The Sciences

Hostile Questions at Scientific Meetings

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticFeb 9, 2018 7:45 PM

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A brief letter in Nature got me thinking this week: Don’t belittle junior researchers in meetings

Anand Kumar Sharma writes to urge scientists not to grill their junior colleagues at conferences:

The most interesting part of a scientific seminar, colloquium or conference for me is the question and answer session. However, I find it upsetting to witness the unnecessarily hard time that is increasingly given to junior presenters at such meetings. As inquisitive scientists, we do not have the right to undermine or denigrate the efforts of fellow researchers - even when their reply is unconvincing. It is our responsibility to nurture upcoming researchers. Firing at a speaker from the front row is unlikely to enhance discussions. In my experience, it is more productive to offer positive queries and suggestions, and save negative feedback for more-private settings.

This struck a chord with me. I have never been the target of a harsh question at a conference but one of my colleagues was, a couple of years ago. A very well-known and senior figure asked her why she was presenting her work at the conference in question because, in his view, it revealed nothing about the topic. The comment was surely made in jest but it was still an awkward moment for many of those in the room. In my view, a conference is not a place to be making critical comments. For one thing, it is very difficult to critically appraise a conference presentation, because they don't provide the full details of the study. It is also unlikely that putting a presenter on the spot with a hard question is going to elicit a useful answer. It's better to wait until the paper is published, and then critique that, giving the authors time to respond properly. But wait - aren't I being a hypocrite here? I criticize papers on Twitter rather often, and isn't Twitter a real-time discussion system, with much in common with a conference Q&A? Is tweeting a comment any different from shouting one out from the front row? I think there are important differences, such as the fact that on Twitter I talk about finished papers, not work-in-progress conference presentations. Also, it is possible (and very common) to simply ignore a tweet, while someone standing up on stage has no choice but to deal with whatever question someone asks them, so tweets do not put people on the spot to the same extent. However, in general, I think the same rules should apply at conferences and on social media: be as charitable as possible, and stick to scientific, not personal, remarks.

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