Many conferences in my field use two-phase reviewing: in the first phase, 2-3 reviewers review the paper; their reviews are made available to the authors; the authors are given a chance to respond; and then in the second phase, the reviewers read the authors' response and the program chairs might optionally solicit additional reviews.

If a paper receives poor reviews after the first phase, so that it looks like the paper is likely to be rejected, is it ethical to withdraw the paper and submit it elsewhere, without making significant changes?

I read Ethical implications of withdrawing a paper during the rebuttal phase and submitting it somewhere else, which asks about a similar question, but I am interested in the specific case where the authors were well-intended (they submitted to the first conference with the legitimate hope it would be accepted) but do not plan to make significant revisions before re-submitting -- a case that is not covered by the answers there. For instance, it is not uncommon to submit to a selective conference in hopes that it will be accepted, discover that the reviewers don't consider it strong enough for publication there, and then consider submitting to a less selective conference. (So it's not that the paper is flawed, but it isn't strong enough in its current form.)


There is absolutely no ethical concern or constraint at all here. The reviews you get in academia for such works are a gift to the community and to you. You have complete control over the paper until you give up your rights to it. The reviewers aren't paid by the conferences (or journals). If I as a reviewer help you improve a paper you have submitted to conference A and it later appears at conference B instead, everyone has gained. And you aren't bound to take my advice. There is no contract to that effect. If I review your paper, I get no rights to take over its content or ideas.

Moreover, it may be that the paper without change is actually appropriate elsewhere and the reviews were colored to some extent by the nature of the conference.

Most academic conferences aren't held as profit making concerns and nearly everyone involved is a volunteer (some support staff may be paid). It is a service we do th the idea of scholarship itself, nothing more.

If I give you a gift, it is yours to use as you like or not and welcome. You have taken nothing that wasn't given freely.

Over the course of your life you have gotten a lot of advice. Some of it you even solicited. But much of it you probably ignored. It was advice, nothing more. Use it if it is valuable.

While there are no ethical concerns, there are some practical ones. The sets of reviewers in the various CS conferences overlap somewhat. And if you got particular reviewer for one, there is a non-zero chance the same person will come up again, especially for topics with few available reviewers.

  • Of course the work of the referees is not "free", it was paid by their home institutions which consider this activity a part of researcher's job. But it's actually irrelevant who is paying as long as it's not the authors. Wasting resources you've paid for may still have ethical concerns, but wasting resources resources you've got for free - definitely does. – Kostya_I May 25 '20 at 12:02
  • @Kostya_I, in forty years of teaching, I never had a contract that suggested I was paid for reviewing. And do you suggest that every author has to agree with reviews received? If you give me a shirt for my birthday and I decide not to wear it, is there an ethical concern? – Buffy May 25 '20 at 12:19
  • so, in these 40 years of teaching, you never wrote a review in your office during your work hours, only in your spare time? And if you did, it would be considered a breach of job description and you could be fired for that? Of course not. When reviewers "voluntarily donate their time", they in practice donate their work time, paid by employers. – Kostya_I May 25 '20 at 13:17
  • @Kostya_I, Neither did I have a designated work schedule other than meeting classes. I did plenty of things in my office during what you might think of as work hours. I also did plenty of things on what you might think of as my "personal" time. I was a professional, not a wage-slave. – Buffy May 25 '20 at 13:21
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    As for your analogies, you have a "gift" analogy, that uses someone else's resources but is unsolicited, and "advice" analogy that is solicited but typically requires no resources. But in the refereeing situation, it's both. By submitting to a conference, you solicit referee report and thereby commit not to waste resources put into it. – Kostya_I May 25 '20 at 13:26

It depends on the nature of the feedback.

Clear no: If the reviewers noted severe shortcomings such as objective technical flaws or omissions of significant related work, not addressing the feedback seems a clear-cut ethical violation, as the authors would now misrepresent the soundness/novelty of their work despite their better knowledge.

Gray area: If the reviewers struggled to understand the paper due to presentation issues, one might argue that not addressing this feedback would lead to a wasteful use of a scarce community resource (reviewer time).

Clear yes: A type of feedback that would not require addressing is non-actionable, subjective feedback ("Your technique only does X, but I would prefer to see a technique that does Y").

  • But the time already spent by the reviewers is a sunk cost. If you are pretty sure you won't be able to make the paper acceptable, won't you actually be saving the reviewers' time by not making them look at it again? Of course you can, and should, still take the feedback into account when revising the paper to submit it somewhere else. – Nate Eldredge May 24 '20 at 17:26
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    @NateEldredge The ethical violation doesn't arise from the withdrawing, but from the unwillingness to address the feedback (as far as the feedback is actionable). It's actually the same situation as if the authors just waited for the paper to be rejected and then resubmitted without addressing the feedback (which I would consider unethical as well). – lighthouse keeper May 24 '20 at 17:32
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    Okay, I see what you're saying. But I think I would only say that the authors have an obligation to seriously consider the feedback, and decide for themselves to what extent it ought to be addressed. It is after all their paper, not the reviewers'. – Nate Eldredge May 24 '20 at 17:41

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