At a conference earlier this year, I went to some talks on a research topic that is only sort of related to what I do. That is, I am not directly involved in any of the research presented, nor are any of my close colleagues, but I'm moderately interested in research in this field and I wanted to see what was new and interesting.
The strongest impression that I took away from the talks was not about any new or interesting results, but about how the research was presented. The research topic is one that involves many different research groups from all over the world. These groups, some of which do not have very collegial relationships with each other, have been working on this research topic for a long time. There is a long long history of research and debate on this topic.
At the conference, the talks I attended were dominated by the history of the research groups: who did what when, who said what when, who was right, who was wrong (in the opinion of the speaker), and who was redoing the flawed work of others using a new and better approach.
This made me think. Certainly we should not ignore the relevant work of others when talking about a particular topic, but there's a difference between presenting research as if it is motivated by the personalities involved (who is right/wrong) and presenting research that is driven by fundamental questions and new ideas about how to make progress understanding them. The former seems more appropriate for a review of the history of a particular scientific endeavor, and the latter for a conference presentation on new research results.
If you think it is important to place your work in its historical context (relative to other research on that topic) and/or if you really want to distinguish your own work from those of others and/or settle scores, you may well be able to do this in a more effective way if you focus on the questions, ideas, and results, giving due credit (or criticism) in a way that does not dominate the substance of the presentation.
Of course, if your presentation is titled "I Am Right and Everyone Else is Wrong About Z", then go ahead and make it personal. You could even (as was done in a recent talk) include photos of the people who (unlike you) got it wrong. Maybe, if you are feeling like being very dramatic, you could have a big red X appear across the faces of those who (unlike you) have stumbled in their research endeavors.
I am certainly not implying that research is the work of faceless, nameless people whose identities are inconsequential to the progress of Science. If, however, you only have 10-20 minutes to present the latest results of your exciting work to a general audience that consists mostly of people who are not personally invested in the research itself, I bet many in the audience will want to hear your recent results and ideas and not see a presentation dominated by a graphic display of intra-research group animosity and/or boasting.
Or am I being boring and cranky/middle-aged, somehow not appreciating that research is a Sport and conferences are tournaments of some sort?
10 months ago