Prior and Prejudice: The Novice Reviewers' Bias against Resubmissions in Conference Peer Review

Ivan Stelmakh, Nihar B. Shah, Aarti Singh, Hal Daumé

Modern machine learning and computer science conferences are experiencing a surge in the number of submissions that challenges the quality of peer review as the number of competent reviewers is growing at a much slower rate. To curb this trend and reduce the burden on reviewers, several conferences have started encouraging or even requiring authors to declare the previous submission history of their papers. Such initiatives have been met with skepticism among authors, who raise the concern about a potential bias in reviewers' recommendations induced by this information. In this work, we investigate whether reviewers exhibit a bias caused by the knowledge that the submission under review was previously rejected at a similar venue, focusing on a population of novice reviewers who constitute a large fraction of the reviewer pool in leading machine learning and computer science conferences. We design and conduct a randomized controlled trial closely replicating the relevant components of the peer-review pipeline with $133$ reviewers (master's, junior PhD students, and recent graduates of top US universities) writing reviews for $19$ papers. The analysis reveals that reviewers indeed become negatively biased when they receive a signal about paper being a resubmission, giving almost 1 point lower overall score on a 10-point Likert item ($\Delta = -0.78, \ 95\% \ \text{CI} = [-1.30, -0.24]$) than reviewers who do not receive such a signal. Looking at specific criteria scores (originality, quality, clarity and significance), we observe that novice reviewers tend to underrate quality the most.

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