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One of my papers was accepted to a conference. There is this one thing that everyone asks about, including more than one of the reviewers, and other people I've talked to about my work. The answer to the question is sort of disappointing, and substantially deflates the balloon of my work. What is the best way to approach the question when people inevitably ask about it at the conference?

I don't think my advisor wants to talk about the thing, and he doesn't want to incorporate the reviewer comments that were about the thing, either.

Edit: To clarify, the question that people ask is something that most people ask out of curiosity, and it doesn't seem like a weakness until they know the answer to the question. I think if they knew the answer to the question, the paper might have gotten rejected.

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What is the best way to approach the question — Preemptively. If you already know that people are going to ask the question, then you should ask (and honestly answer) the question in your talk. – JeffE Jan 12 at 3:31
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"I don't think my advisor wants to talk about the thing, and he doesn't want to incorporate the reviewer comments that were about the thing, either." - I think you've got good answers to the main question, so I'll just address this. Are you the first author of the paper? If you are, your advisor should not be calling these shots. Actually, limitations of your work and intuitions on how they can be addressed is perfect for conclusions. You should be honest at all times. I would discuss with your advisor and make the final decision yourself. – Thomas King Jan 12 at 14:50
    
A paper isn't supposed to be a complete solution to something, as long as it's honest. Do you know the paper might have gotten rejected, or is this an issue to be left for future work + impostor syndrome? Does your advisor think the paper would have been rejected? I've had a similar issue before submission and considered not submitting; but my advisor convinced me I was overemphasizing the issue (though there we agreed to document it). – Blaisorblade Jan 13 at 1:52
    
@ThomasKing I am technically the first author, but my advisor kind of decided how everything was supposed to be done, and while I did all the experimentation and wrote all the code, he decided what experiments to run, and what to put in the paper, and even what the paper title should be. He also wrote the entire text of the paper. So I'm not sure it's okay to go against what my advisor says. – user47354 Jan 13 at 8:06
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@Blaisorblade I just talked to him and he did have an interesting reason. Thanks! – user47354 Jan 14 at 3:13
up vote 63 down vote accepted

How should you talk about the weakness? Honestly.

This doesn't mean you need to dwell on it or undermine all the rest of this talk around your point. But if you know about a serious weakness, you shouldn't be afraid to acknowledge it when necessary.

Yes, your work will appear less awesome as a result. But which of these two scenarios would you rather have?

  1. You show the work you did, acknowledge the weakness, and discuss how you think it would be best to improve the work in the future in order to achieve the overall goals. You haven't solved the problem, but you've taken a useful step.
  2. You claim your work has no weaknesses, and when people inevitably notice, they think that you are either too foolish to notice the weakness or too insecure and self-important to acknowledge it.

Your paper was accepted, despite the reviewers pointing out the weakness, and that means people must find something of value in it. Focus on the value that is still there despite the weakness, and let that be the point on which you build.

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+1. This is essentially Feynman's cargo cult science idea, in particular the quoted, by wiki, long-term impact on your standing as a respected scientists when trying to be sly about a weakness in your research. – gnometorule Jan 12 at 3:22
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In science, we are in the business of honesty. There is no other reason to do science. Not being truthful may legitimately be in the toolbox of used car dealers, politicians, secret agents and the like, and the ultimate goals there are quick business, pushing through agendas, or successful missions. In science, the ultimate goal is increasing everybody's knowledge. Not being honest will send other scientists onto a wild-goose chase and waste their time. It's legitimate to show the good side of your work, but the downside needs to be addressed, too. – Captain Emacs Jan 12 at 13:53
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The "how you think it would be best to improve the work in the future in order to achieve the overall goals" is crucial here. Don't let the disappointing answer be the end point. Go beyond it. You can't change the disappointing answer, but perhaps you can use it to show future directions or the like. After all, you have significant control over situation and how it turns out. And yeah, honesty above all. – Daniel Wessel Jan 13 at 15:29

Too long for a comment, so I'm posting as an answer:

Not meaning to be offensive, but it sounds like your advisor is not the most ethical of academics and is leading you astray. If the "question" that seems to be asked by "everyone" is highly relevant to the quality of the work, and yet doesn't have a satisfactory answer, then that fact should not have been hidden or glossed over just to get acceptance for the paper.

Now you're sort of in a bind. The best way out of this is to attack the situation head-on and be fully prepared to talk about that very thing as a significant limitation to your work, maybe even pre-emptively. Many papers freely discuss their limitations in the text, and this is considered a hallmark of intellectual honesty.

Remember, your academic reputation is very much on the line, along with that of your advisor.

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You may discuss the problem as a topic for future study.

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Can you please expand your statement a bit? – jakebeal Jan 12 at 3:32
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It may be something like this: OP studies completely regular zorks, and shows they all have property P. It seems like all finite zongels are completely regular zorks, but nobody really cares about finite zongels. Obvious question is: are there completely regular zorks which are not finite zongels? Answer: No. In this situation, the problem is not really a topic for further inquiry, but something which more or less proves that the original paper was uninteresting. – Steven Gubkin Jan 12 at 16:43

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