The Problem with Conference Presentations in Psychology

In order to advance one’s career as an academic, it is necessary to show evidence of having communicated research findings to the broader field. This is an important facet of the profession, and it rightly holds a substantial amount of weight when career-defining decisions are made, such as being hired for an open position or promotion to tenure. The mode of communication, however, varies from field to field.

In psychology, if we are presenting at a conference, we submit an abstract in advance of the conference (sometimes, quite a long time in advance - 7 months or so is typical for the major social psychological conference, SPSP). If accepted, one shows up to the conference, gives the talk, and that’s the whole thing. This is one of the primary ways psychologists have for communicating their work. What are the features of this particular mode?

#####1. Conference presentations are fast##### This is relative, of course. Submitting an abstract to a conference allows the researcher to plan to give a talk about a particular topic in 8 or 9 months. That’s lighting fast in academic psychology. This gives the scientist a venue for discussing the most cutting-edge research conducted in their lab. Unfortunately, this also comes with a host of disadvantages.

#####2. It’s only sort-of peer-review.##### Your abstract is submitted to peer review. This is what leads the talk to be accepted or rejected. However, aside from questions at the talk itself, that’s about the extent of it. No one reviews your slides, your analyses, or your claims in much of a rigorous way.

#####3. It rewards unsubstantiated claims##### When writing the abstract, it pays to be bombastic. After all, you want it to be accepted, right? True, no researcher want’s to be known as the guy or gal who writes wholly-untrue abstracts, but once it is written and accepted, there’s really not much to stop the presenter from presenting on something else, or stretching the data in unwarranted ways to try to fit the story in the abstract. At our conference this year, I witnessed more than one talk which had clearly been thrown together at the last minute, and/or only resembled the abstract inasmuch as it came from the same lab as the person who submitted it. These slots should have been given to people who actually had robust, interesting data to share.

#####4. There’s no official record of what was communicated at the conference##### There may be a title or an abstract hosted on the conference website, but there’s rarely anything of substance that is publicly accessible.

####Why does this matter?#### Note that this is the most common way for psychologists to communicate their findings with anything that resembles speed. It strikes me as a big problem that the only fast mode of communication rife with opportunities for exploiting the holes in order to communicate sub-par science. Further, if I want a full account of the research featuring the rigor that should accompany all science, I’ll need to rely on my trusty photographic memory, or the generosity of the presenter to post their work on their website. Failing those two, I’ll have to wait for the paper, which could be as much as a half-decade away - if it ever sees the light of day at all.

Science can move faster than this. There’s no reason at all to wait to communicate your work to other scientists until you have what seems like a good story. Science is messy and hard and that should be okay and clearly represented in all of our communications.

Written on March 20, 2015
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