As a PhD student it is an exciting moment when you know you’re off to your first international conference. Whether or not you get to present (either orally or via a poster), there is still a thrill in just being part of the larger scientific family. I can still remember the stand-out paper from the very first conference I ever attended – the Electron Microscopy and Analysis’ Group of the Institute of Physics meeting in Bristol in 1975, at the end of the first year of my PhD. The paper (formally written up here) was on the structure of purple membrane and was delivered by Nigel Unwin, with Richard Henderson as the co-author. This was an early paper in the steady stream of electron microscopy developments that led to Richard Henderson being awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The paper was much talked about during the conference I attended because it so clearly represented a very significant step forward in methodology.
I can’t imagine I knew this paper was coming or would necessarily have appreciated beforehand just how significant the work was. At the time Nigel Unwin himself, I suspect (but it’s a long time ago) would not yet have been seen as a leading light. Other students may be better clued up and/or feel eager anticipation at the thought of listening to some founding father of their field give a keynote. It may feel like a fantastic opportunity to worship at an idol’s feet, perhaps. However….too often there is a ‘however’. Some such speakers may have passed their sell-by date or be bored stiff by delivering the same keynote at yet another mega-conference in some soulless conference centre through which they are briefly flitting. Their boredom may ooze from every pore. Some grand old men (and statistically it is still likely to be a man) like this are actually not the best speakers. I remember listening to Bristol polymer physicist Andrew Keller give a much-built-up talk, in which he struggled with the overhead projector and dropped his acetates on the floor in his confusion. He ended up talking for far too long in a rather unfocussed way. It was a dispiriting experience. Or Sir Charles Frank, also as it happens a physicist from Bristol, who laced his talk with much vitriol directed at other speakers at the conference. It wasn’t the same conference as Keller’s talk, but these sharp comments – if my memory serves me right – included a reference to the said Andrew Keller. Frank was 14 years his senior (although at the time both were probably retired) but he trivialised Keller’s work, calling him a ‘young man’ in a tone of contempt. This was not edifying.
So perhaps it is with those memories and in that spirit that I read a recent paper considering the extent to which speakers at different career stages were prone to over-run in conference speaking slots. As a session chair it is always difficult to know just when to intervene when someone shows no sign of winding up their presentation as the clock ticks on. I tend to be quite a fierce chair, but different conferences have different attitudes to the issue. Undoubtedly, if the first session significantly over-runs it sets the tone and makes it much harder for later chairs to step in and halt a late-running speaker. Often, though, the audience is very grateful if one does. After all it allows time to drink some coffee, network and get a comfort break or even lunch. Curiously, the paper I refer to by Edlund et al, found that a female chair seemed to provoke better behaviour of both male and female speakers, with fewer over-running talks, than when there was either a male chair or a male/female pairing.
So who are the worst offenders at conferences? It will probably come as no surprise that the most junior speakers are the most law-abiding and the senior folk the guiltiest of exceeding their time limit. Only just over a quarter of PhD students exceeded their allocated time; approaching 50% of postdocs and PIs who over-ran. I am perhaps not surprised to learn that women were less likely to talk too much than men, but that may be thought of as tending to stereotyping. The least prone to offend were female PhD students.
But perhaps the result that surprised me least was what happened at big (audiences greater than 150) conferences. These are the ones where there are big name keynote speakers. These are the ones where people who are used to being lauded typically choose to speak. I am sure they envisage eager young students hanging on their every word and therefore they probably assume you can’t have too much of a good thing so they can talk as long as they want. They probably don’t expect to be cut off by the chair – male or female – when they are in full flow. So the worst offenders are male speakers at big conferences, of whom a whopping 60% over-ran. We don’t get told by how much, but I have too often seen such people talk for 10 minutes too long in a 30 or 40 minute talk.
What annoys me about such speakers is that it implies a complete lack of interest in those ‘lesser’ people who come thereafter. Programmes can get hideously derailed by over-running talks, particularly if one follows hot on the tail of another. Ten minutes here, ten minutes there, and the contributed papers (typically where the PhD students or junior postdocs will be found) get squeezed and squeezed so that, either people walk out (because they want their dinner) or the question time gets obliterated.
Many senior scientists give wonderful talks but, part of giving a good talk is sticking to time. It is also part of good mentoring of the entire community. I hope some of the guilty speakers will read the data in the paper by Edlund et al and blush.