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I often struggle when explaining people not familiar with academics or new to academics the concept of a chairmen at conferences or talks. At some point I have to say that this is somehow an academic tradition or a way to give small honour to people with reputation in some field.

Beside this and some obvious things (Someone has to make sure that the speaker is not running out of time, etc. -- Why not the organizer for example?): What is the purpose/what are the arguments of having a chairman?

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Depending on how the conference is organized, the duties of a chair before the session can include:

  • Selecting the abstracts that will be presented within a given session.
  • Organizing the abstracts in the order of presentation.
  • Transferring unused abstracts to other sessions (where possible).
  • Advertising to solicit contributions.

During the session, the goals of the chair can include:

  • To introduce the speaker
  • To ensure time constraints are being adhered to
  • To moderate a question-and-answer session following the talk
  • If other questions have not been asked, to offer questions of her own.

The organizer of a session may or may not be the chair of the session. In larger conferences, in which you have many parallel sessions (some have 50 to 60 or more run simultaneously), it is entirely impractical to have a meeting organizer chair every session. For smaller conferences, however, this is done. In such cases, though, the organizer of the session is still called the "chair" of the session.

It is also possible, at some conferences, that the organizer is unable to attend the session, as a result of illness or conflicts, for instance. In such cases, an "emergency" chair is appointed to run the session. (I had to serve in such a capacity at the most recent conference I attended.)

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I think the first three of your second four point are also part of the duties of a session chair. However, I never got why people presume that the session chair should ask a question if nobody else does. As a chair I never had an awkward feeling when where no questions. Moreover, I think that asking questions as a session chair has to be done with care as it heavily interferes with the role of a moderator. But probably this would be worth another question… –  Dirk Mar 16 at 14:58
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I said "can" include—this is very much a function of the standards of a particular conference. For instance, there is no requirement to have a Q-and-A session if the speaker has used up all of her allotted time. Similarly, someone asked to step in at the last minute might not be expected to ask any questions. However, in general, I would expect the chair to step in only if there was time available and no one else wants to ask any questions. (Effectively filling time until the next talk starts.) –  aeismail Mar 16 at 16:04

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