, and data can be validated on submission. It also obviates the need for loading the database by hand, so that the program committee can start to think about papers as soon as the reviews start to arrive, and not wait while it is loaded in batches.

Having done a certain amount of work, we felt that it would be satisfying to have this system used for more than one conference. We are therefore generalizing the database definition and Perl scripts, so that someone who is moderately expert in large databases can customize it for their own purposes. We are also moving from Sybase, which is a large commercial package, to miniSQL, which is free to universities. The reviewing database will be available from the STG website ( later this summer.

This review database is well tailored to the way that ACH/ALLC does paper reviewing. We rely a great deal on numerical information, only later looking at reviewers' comments. This kind of data is easy to tally and sort. It makes the process of weeding out the definite acceptances and the definite rejections much faster. Additionally, it allows a far-flung program committee to work together much more closely, and to really put together the conference in a collaborative manner.

The poster will provide samples of the reviewing form and of the various screens in a WWW browser, as used by the program committee. We will also show screens from the new version.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at Queen's University

Kingston, Ontario, Canada

June 3, 1997 - June 7, 1997

76 works by 119 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ALLC (9), ACH/ICCH (17), ALLC/EADH (24)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC