Hostile Questions at Scientific Meetings

By Neuroskeptic | February 9, 2018 8:45 am

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ethics, science, select, Top Posts
  • Uncle Al

    If you cannot defend your work against peer review, too bad for you. Strive for intellectual puberty.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Yes, but a conference is not the place for proper peer review, no time to reflect or look up previous work.

      • Uncle Al

        If you are a martial artist, you impromptu perform in alleyways, too. Not merely “too,” especially.

        Methane is CH4, then CR4. R are rigorously identical, CR4 is acyclic, with unhindered rotation. Said carbon is a chiral center. Give an example. Shallow knowledge will not do. The problem is its own answer – if you know what you know. Few people do.

  • noahpoah

    I think you can “be as charitable as possible, and stick to scientific, not personal, remarks” and still make “critical comments.”

    • Matthew Facciani

      Agreed. But I also agree with Neuroskeptic that it’s possible to be critical in a constructive way and not be a jerk.

      If your critical comment is more about you looking good with a witty remark and less about advancing scientific discourse, then it probably would be good to just not voice it while the person is on stage.

      Of course this all assumes academics (and people) know the difference between a jerk comment and constructive criticism. Admittedly, sometimes there can be a fine line.

      • Jenny H

        I think that one should be able to make contributions to the discussion without being a jerk. Usually these are best phrased as questions re the paper itself, rather than to the character or intelligence of the presenter.

  • mythusmage

    Some people just get all bent out of shape, and have trouble recognizing when they are being rude. It helps when we learn how to listen.

  • jwirsich

    I find it more upsetting when seniors start to snore during the talk, mean commenting on my work at least shows some interest ;). Also another thought: As a junior, am I still allowed to grill seniors ;)?

  • Neurosiscientist

    What? “A conference is not a place to be making critical comments”? This would mean the end of any scientific discourse. Where but at scientific conferences can you discuss data critically? Published papers are usually accepted as “the truth” and there is rarely any public response. Where can you get input and differing opinions but at conferences? What else would be the purpose of such meetings? Showing-off and beauty contests? Building old boys’ networks? If you cannot live with criticism then learn to deal with it or look for a job where you will not be criticized.

    • Neuroskeptic

      You can discuss data critically on PubPeer, Twitter, blogs, letters to the editor, by writing a critical paper… look at the Wansink case. AFAIK none of the critics ever stood up at a meeting and grilled Wansink or any of his lab after a presentation. But they got the job done, online.

  • Shawn Conn

    Isn’t the whole point of a conference to, you know, CONFER? Which includes open discussion?
    Are we coming to an era now, where we expect to posit without discussion, critique, and questioning from colleagues?
    I humbly suggest if one is unable to withstand the scrutiny of open forum, he refrain from contributing in such fashion and adhere to the safety of the written word.
    If we have no incentive to improve, the field becomes irrelevant. Where better to experience the necessary eustress required to become cognizant of your own weaknesses (and, by extension, that of your work), than in a room full of people who all know as much as — or more than — you do?

  • floatingnotes

    “why she was presenting her work at the conference in question because, in his view, it revealed nothing about the topic” is a comment that is not directed at the science, but at meta-scientific issues, that may well be out of the presenter’s hands, and for which, others, like the mentor or the conference organizer might be to blame, and the presenter would not be able to say so publicly. It is also subjective, and likely to be pointless.. and best avoided.

    On the other hand, critiquing the science, or asking hard or deep questions, is a great way to get people thinking and make connections, and to have a follow-up conversation with the presenter at the same conference, etc etc. And if the presenter does not know, a simple “I have to think about that” will suffice. Not everybody hangs out on social media or follows up the post-publication comments on every paper, and having listened to a talk, when it is fresh in one’s mind, hearing an interesting, thoughtful and pointed discussion about it afterwards is the icing on the cake, and one reason to go to meetings.



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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