Thursday, May 13, 2010

It's Not About You

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?


Ms.PhD said...

My field is rapidly becoming this way. I sometimes wish there were real discourse at meetings, instead of the backstabbing anonymous nonsense coming out passive-aggressively in the so-called peer review process after everyone said your talk was great and that they really like your work. Hmph.

Anyway, I find myself offended sometimes, even if it's not on my own behalf.

For example, a job talk where the person is interviewing at our institution but does not give credit to my advisor where credit is due, and instead tries to imply that they (the job candidate) invented all this on their own (not quite!).

It takes so little time, energy and space to put a citation on your slide. It takes very little time to mention that citation. And it either makes you look arrogant or ignorant. Neither is good.

More than a citation, as you said, is unnecessary unless you are directly attacking previous work. Which, in my experience, will make it clear whose side you're on, especially if it's you vs. the rest of the world.

It's hard to know which way to go, though, if your results conflict with others'. If you're too passive, they ignore you. If you're too brazen, you're picking a fight you might not win.

What's that saying? Well-behaved women rarely make history? Would you rather make history, or not?

Anonymous said...

All too often, the lengthy "our-personal-journey" recitatives end up dominating the presentations I've seen. Especially in the social sciences. Ostensibly they're offered as a sort of gesture towards post-modern subjectivity. But mostly they fuction as an opportunity for the presenter to brag. (And to provide filler when there isn't much of substance to present.)

The worst example I've seen was when an acquaintance of mine defended her masters thesis. She was from a small country that had until recently disallowed any of its citizens to travel to the US (former enemy). Her advisor opened the defense by talking for half an hour about his history doing research in that particular country, how he was the first US person to ever conduct field research there (a dubious and oft-repeated claim of his). He then went on to describe the student exchange program he'd founded in that country. They told him it would never work, but he showed them! It was the first of its kind! (You might guess that we'd in fact been told about all this before.)

When he finally ran out of breath, my colleague had seventeen minutes to rush through her slides and present the research that she'd spent two years on. In the end, her advisor asked her a few throw-away questions, cut off the other members of the advising committee when they tried to pose questions, and congratulated her. I'm surprised he didn't literally pat her on the head.

Anonymous said...

Our department head is really bad for this. He is a Very Famous Scientist, and thinks this means that when he is invited to speak that people want to hear about him, not the science. All his talks are a history of his own research (often going very far back) and research loosely associated with him (which he claims is his), put in the context of how it is better than what everyone else has done and how it has corrected wrong notions held by others (always mentioned by name). It doesn't matter who the audience is. We're always amazed he is repeatedly invited to speak (and he is, very very often) - surely by now he has a reputation for not saying anything useful about the actual science involved?

Personally I think, like you, that people come to talks usualy to hear about the actual results, especially information that could possibly be useful to them, either to further their own research or maybe just to understand things better. I doubt most people are looking for the history and politics of the field.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I've never seen the competition thing going on. I have, however, seen people speak, ostensibly on research done by their groups, but with a very heavy peppering of "these are the people in my group and what each of them is like."

Don't get me wrong, I don't mind people saying this particular facet of the work was done by so-and-so, and here's his picture. It's the people who also have to say that he's the star pitcher on the departmental softball team and he must be brilliant because he got a 1580 on the GRE that bug me. [I'm serious. I actually heard this in a presentation before.]

When I listen to a scientific presentation, I want to hear about the science. And by the by, I want to hear about the science referred to in the title of the talk.

(One of our seminar speakers once got up and said, "The title of the talk is X, but that didn't make for a very interesting presentation, so I'm going to talk about Y instead." I'd been looking forward to hearing about X for months, as it related to my research. Y did not.)

The Lesser Half said...

It comes down to a fundamental difference in philosophy: I take the act of doing science very personally, but I do not take the observations or my conclusions personally. People who spend lots of time in "personal" scientific battles need to step back and remember that the progress of science is fundamentally built on mistakes. Progress requires disagreement and sometimes, someone has to be wrong. It is not the end of the world. Most importantly, it is not about you, it is about the science!

Example: I recently read an abstract for a dept. seminar by a Very Famous Scientist who used his half page of text to describe the decades of persecution he has faced, naming his oppressor, and then saying that his new results vindicate him and end all controversy. No mention of the actual results or specific implications.

This is the same guy who is famous for giving introductions to speakers that are all about himself, sometimes not even mentioning the speaker.

dot said...

In the middle ground between stabbing other scientists for their "mistakes" or "incomplete results", and presenting the fact in their bare scientificality, there are an infinite ways of telling a scientific (his)story. At least two examples (from physics and computational science) can be told in the following way:

"A analyzed first the question and gave an answer. Then B came and improve the results. C improved A's results in a different way, and for a long time it was not clear which one of B or C's improvement was the major, till D came along and synthesized their results."

Whereas it is enough to know the final result, the addition of the previous results is usefull to promote similar research. The addition of "social" facts such as the dates, names and motivations of the researchers involved actually seems to *help* to involve the reader or auditor (cf book "Brain Rules", chap 2), and to memorize the results.

The speaker does not have to present only the final results and their context. He has also to capture the attention of his audience, and insure that his audience will understand and memorize them.

Anonymous said...

This is not common in my field, however not long ago an invited speaker felt compelled to present her resume instead of her research as the topic of her invited talk.

As if this wasn't enough, she also went on to claim credit for work of one of her postdoc's which was published before he even joined her group.

I don't think many people were impressed by her performance.

Amy said...

I think that this kind of unscientific approach to a scientific talk can be a detriment to the field. When I was a postdoc, thinking about what I wanted to study when I got a lab of my own, I attended a series of conference sessions on an area of research that I was interested in. The talks were full of vaguely historical references and potshots at others in the field and the Q&A sessions were intolerably uncivil. Because of this, I modified the focus of my research plans so that I would not have to spend the next X years of my life with those people! I don't mean to imply that the field is suffering because they don't have me, but in my opinion it is not a good thing if potential colleagues (students, postdocs, PIs) are put off by conference talks in my field.

Anonymous said...

I have seen similar in my own field, and there is a new trend at scientific meetings that I find irritating as well. It is the following phrase, given up front at the beginning of the talk: "The last talk was a great introduction to what I will be speaking about now..." (when in fact the two presenters are from different groups, not collaborating). The reason I find this so irritating is that it is meant to put the present speaker up on a pedestal, and (in my opinion) push the importance of the preceding talk into the background. I think if someone wants to highlight the results of what was presented before, why not just say something like: " So and So gave a great overview of very interesting research results that correlate well with what I found, as follows...". My field has Famous Scientists (or some who think they are) with both good and difficult personalities, and many times I just want to learn about the new, cool research without being constantly reminded by the speaker about how much better they are than everyone else.

Alex said...

I have seen similar in my own field, and there is a new trend at scientific meetings that I find irritating as well. It is the following phrase, given up front at the beginning of the talk: "The last talk was a great introduction to what I will be speaking about now..." (when in fact the two presenters are from different groups, not collaborating). The reason I find this so irritating is that it is meant to put the present speaker up on a pedestal, and (in my opinion) push the importance of the preceding talk into the background.

Eh, there's something to be said for it if they then skip some background slides. Nobody needs 5 consecutive talks beginning with slides on "What is [topic of session]?" If it's in the spirit of "Since you've already seen 3 talks related to this topic, I'll skip the background and get to our specific issue" I'm fine with it.