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Understanding peer review of software engineering papers



Peer review is a key activity intended to preserve the quality and integrity of scientific publications. However, in practice it is far from perfect.


We aim at understanding how reviewers, including those who have won awards for reviewing, perform their reviews of software engineering papers to identify both what makes a good reviewing approach and what makes a good paper.


We first conducted a series of interviews with recognised reviewers in the software engineering field. Then, we used the results of those interviews to develop a questionnaire used in an online survey and sent out to reviewers from well-respected venues covering a number of software engineering disciplines, some of whom had won awards for their reviewing efforts.


We analyzed the responses from the interviews and from 175 reviewers who completed the online survey (including both reviewers who had won awards and those who had not). We report on several descriptive results, including: Nearly half of award-winners (45%) are reviewing 20+ conference papers a year, while 28% of non-award winners conduct that many. The majority of reviewers (88%) are taking more than two hours on journal reviews. We also report on qualitative results. Our findings suggest that the most important criteria of a good review is that it should be factual and helpful, which ranked above others such as being detailed or kind. The most important features of papers that result in positive reviews are a clear and supported validation, an interesting problem, and novelty. Conversely, negative reviews tend to result from papers that have a mismatch between the method and the claims and from papers with overly grandiose claims. Further insights include, if not limited to, that reviewers view data availability and its consistency as being important or that authors need to make their contribution of the work very clear in their paper.


Based on the insights we gained through our study, we conclude our work by compiling a proto-guideline for reviewing. One hope we associate with our work is to contribute to the ongoing debate and contemporary effort to further improve our peer review models in the future.

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Correspondence to Neil A. Ernst.

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Communicated by: Romain Robbes

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Ernst, N.A., Carver, J.C., Mendez, D. et al. Understanding peer review of software engineering papers. Empir Software Eng 26, 103 (2021).

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  • Peer review
  • Interview
  • Survey