Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Should we have "work in progress" seminars?

I was talking to a historian colleague yesterday and he introduced me to an interesting idea. In the research centre (about a dozen faculty and postdocs) he directs they have a fortnightly (I think) "work in progress" seminar. The format is (something like) as follows.

One individual presents a 10 minute paper (circulated beforehand) describing a project they are currently working on. Everyone present (faculty, postdocs, students, visitors) then discusses the project for more than an hour! 
They discuss strengths, weaknesses, and possible directions for the project.
Afterwards everyone goes out for a meal.

The fact that the feedback is appreciated is testified by the fact that there is a backlog of people (including from outside the centre) who are waiting to give presentations.

They also do this with all their grant applications.

Would this work for science?

I think we need to do something more like this.
Generally, the only time I see people discuss work in progress is within research groups. Then everyone present is more or less "committed" to the topic and to the approach.
At larger formal seminars people tend to only present "completed" research and there is virtually no time for real discussion or feedback.

Why don't we do this?
I fear some of the reasons might be:
-fragile egos
-senior people don't want to see their pet projects cut down even before they begin
-people are scared of getting "scooped" [Aside: I think this is sometimes an egotistical delusion].
-people don't want others suggesting ideas and collaborations and expecting to be co-authors.

What do you think?


  1. Here's a parallel from the world of blogs: You can see this huge cultural difference in the blogs of faculty members in the humanities and social sciences from those in the sciences. The former quite often have posts offering their early, exploratory thoughts (or even proto-thoughts ;-) on some issue or the other, and actively seek the opinion/views/comments from their readers. I think their disciplinary cultures ensure that people who offer useful comments, suggestions and critiques don't demand co-authorship.

    Scientists, on the other hand, are content with posting links to their recently published work, and rarely blog about things they are doing at the moment. P.Z. Myers (at Pharyngula) once explained why he doesn't blog about his ongoing research (sorry, no link); he used an episode from his early blogging days to show that getting scooped is a very real worry (as I recall, it was a lesser scientist from a richer university who ran with his idea all the way to a journal paper well before he could).

    1. Hi Abi,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree with your observation that there is a cultural difference between blogs in the sciences and humanities/social sciences.

      However, I would like to think my blog is somewhat of an exception. I often post ideas about projects I am about to embark on or am actively working on. Occasionally I have received feedback, and it is invariably useful. I wish someone was interested enough to scoop me!