Thursday, November 04, 2010


At an international conference not so long ago, I saw a talk by a Distinguished Professor. The talk consisted of figures that he cut and pasted from papers he published decades ago when he was a hot young scientist doing cutting edge work. There was nothing new in the talk: not the images, not the science, even though this was not supposed to be a review talk. I suppose it was accepted as a talk at the conference because of the Distinguishedness of the professor, in honor of the contributions he made to his field in his academic youth.

OK.. I thought, as I listened to the boring talk, this is weird, and there are several possible explanations, some of which could probably be eliminated if I knew the Distinguished Professor personally (but I do not):

Hypothesis #1. He does have new results to present, but he just didn't have time to write them up by the abstract deadline, and between the time his abstract was accepted and the conference, he also didn't have time to prepare a new talk, so he thought he'd present his 'classic' work (which is indeed classic and much-cited) because it remains the best work he has done to date and he figured the audience wouldn't mind seeing it again.

Hypothesis #2. Similar to Hypothesis #1, but with the additional factor that he didn't think it was worth spending the time because most of the scientists in the audience were not native English speakers and he figured his old work was good enough for this particular conference venue.

Hypothesis #3. He actually hasn't done much that is worth speaking about since his classic work. He didn't want to present the results of his recent work because that would definitely be boring. So he had an idea! He decided to relive the glory days of his best work.

Hypothesis #4. Although by no means ancient, the DP has lost his mind, has impaired judgment, has been ill, or has some other tragic reason, beyond his control, for being unable to prepare a presentation of new (or at least more recent) results.

Whatever the reason, if it related to hypotheses #1, 2 or 3, it was a miscalculation. Oh, I am sure that his distinguishedness has not lost much, if any, of its luster, but there was quite a bit of murmuring at the conference about the boring, recycled talk, and some people were a bit insulted that he would present something so completely old for a non-review talk.

I kind of forgot about this recycled talk incident for a while, but a colleague (who was not at the international conference) recently told me that he went to a US conference and heard a talk by this same DP. My colleague was dismayed that the talk had consisted of nothing but recycled slides and description of old work.

This colleague knew nothing about the previous conference, and spontaneously mentioned his opinion when we were discussing what we might want to present at a future conference. My colleague had joked "We could just show the figures from our 1993 paper." What?? Then he explained, and I was amazed that the DP had re-recycled his talk.

But: At least I could eliminate Hypothesis #2 based on this new data point. The DP was equally willing to bore people at home and abroad.

It's impossible to know what motivated the re-recycling, or to know whether the DP was at all aware that his audience might not be fascinated by these presentations, but this incident relates to the general issue of how much 'old' material we can/should present in our conference talks.

When presenting new results from a long-term project, I sometimes worry about how much of the 'old' work to present as context for the new -- when you only have a short time to present complex results, every minute counts and you (should) want to highlight the new, but perhaps the new can't be understood without also presenting some of the old results. At the same time, perhaps a significant fraction of the audience isn't aware of the old work, and it would be a mistake to assume otherwise. (Note: A couple of years ago, I discussed a similar issue regarding invited non-conference talks and the eerie similarity between professors and rock stars).

From now on, I will probably have this DP re-recycling incident circling my head whenever I prepare a talk that consists of at least some old material. Getting the balance right can be challenging, but it is well worth thinking about during talk preparation.


Unknown said...

You've answered a question I've asked several times. Each time I give my research presentation to the faculty (always with updated results), I kept asking, "Do I use the previous slides and then add on or do a whole new presentation?!?" I never got a clear answer.

THANK YOU. Jesus it's nice to know what goes on in people's heads.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

My practice is to present almost no published data at all. By the time our shitte gets published, I am bored by itte. Also, a major benefit to me of giving a seminar/platform presentation is that I can get critical feedbacke on our unpublished work before it gets submitted, so we can tune it up as best as possible for submission.

Anonymous said...

Hypothesis #5
Said professor is too nice to say no to an invite, and so is trying to bore potential conference organisers into not inviting him next time. He can thus get on with whatever he wants without hassle. (this is probably mixed with a bit of "done my best work and so it is downhill from now on").

