Why I will never join an Artifacts Evaluation Committee Again

5 minute read

Recently, I served in the Program Committee of the Artifact Track of ESEC/FSE 2020, a major Software Engineering conference. I agreed to join to help a friend and because I think that the Software Engineering community needs to strengthen the principle of open and reproducable science. Moreover, the idea of an artifact track sounds simple enough: You install a bit of well-documented software, you let it run for a bit, and you check whether the results in the paper match those produced on your computer. However, in practice, my experience was less than ideal. In this post, I talk about why and make suggestions for future artifact tracks, helpful hopefully for authors, reviewers, and chairs of future artifact tracks alike.

Poor Photoshop of ACM badges

5 Artifacts to review is … 4 too many?

Reviewing an artifact means means to develop deep understanding of often years of work by a group of authors. I find it deeper than during a paper reviewer. Typically, one has to understand the paper, the artifact, their connection, and how to run it all. In practice, for ESEC/FSE 2020, with 5 papers, this was a Herculean task for me. It also required constant context switching since you have to work on multiple artifacts simultaneously to meet the tight deadline (10 days for reviewing).

Suggestion: Assign one or two artifacts per reviewer.

Interactive sessions cost time (and nerves)

For ESEC/FSE 2020, there was a one week period in which authors and reviewers conversed and tackled problems on GitHub. This makes evaluating artifacts much more cumbersome than reviewing a paper, which is mostly a one-off task you can freely schedule within at least a 2-week time frame. There is also no clear guidance on how fast one should come back to authors in case of a problem. I, for one, have the opinion that I should not be required to hot-patch code in the artifact with an editor. I still did because I wanted to help the authors. There is really no ethical norm on what constitutes good artifact reviewing and how to ensure all artifacts are treated equal. All my artifacts required multiple interactions with the authors to either get them to run or reproduce the results in the paper. Couple the work amount with the lack of prestige that reviewing for an artifact track has, and you end up with a combination that does not sound so attractive anymore.

Suggestion: Limit the number of interactions per artifact (i.e., authors are allowed 2 clarifications) or limit number of artifacts to review (see above).

Please have your local supercomputer at hand

0 out of the 5 artifacts I reviewed would have run on my laptop. Unfortunately, the system requirements were not always documented, so I partly found out after crashing my system or overheating the CPU. Not sure how to solve this for folks who do not have access to server-grade hardware? I imagine it is quite embarrassing to have to come back to the chairs after the artifact assignment and say “erm, sorry, I can actually not review any of these artifacts.” Another problem is that many artifacts require one to install arcane software or apply dubious system changes, which brings me to the next point:

Nothing works out of the box …

… except for the one artifact that used a Vagrant image! Is it good use of reviewers’ time to have to figure out an install process (and typically, a myriad of error messages the original authors had no chance of foreseeing)? I think not. A small minority of artifacts (e.g., benchmarks) might not want to use virtualization. All others (and this should really be 99%): Please, use an image. Note also that having an image does not make it harder to install the software elsewhere.

Suggestion: A virtual machine image should be mandatory. Considering the zoo of virtualization solutions (containers, images, app images), I would even prescribe a certain format for a given track. Exemptions from it should be rare and require explicit permission.

This convenient 154,000 line log file reproduces the results.

Oh, of course, one needs to parse it to get the aggregated results in Table 2, but never mind. Just figuring out what output has been produced where, and to which piece(s) in the paper it relates is often a Sisyphean task. Too many artifact documentations (which are generally of poor quality) end with the sentence “This produces the results.” Authors, please put yourself in the shoes of the reviewer. On the other extreme, there are artifacts that even produce LaTeX tables just like they appear in the paper. This is great per se, but at the same time, I need traceability.

Suggestion: There should be a step-by-step walk through on how to get the paper’s results.

Documentation chaos

Perhaps facilitated by mandating no less than five markdown documents, many artifacts did not adhere to the submission guidelines strictly. An abundance of information spread across a website, README, and wiki, can be helpful later on, but adds to the confusion of the reviewer.

Suggestion: Artifacts should have one canonical tutorial-style document for reviewers; additional information can be very helpful in practice and for later, but should be separate.

GitHub is not a good platform for reviewing

Look at the chaos in the screenshot, which is from the official ESEC/FSE artifact repository. As you can see, there are at least 5 different ways artifacts are stored there, and not all include the paper number. Such accidental complexity needs to be removed.

Chaos in the repository

GitHub has other issues, too. GitHub is not great in

  1. enforcing consistency, or communicating quickly to the chairs which badges to award.
  2. getting an overview of the state of your artifacts.
  3. staying anonymous. Re-using your anonymous GitHub reviewer id (as suggested in the reviewing instructions) lets one draw conclusions on who is who, by matching anonymous ids with previous real-name committees, which are openly accessible on the web. GitHub facilitates this by showing when someone joined the service, even when other activity is hidden.

And then there is always the nagging question of …

Wasn’t this just a bitcoin miner in disguise with a static printf buried somewhere that outputs the results?

Despite putting lots of time into the artifacts track (over 30h!), I would not be 100% confident in excluding this. Sure, I would be negatively surprised, but can I rule it out? Honest answer: no.

Suggestion: We need concrete guidelines for reviewers on how to verify an artifact – do I need to inspect the source code? Do I need to be able to build it myself? Do I need to mutate the input such as to observe mutated output (often times, verifying whether the output is still correct is non-trivial, due to step functions, etc.)? Do I need to verify all of the original results? Is a sample-based evaluation enough?