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What are good practices (does and don'ts) when writing a rebuttal for a conference?

For example, for a journal rebuttal letter you can make changes to your paper, and resubmit it for another revision. However, for conferences (and for the tough ones) you cannot make changes to your paper (as far as I know). So you can only address the reviewers comments', don't you? In that case, what are good things to do and what things you should avoid to get a good rebuttal.

  • "... you cannot make changes to your paper ..." I assume this depends on conferences. After all, nobody was ever interested in the author's opinion as far as the conferences I submitted to were concerned, so no rebuttals were asked since the decision was always final. – Anthony Labarre Mar 30 '12 at 8:17
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    It does. In some machine learning conferences, you can now submit an updated version of your paper after a first round of reviews, and this paper goes to a third reviewer who has NOT seen the original reviews. – Suresh Mar 30 '12 at 21:06
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Even for conference papers you can still perform (relatively small) changes after the notification. When trying to rebuttal, it makes much sense to address the main issues raised by the reviewer (and not to pick on the minor changes they suggest). Some good practices include:

  • Acknowledge good suggestions made by the reviewer. If those suggestions are easy to fix, say they are fixable and will be fixed in the final-version.
  • If the reviewers suggestion makes no sense or is not valid - explain why their review is invalid. However, you should acknowledge the fact that if the reviewers did not get it right, there might be a problem in your paper. Promise to clarify those issues for the final version.
  • If the review raise up a valid point that makes your result significantly weaker than you claim, I don't think there is a reason to rebuttal, but other might think differently (trying to justify why it is still a strong result).
  • Don't claim that the reviewer has no idea what s/he is talking about (even if that is indeed the case..)

Bottomline, you should be respectful and polite to the reviewers. Thank them for their suggestions and suggest to fix whatever is fixable even if you think nothing is wrong.

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    In particular: No matter how idiotic the review, do not write your rebuttal while you're angry. – JeffE Mar 30 '12 at 8:16
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    @JeffE: great piece of advice. – Anthony Labarre Mar 30 '12 at 8:18
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Usually, a conference enforcing a rebuttal process will also define what kind of rebuttal an author can write. For instance, the conference ACM CCS (considered as one of the best conferences in security) enforces a rebuttal phase. Let me quote what they wrote during last year edition:

You now have the opportunity to view the preliminary reviews of your submission and, if you wish, enter a response limited to 500 words. This response is completely optional and there is no requirement to respond. If you do, the deadline is [3 days after receiving this message].

Your response must focus on the following:

  • Answers to specific questions raised by reviewers (if any).

  • Factual errors in the reviews.

We stress that your paper is being evaluated as submitted. You may NOT use your response to provide new research results or reformulate the presentation.

Another conference, POST, uses a similar process with similar requirements, with an extra suggestion that I think it's worth mentioning:

  • Your response will be seen by all PC members who have access to the discussion of your paper. Please be polite and constructive.

So, the bottom line is: keep it factual, polite and constructive. If a reviewer doesn't like your paper, then it's unlikely you can change his mind during the rebuttal phase. However, it's just a good opportunity to address some very specific point. For instance, if a reviewer asks: "Isn't your approach undecidable?", then you can answer "yes/no, and we can include the proof in the final version of the paper" (and ideally, link to a research report where the proof is already written). Or if a reviewer wrote "this problem has been already solved 20 years ago by X", then you can answer "We released one of X's assumption, that we believed was too strong for this particular context".

Basically, the rebuttal might be unlikely to change a particular review (unless there was an obvious mistake), but can encourage the PC Chair to ask for another review of your paper. And Jeff's remark is very good, don't write the rebuttal the same day than you receive it :)

  • Is there enough time to get additional (serious) reviews after the rebuttal process? I thought the rebuttal is used mainly to decide the borderline papers (those which are not a clear accept nor a clear reject, and you just have too many of them) – Ran G. Mar 30 '12 at 17:24
  • In the case of CCS, there was 3 weeks between the rebuttal and the final notification. For POST, there was about 2 weeks. In the case of both conferences, I think that the rebuttal phase was for all papers, they were basically sending the reviews without the score, and leave a chance to the authors to answer them. – user102 Mar 30 '12 at 18:18

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