Scholarly communication in conferences

A few weeks (!) ago I was talking with an anthropologist friend of mine about how different fields have different modes of communicating research “findings” in the conference setting. Some places people just read their paper out loud, others have slide presentations, yet others have posters, and I imagine some people do blackboard talks. Of course, conferences have many purposes — schmoozing, job hunting, academic political wrangling, and so on. What is unclear to me is why particular academic communities have settled on particular norms for presenting their work.

One axis along which to understand this might be the degree to which the presentation of the paper is an advertisement for the written paper. In many humanities conferences, people simply read their paper out loud. You’d think that theater researchers would be able to make a more… dramatic reading of their work, but you’d be wrong much of the time. It’s very hard to sit and listen and follow a jargon-heavy analysis of something that you probably have never read about (e.g. turn of the century commercial theater in Prague), and in some sense I feel that the talk as an advertisement for the paper is minimal here.

On the other hand, a poster session maximizes the “advertisement of the paper” aspect. People stand there for 5 minutes while you explain the ideas in the paper, and if seems sufficiently interesting then they will go and read the actual paper. A difference here between the model in the humanities is that there is a paper in the proceedings, while in humanities conferences this is not necessarily the case.

Slide presentations are somewhere in the middle — I often go to a talk at a conference and think “well, now I don’t need to read the paper.” These are the trickiest because the audience is captive but you cannot give them the full story. It’s more of a method for luring already-interested people into wanting to read the paper rather than the browsing model of a poster session.

However, even this “advertisement” categorization raises the question of why we have poster sessions, slide presentations, and paper readings. Are these the best way to present the research in those fields? Should we have more posters at ISIT and fewer talks (more like NIPS)? Should NIPS have more parallel sessions to reflect the spread of interest in the “community?” Should anthropology conferences have each panelist give an 8 minute slide presentation followed by real discussion?

I missed ITW in Lausanne this year, but I heard that they mixed up the format to great success. More posters and fewer talks meant more interaction and more discussion. I think more experimenting could be good — maybe some talks should be given as chalk talks with no slides!