Norm for conference presentations -- authors only?
July 5, 2016 10:18 PM   Subscribe

I'm an academic. I'm new to supervising subordinates on my research and I'm unsure of the norms. Should a subordinate present at conferences on a project only if they would be a co-author on the article?

I have an undergraduate subordinate whose work I value. They would like to present some of our research at conferences. I am generally in favor of this. However: on most of the projects this person has worked on so far, their work is kind of peripheral -- not, I think, at the level of a listed co-author on a journal article.

My vague understanding is that you don't present work at a conference unless it is in some sense your project -- maybe you wouldn't be the lead, but you would be a listed author.

On that basis, I shouldn't allow the subordinate to present on the projects they have worked on so far, because I don't expect their contributions to reach the level of a co-author. Instead, I could encourage them to take a more central role on some other project, and present that.

Do you agree with my reasoning, or do I have the norms wrong?
posted by anonymous to Education (13 answers total)
Does your university have something like an annual "Undergraduate Research Symposium?" The standards at those are generally much lower, but they still give undergraduates a chance to talk about their projects and contributions.
posted by rocketbadger at 10:49 PM on July 5, 2016

Generally I think you are right. Exceptions are if the group would like a project to be presented at a particular conference because of the usefulness of feedback from that audience, and/or the exposure it would bring, but no one except the peripheral person can attend. In that case I think it's okay to have that person present it, and they should be a coauthor on the conference paper, but that doesn't necessarily entitle them to be coauthor on related papers. The latter should be explicitly discussed in advance.

At least, I have seen this sort of thing and been involved in this sort of thing myself in my discipline (linguistics). Norms in other disciplines may well differ.
posted by lollusc at 10:50 PM on July 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

In my field, sometimes members of groups will cover for each other if something comes up, but people generally present their own work. How you define "your own work" is pretty flexible, but I think the same criteria apply for presenting work as for authorship, yes, taking responsibility for all the data, and for the decisions how to conduct the study and analysis. Presenting at a conference, with the exception of very local or in-house stuff like rounds, is publishing your data, with all the implications - you are expected to provide enough context that the significance of the work is clear, and you are committing to defend your methods and conclusions. It's not Toastmasters or Debate Club, you know? It's sharing findings with the scientific community, and it's kind of a big deal. That's a lot to put on an undergraduate student's shoulders.

I wouldn't let even a grad student fly solo at a real conference their first time out - I would want to be on hand for a variety of reasons, including my teaching responsibility to the student.
posted by gingerest at 11:01 PM on July 5, 2016

Here are the guidelines I use in my research team:

To be included on professional conference/meeting presentations, posters, etc., the author should meet both of the following conditions:

1. Make substantial contributions to conception and design, or acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data.
2. Contribute to the actual development of the presentation, poster, and/or text.

Obviously, condition #1 is the key here. If this happens to be a poster presentation instead of a conference talk, I would err on the side of letting the student present, since that tends to be a more forgiving medium (at least in my field).
posted by griseus at 4:01 AM on July 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Assuming this is a technical/scientific field, I think the presenter of an accepted paper should be someone who has worked on the project, knows it well, and who would be able to answer detailed questions. Anything else would reflect badly both on the presenter, and the original authors.

Conference poster sessions are great for students. They have a lower barrier for entry, as the submission is much shorter, and you can present early thoughts/preliminary work etc. Plus it's a legit line on the cv. The assumption here is that the author is capable of at least good quality Master's level work.

Universities and departments often have internal poster events for undergrad students, where they can practice writing and submitting abstracts that are their own original work.
posted by carter at 4:03 AM on July 6, 2016

There is no general norm and this depends entirely on your field and even on the specific conference in question.

In polisci, if this were a major national conference and there were some indication that your proposal had attracted attention like being put on a panel with big names in a large room, it would be kind of a dick move to the audience to have anyone but the PI present. If it were a smaller regional conference and the panel was at 8AM on the last day, having an undergrad who's at best passingly familiar with the work do most of the actual presentation is fine so long as you think they'll have a good experience, since nobody but the panelists and maybe a couple of their friends are going to show up.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:26 AM on July 6, 2016

Your discipline conference may also have an undergraduate poster symposium - I review abstracts and help students design their posters for the undergrad research symposium at our national meetings. That way, students get to go to and present at national meetings, but in a slightly lower key environment.

