The Road to VIS 2024 - Handling Conflicts

We’re entering March and the game is heating up! With less than three weeks to go for the VIS 2024 full papers deadline, it is time that we OPCs start turning to critical matters. One of those is conflicts of interest (COIs). In the last installment, we talked about the importance of volunteering to review papers for the conferences to which you submit papers. However, it is equally vital not only that you are reviewing papers, but that you don’t review papers for which you have a conflict.

What is a conflict of interest? COIs arise because of relationships you have with an author or their institution that could affect your judgment of the work or the community’s perception of your judgment. Note the last point. You may be a person of exceptional integrity that could objectively handle reviewing even your own sibling’s work fairly and with no special treatment, but reviewing your own sibling’s paper would look bad for everyone else. One of the pillars of scientific peer review is that it is objective, and that this objectivity can be confirmed by everyone. Conflicts arise in many ways and have varying durations; see the IEEE VGTC reviewer ethics guide for all the details. Family relationships are obviously conflicts with no expiration, but those are relatively rare and quite straightforward. Another conflict is the academic equivalent of a family relationship: your Ph.D. and postdoc advisor, or anyone who has had a close mentorship role for you, are “forever conflicts”. The same is true in the other direction, i.e. for your advisees. Your close relationship means that neither of you can be expected to (or perceived to) treat each other objectively. The same can be said about close personal friendships (or, for that matter, personal animosities, which hopefully are rare).

Most other conflicts have a time expiration, and for IEEE and VIS, this expiration is three years. In other words, once a relationship has ended (e.g. collaboration on the same paper), you can consider the conflict gone after three years.

The rule of thumb is the same for conflicts with an expiration as those with none: is there a relationship that would (or would be perceived to) affect your ability to treat a person objectively? Conflicts with an expiration include sharing an affiliation, co-authorship on published work, working on the same research project or grant, or similar. Service commitments are special: you are obviously not conflicted if you serve on the same program committee, because then basically everyone in the community would be conflicted with each other. In general, even if you work with somebody closely on a small committee over an extended period of time, conflicts do not automatically arise; however, if you become sufficiently close to somebody that it feels like a conflict, then do declare it. Use your best judgment here.

As an aside, us OPCs are selected not to be conflicted with each other because we need to be able to handle each other’s submissions and conflicted submissions.

If you have a conflict with a paper, you should not be involved in any formal publication decisions regarding it. For external reviewers, this means not reviewing papers you are in conflict with. For PC members, this also means not reviewing such papers, and informing the papers chairs immediately if you are assigned to such a paper. For APCs at VIS, this means that if both APCs are in conflict, the conflicted paper will be moved to a different area to avoid the conflict. If just one APC is in conflict, one of the OPCs will step into their place. For OPCs, there is no such option, so in these situations, the conflicted chair will have to recuse themselves from any decisions involving the conflicted paper. Practically speaking, this will mean not participating in the Zoom call when discussing it. The PCS submission system provides good support for handling conflicts, by ensuring that papers chairs cannot see information about such papers.

Here’s the final question we want to cover: how do we detect these conflicts in the first place? This is where you come in. If you are a reviewer for VIS 2024 (either as a PC member or as an external reviewer), it is your responsibility to ensure that your affiliation is correct and that your conflicts have been updated in PCS (the submission system). Because VIS allows for double-blind submissions, we need PCS to flag situations when there is a conflict even if you as a reviewer don’t see the author names. Even for single-blind submissions, where the author names are visible to you, correct affiliations and declared conflicts will minimize situations where you get assigned a paper you really shouldn’t review, and then we all have to go through the hassle of getting the paper reassigned to another reviewer.

Many early-career researchers in the community will have recently changed affiliations, for example Ph.D. students who have graduated and moved on to new institutions. Please make sure you have updated PCS with your new primary affiliation, and also keep your old institution listed as your secondary affiliation for 3 years—the three-year rule applies here as well. Conversely, once those 3 years are up, please remove that institution from your own affiliation list. If you are still actively collaborating with people there, that should be handled through the usual conflicts identification mechanisms in PCS, not through your affiliation.

Speaking of PCS and conflicts: the good news is that PCS will now help accelerate the process of declaring your conflicts by checking against all recent submissions in its database. The bad news is that it’s sometimes over-enthusiastic: it uses a 4-year window rather than a 3-year window, and includes a few tracks where we do not consider conflicts to occur (such as shared participation in a panel or tutorial). So do take a close look at the automatic inferrals, in addition to entering information about any other conflicts such as new collaborations where you have not yet submitted papers together as co-authors.

With all this information fresh in your mind, please take a moment to go into PCS and make sure your affiliation is up to date. (If you’re on the VIS PC, you will also be asked to update your conflicts after the abstracts submission deadline.) Providing all this information already now will make everybody’s life easier.