Saturday, April 11, 2015

Must Research Talks present Work in Progress?

I gather the norm is that research talks (colloquia, etc.) are meant for presenting unpublished work; work that is, at least nominally, "in progress".  But is there a good reason for this norm?  Just off the top of my head, I would have thought that research talks served two main purposes: (i) feedback, and (ii) dissemination.  Moreover, "read in advance" workshop-style events aside, I expect the main benefits for all involved stem from the latter: the audience gets exposed to (hopefully interesting) new ideas, and the speaker gets to disseminate her ideas, perhaps build up her academic reputation slightly by becoming better known to the audience members, etc.

And while opportunities for feedback are no longer such a priority for published work (though it surely never hurts to hear new objections, etc.), I would think the benefits of dissemination would be all the greater when it comes to presenting one's published work, as selection effects mean it is likely to be of higher quality than one's current work-in-progress. The audience would benefit more from being exposed to your most interesting ideas (assuming you aren't so famous that they'd heard it all before), and you too would presumably benefit more from disseminating your best ideas rather than simply your most recent ones.

So, why doesn't this happen? (Or, if it sometimes happens, just without my being aware of it: why not more often?)


  1. Hi Richard,

    Here's a format that's worked very well for us: we mutually agree an already-published paper with an invited speaker, and hold a seminar on it as a pre-read (1.5 hours, obligatory for all the audience to pre-read). Speaker is invited to summarize/emphasize/highlight bits of the paper, or just give some context, for 10 minutes at the start, then we collect questions on the board and go through them. We started this format with work in progress for project visitors, and I think our grad students initiated doing this with already published pieces. Nowadays, if we have someone visit the project for 3-4 days, we tend to have two seminars in pre-read format either of work in progress or published work, and one standard research talk (new work). I've also been on the receiving end of something like this sort of format (having been invited to attend a reading group that happened to be discussing an older paper of mine) and I got a lot out of it. I do think it could have a bigger role in our activities.

    1. That does sound good! I hadn't thought of combining post-publication seminars with a pre-read format, but I guess it's always nice to see more of the latter as it does tend to lead to better discussion.

    2. Actually, the one experience I have of something similar was with Michael Smith's graduate seminars at Princeton. Not sure if he still does them this way, but we'd spend a few weeks reading select papers from a particular author (could be recent, classic, or a mix of both), and then invite them to join the seminar for a Q&A session (then lather, rinse, and repeat for the next author, 3 total in a semester). It made for a really good seminar.

    3. This read-and-discuss-with-the-author format has been the highlight of my grad coursework. A few people at FSU do this. John Scwenkler (FSU) does this particularly well. He assigns a few papers or chapters and then has the author(s) join the entire seminar (2-3 hours) via Skype. Sometimes we'd read multiple authors and have multiple authors Skype in to the seminar. I gleaned much more from each seminar then I did from any traditional seminar. Occasionally I would end up corresponding with the author afterwards. Sometimes this resulted in reading/discussing someone's manuscripts and forthcoming work. Anyway, this seminar format is fantastic and I hope to see more of it in the future.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.