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After a few years of graduate school, I've noticed that I may not be asking questions and making criticism in the workshops in the best way. By "best," I have two goals for comments. The first (selfish) goal is to develop a reputation for being a intelligent, insightful colleague with good comments. The second goal is to effectively communicate my concerns to help others improve their research. Luckily these goals are mutually reinforcing.

Observing others in my department's weekly workshop, the questions that usually get the most attention are those that are phrased quite strongly, even aggressively.

My tendency has always been to be polite and not try to put someone on the spot about their work. I gently communicate the problems I see with the work. As a result, presenters often do not listen. They brush off the questions as if they are unthreatening and thereof of limited concern.

I do not want workshops to be a threatening or aggressive environment, but it seems like only questions that get the presenter's adrenaline flowing regularly warrant proper consideration and response. Maybe I'm going too soft and I can find a middle ground without being one of the aggressive (sometimes rude) ones.

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I am not sure that your questions at a conference are necessarily a major concern. If you look at how science is propagated, conferences are typically a step before publication. Therefore, it is noble of you to think of it as a point where you can provide constructive comments to authors about their work. However, the most critical point comes when work is published and peer-reviewed.

Based on your experience at conferences (which I to some extent share) you can ask yourself the following: Is the author/presenter interested in your comments. If he/she is, then it would be counter productive to ignore your questions. The question-and-answer format, on the other hand, is too brief and fragmented considering the time constraints of a presentation schedule to be the forum for constructive criticism. That is probably also why the more aggressive questions dominate. In the end, there is nothing wrong with approaching a person during a break to initiate a deeper discussion. you will then also get a better feeling if your comments are welcome.

A final thought. I tend to think as the saying: it is sometimes better to be silent and seem a fool than to speak and prove it. You can exchange "fool" by whatever trait you wish.

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Just a couple of thoughts on this (not so recent) question:

The first (selfish) goal is to develop a reputation for being a intelligent, insightful colleague with good comments.

If everyone went into a workshop or conference talk with the primary goal of "developing a reputation for being an intelligent, insightful colleague with good comments", then...yikes. Chaos would ensue. Luckily I've never seen this; the closest I have seen is in faculty meetings, where often I feel that being a good colleague requires me to say something from time to time just to be heard, rather than because I think I am contributing something absolutely essential to the discussion. It is, frankly, one of my worse habits: I shudder to imagine what would happen if all of my colleagues behaved the same way.

You should speak up in a talk because you think that something you say will be directly helpful to the speaker or to others, or because you didn't fully understand something the speaker said and you have reason to believe that a quick question and answer could set you back on track. I don't think that you should aim to make yourself heard specifically to impress your colleagues: that seems too likely to backfire, either because what you say is not as insightful as you think or because the speaker and the audience will not appreciate your commandeering more than your fair share of the speaker's time.

The second goal is to effectively communicate my concerns to help others improve their research.

Yes, that's a good reason to speak up. What you say about "too soft" questions getting brushed off by speakers sounds like a "local phenomenon" rather than a general truth about such talks. Where I come from, too-pointed questioning is more likely not to have the desired effect: a speaker either becomes flustered and the entire talk becomes (at least!) temporarily derailed, or to avoid that they say "I don't know" and move on without really thinking about the question. For several years this type of thing happened often in response to questions of mine that I didn't even realize were so pointed, so I have (somewhat) learned to correct in the opposite direction: by trying to ensure that my questions are friendly and do not come off as quizzing or challenging the speaker. But mine is not a universal truth either: I think it just depends on the local culture involved, maybe even the specific group of people in the room.

I gently communicate the problems I see with the work.

If you feel like you see a problem -- rather than just asking a question about something that you may not properly understand -- then pointing this out during the talk itself may not be ideal. The following is in my experience a universal truth: people don't like being told they're wrong. Do you want them to stop short and try to "fix" their work on the spot? I think that if you really have something to say which vitiates a substantial part of the talk, it will be better for all involved if you wait until after the talk and speak solely to the speaker about it. (Admittedly, j'accuse moments in talks can be pretty entertaining for the spectators: see e.g. the beginning of this wonderful story. Spoiler alert: as amazing as this beginning event is, yet more amazing is that it is not what the story is really about at all.)

I might go so far as to say that it is not really "fair" to raise a serious objection during a fixed-duration talk. The speaker has other things on her mind and plate besides understanding and addressing your specific concern. Often in a talk it turns out that the brilliant professor's lightning-quick refutation of the speaker's work is not actually a refutation of the speaker's work: it was based on some kind of misunderstanding or miscommunication (e.g. people using terminology in subtly different ways or elided technical hypotheses). When this happens the majority of the audience cannot really follow what happened and goes away with a vague impression that something was wrong with the speaker's work. That's not really fair.

  • +1 Thanks for these great comments. My question is really about workshops, which -- in my discipline at my university -- means everyone reads a paper in advance and discussion with the author is the goal. I wasn't really thinking of talks, where a speaker intends to present to an audience. Your distinction between the two, and the corresponding etiquette, is well taken. – Dr. Beeblebrox Sep 29 '14 at 1:33

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