Reproducibility Debate: Should Code Release be Compulsory for Conference Publications?

Update: Added discussions in the end based on Twitter conversations. 

Yesterday, I was on the debate team at DALI conference in gorgeous George in South Africa. The topic was:

“DALI believes it is justified for industry researchers not to release code for reproducibility because of proprietary code and dependencies.”

I was opposing the motion, and this matched by personal beliefs.  I am happy to talk about my own stance but I cannot disclose the arguments of others, since it was off the records (and their arguments were not necessarily their own personal opinions).

Edit: Uri Shalit and I formed the team opposing the motion. I checked with him to see if he is fine with me mentioning it. We collaboratively came back with the points below. 

This topic is timely since ICML 2019 has added reproducibility as one of the factors to be considered by the reviewers. When it first came up, it seemed natural to set standards for reproducibility: the same way we set standards for a publication at our top-tier conferences. However, I was disheartened to see vocal opposition, especially from many “big-name” industry researchers. So with that background, DALI decided to focus the reproducibility debate on industry researchers.

My main reasons for opposing the motion:

  • Pseudo-code is just not enough: Anyone who has tried to implement an algorithm from another paper knows how terribly frustrating and time consuming it can be. With complex DL algorithms, every tiny detail matters: from hyperparameters to the randomness of the machine. It is another matter that this brittleness of DL is a huge cause of concern. See excellent talk by Joelle Pineau on reproducibility issues in reinforcement learning. In the current peer-review environment, it is nearly impossible to get a paper accepted unless all comparisons are made. I have personally had papers rejected even after we clearly stated that we could not reproduce the results of another paper.
  • Unfair to academic researchers: The cards are already stacked against academic researchers: they do not have access to vast compute and engineering resources. This is exasperated by the lack of reproducibility. It is grossly unfair to expect a graduate student to reproduce the results of a 100-person engineering team. It is critical to keep academia competitive: we are training the next generation and much of basic research still happens only in academia.
  • Accountability and fostering healthy environment: As AI gets deployed in the real world, we need to be responsible and accountable. We would not allow new medical drugs into the market without careful trials.  The same standards should apply to AI , especially in safety critical applications. It first starts with setting  rigorous standards for our research publications. Having accessible code allows the research community to extensively test the claims of the paper. Only then, it can be called legitimate science.
  • No incentives for voluntary release of code: Jessica Forde gave me some depressing statistics: currently only one third of the papers voluntarily release code. Many argue that making it compulsory is Draconian.  I will take Draconian any day if it ensures a fair environment that promotes honest progress.  There is also the broader issue that the current review system is broken: fair credit assignment is not ensured and false hype is unfairly rewarded. I am proud how the AI field, industry in particular, has embraced the culture of open sourcing.  This is arguably the single most important factor for rapid progress. There is incentive for industries to open source since it allows them to capture a user base. These incentives have a smaller effect on release of individual papers. It is therefore needed to enforce standards.
  • To increase synergistic impacts of the field: Counter-intuitively, code release will move the field away from leaderboard chasing. When code is readily available, barriers of entry for incremental research are lowered. Researchers are incentivized to do “deeper” investigation of the algorithms. Without this, we are  surely headed for the next AI winter. 

Countering the arguments that support the motion:

  • Cannot separate code from internal infrastructure: There exist (admittedly imperfect) solutions such as containerization. But this is a technical problem, and we are good at coming up with solutions for such well-defined problems.
  • Will drive away industry researchers and will slow down progress of AI: First of all,  progress of AI is not just dependent on industry researchers. Let us not have an “us vs. them” mentality. We need both industry and academia to make AI progress. I am personally happy if we can drive away researchers who are not ready to provide evidence for their claims. This will create a much healthier environment and will speed up progress.
  • Reproducibility is not enough: Certainly! But it is a great first step. As next steps, we need to ensure usable and modular code. We need abstractions that allows for easy repurposing of parts of the code. These are great technical challenges: ones our community is very well equipped to tackle.

Update from Twitter conversations

There was enthusiastic participation on Twitter. A summary below:


Useful tools for reproducibility:

Screen Shot 2019-01-28 at 4.45.56 PMScreen Shot 2019-01-28 at 4.42.29 PMScreen Shot 2019-01-28 at 4.50.25 PMScreen Shot 2019-01-28 at 5.07.10 PMScreen Shot 2019-01-28 at 4.51.04 PMScreen Shot 2019-01-28 at 4.42.03 PMScreen Shot 2019-01-28 at 5.17.36 PMScreen Shot 2019-01-28 at 5.07.24 PMLessons from other communities: 

Screen Shot 2019-01-28 at 5.18.37 PMScreen Shot 2019-01-28 at 5.18.58 PMScreen Shot 2019-01-28 at 4.46.25 PMIt is not just about code, but data, replication etc: 

Screen Shot 2019-01-28 at 5.16.42 PMScreen Shot 2019-01-28 at 5.08.23 PMScreen Shot 2019-01-28 at 5.17.56 PMScreen Shot 2019-01-28 at 5.20.26 PMDisagreements: 

Screen Shot 2019-01-28 at 5.22.31 PMScreen Shot 2019-01-28 at 5.23.24 PM

I assume that the Tweet above does not represent the official position of Deep mind, but I am not surprised.

I do not agree with the premise that it is a worthwhile exercise for others to reinvent the wheel, only to find out it is just vaporware. It is unfair to academia and unfair to graduate students whose careers depend on this.

I also find it ironic that the comment states that if an algorithm is so brittle to hyperparameters we should not trust these results. YES! That is the majority of deep RL results that are hyped up (and we know who the main culprit is).

What happens behind the doors: Even though there is overwhelming public support, I know that such efforts get thwarted in committee meetings of popular conferences like ICML and NeurIPS. We need to apply more pressure to have better accountability.

It is time to burst the bubble on hyped up AI vaporware with no supporting evidence. Let the true science begin!


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