Regarding FSP's dilemma on what to put in talks, you have to go back to the old adage "know your audience". If it's a large multisession, international conference then do the intro with the old material. If its a smaller more specialist meeting then get in there with the new stuff.

Jon said...

I think the anon above me is on to a couple of good points.

My first thought was "this is an artifact of our emphasis on publication and presentation count instead of quality." It's the talk equivalent of the LPU. The question isn't "Do I have something worth presenting?" but "Well, I'm going to present something, so what should it be?"

And the second was "know your audience." At my previous research center we made a point of gettting together before a speaker came to discuss a paper related to the field, so we'd at least have the broad background. We'd inform the speaker of this but it seemed to rarely have an effect on the scope of the talk.

a physicist said...

My original hypothesis had been that the conference organizers had asked for the talk to have the recycle format, but that seems refuted by the re-recycle. At least, it's much less likely that two batches of conference organizers would have that sort of request. Especially as usually they'd prefer to see cutting edge work.

In my own work I go with CPP's approach for the reasons he said.

Unknown said...

Hypothesis #6: DP is convinced that the talk is perfect and does not want to alter the tiniest thing lest he mar the perfection. If you encounter a few more people who've seen DP recycle the same talk, I'd start to lean this way. This could be classified as a sub hypothesis of #4 DP has lost his mind.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible that he was specifically requested to talk about old, famous work rather than the new stuff?

We had VERY FAMOUS BIOLOGIST visit here awhile ago - and most people assumed he'd be talking about EXTREMELY FAMOUS EARLY WORK but he actually talked about COMPLETELY UNRELATED RECENT WORK. It was cool to hear about the new project, but I know some of the fans of his early work were a bit disappointed he didn't talk about that at all.

Ms.PhD said...

I'm with CPP. I also prefer to present new work because it's less boring for ME. Of course, it's also scarier because it usually means all new questions.

Alternative hypotheses for DP's behavior:

1. He recently apprehended his one and only postdoc faking data, so he had to throw out all the recent results and had nothing new to present.

2. He's really old-school and doesn't believe he should present work unless he did it himself. And he has done nothing recently.

3. He's blind as a bat and didn't notice the audience falling asleep right in front of him.

4. He's deaf as a doornail and wanted to avoid the embarrassment of being asked questions about new work when he a) can't hear them and b) doesn't know the answers because it was all done c) by his postdoc(s).

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't rule out hyp #4. Dementia doesn't discriminate. It's particularly painful to watch in professionals who need to get up and perform (cf. Favre).

Canuck said...

I have also found myself wondering about hypothesis 4. I once saw a talk by a distinguished researcher and clinician who was asked by an MD about what advice he gives to patients with a particular chronic condition in order to get better sleep. He responded "go to bed at the same time every night, exercise every day, no alcohol after 8pm". Sounded straight out of readers digest - surely the mainly clinical audience was looking for a bit more....

Anonymous said...

How about this theory (benign):
DP is presenting solely on the basis of being a DP. There will be fans who want to hear the classic stuff, but also probably a lot of younger researchers, or those not in the field directly, who will need a LOT of background before the new stuff can be addressed, hopefully by the current Post Docs or Grad Students in the upcoming session where they can get to the nitty-gritty.

Or this theory (malign): DP only shows old work because he/she may get scooped by letting out unpublished or recently published data.

I've been a participant as post doc in the former, and seen a fair share of the later.

mixlamalice said...

I don't know the exact reason, and don't really care, but I've seen it happened many times, in fact to almost every conference where there are several Distinguished Prof. invited.
It turns out that at least one of them is going to make its own eulogy.
I'm quite surprised you're surprised as if you've never seen that before... (I haven't been to hundreds of conferences...).

Pagan Topologist said...

I have been known to give such a talk from time to time, althugh it is not the kind of talk I usually give. My feeling is that it is useful to grad students in attendance at the conference by giving an overview of how the nuts and bolts of research actually work, and suggesting new problems they might want to think about.

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

I get asked specifically to repeat popular talks. I always try and pitch the talk to the group I'm talking to, with at least a few slides that are specific to them.

And I fix the footer so it has the name of the place I am talking. I detest sitting in lectures where people are so blatantly reusing stuff that the footer reveals where it was last used.