This might also be an opportunity to suggest they do a senior project if that's appropriate at your school/for your productivity. Most students I've seen presenting undergraduate research tend to be presenting on their own work (which may be a subset of their advisor's project, but something they themselves are responsible for).
posted by ChuraChura at 5:49 AM on July 6, 2016

Platform presentations are for PIs or co-PIs only in my world (environmental science/chemistry). You have to have been involved in the whole work, from design through write up to present. It does happen that sometimes we have to cover for colleagues (and so sometimes get added as a courtesy author for the conference presentation), but the etiquette is to be really clear about that when presenting the paper ("I'm here today to tell you about the work of my colleague X...")

Who is or isn't an author is, in my experience, somewhat field dependent. We tend to give authorship to anyone who materially contributed to the manuscript, including lab technical work and ms review and editing. Some fields prefer to only include those who were PI/co-PI level. We have undergrad co-authors on papers all the time.

Undergrads would not present a platform talk at a national or international conference. However, it would be perfectly normal, expected even, for a grad student to have a poster, particularly for work in progress. A senior undergrad poster would be unusual, but not unheard of in a general poster session at a big meeting. Keep an eye out though; at least one of the professional societies I belong to has has a special undergraduate poster session at their national meetings. Generally, to get to go to the national meeting however, these undergrads have won a university competition or been nominated by faculty or something.

However, I think your best bet is to look for local and regional meetings. At many of these, graduate student talks are encouraged, as learning opportunities and for the exposure. Again, a senior undergrad would be unusual, but not inappropriate. Posters again would be an option.
posted by bonehead at 6:09 AM on July 6, 2016

My perspective, between physics grad school and several years of a neuroscience postdoc, is that your norms are totally in line with mine. I've not seen an undergrad give a talk at a non-undergrad-focused environment and honestly I can't imagine it would be a useful experience for anyone other than them unless this is a truly exceptional person. Posters are more reasonable, but definitely not appropriate unless the work is there too.

But that also shouldn't stop an excited undergrad from attending a conference if it's conveniently located! It can be an amazingly inspiring experience, and really open one's mind about what is possible to research and where one can go.
posted by Schismatic at 6:55 AM on July 6, 2016

Yes, I think you've got it right. At an undergrad-focused conference, that student would still not be presenting the project as a whole, but more like his/her lens on it. Poster title not about your project as a whole "Quantum information storage achieved through low-temperature spin isolation" but about their sub-project "Temperature stabilization of helium-cooled circuitry". The information a student should present (anybody, actually) should be limited to what they're comfortable answering questions about.

If their main contribution was getting an apparatus up and running, they talk about the apparatus. If they did large-set data analysis, they talk about the statistics and uncertainties. If they did repetetive data collection and handed off the results for someone else to interpret, they talk about the apparatus and the situational experimental corrections involved in compiling clean data sets versus only one variable.
posted by aimedwander at 9:04 AM on July 6, 2016

I think you're generally right about this. If someone is part of a big group of co-authors and several of them are at a conference to present, I don't think it makes too much difference who does what, as long as they each had a significant hand in the work.

I probably also wouldn't want to see a non-author research assistant (or equivalent) present important work when there are authors who might be better equipped to describe implications and answer questions.

One other thing: I would be careful about referring to people who report up through you as "subordinates." It's technically correct, but a little dehumanizing and not very respectful.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:34 AM on July 6, 2016

You are doing this correctly. The presenter needs to be able to answer detailed questions about why the research is structured as it is. Your student can probably answer straightforward questions about the methods and results, but would be lost in the types of detailed questions your peers would ask you. You should steer your student to places were students more commonly present such as poster sessions, student conferences, or student workshops.

Also, there is no shame in reporting to someone else. Subordinate is the word that reflects that relationship. I wouldn't be put off by my boss referring to me as his subordinate. It's what I am and it's not disrepectful to me to say that.
posted by 26.2 at 11:18 AM on July 6, 2016

In most fields, yes, don't present anything that you aren't going to at least be a co-(first)-author on.

Caveat is covering for a colleague in your lab at the last moment and the presentation can't be cancelled/rescheduled.

Undergrad symposia and poster presentations are absolutely a great outlet for up-and-coming undergrads to gain valuable presentation experience. If not at the main University campus, most Unis have off-main-campus concentrations for various departments (for example, my Pathology and Laboratory Medicine had a concentration of PIs and students at the CFRI/CMMT (hospital-ish location) and we'd have students who's PIs were on the main campus come out to the CFRI/CMMT location for our symposia and conferences.

Less high profile - lab meeting presentations are also an invaluable source of presentation experience, be it in-lab research or a journal club type paper presentation or a hybrid (this new paper uses similar technique that we can potentially adapt for our lab's research).

Or even better for your undegrad - encourage them to found/chair/run their own undergrad researcher journal club.
posted by porpoise at 11:57 AM on July 6, 2016

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