Emily LakdawallaMar 28, 2013

An editorial on the LPSC 2013 oral sessions

As you can probably tell by now, I love the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. It's where I get to hear about brand-new science, and it's also where I get to meet up with current colleagues and old friends. The talks in oral and poster sessions are interesting, but just as important are the hallway conversations.  This year there was a lot of talk about the sequester, and the NASA budget, and about Curiosity, of course.

But there was another topic that kept coming up: the bad quality of a majority of the presentations. I'll admit that it was I who kept bringing this up, but I found plenty of concurrence among fellow attendees. At the end of most talks, I found myself unable to summarize what the speaker had been attempting to convey. Slide after slide of thick text and data and graphs flashed before my eyes, and I took lots of notes. But after most talks, while I could tell you what the speaker had studied, and what data they'd used to study it, I struggled to generalize about what they'd learned.

This was in sharp contrast to how I felt after talks at the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society meeting in October. There, I was pleasantly surprised to "get" most of the talks, despite the fact that my grasp of astronomy is much weaker than my grasp of geology. One could conclude that planetary astronomers are better at conveying their science than planetary geologists, but I don't think that's the explanation. There are several other differences between the planetary astronomy (DPS) and planetary geology (LPSC) meetings, both functionally and culturally.

  • Talk length: DPS talks are shorter (10 minutes) than LPSC talks (15 minutes). So it's rather surprising that I found DPS talks to be better.
  • Abstract length: DPS abstracts are short, similar in length to abstracts for professional papers. LPSC abstracts are two pages long, like mini-papers, complete with figures and references. LPSC abstracts are so long, in fact, that the abstracts need abstracts for summary purposes in the conference program. (Because this seems slightly silly, there's now a tradition at LPSC, originated by Alan Treiman and popularized by Ralph Lorenz, of submitting abstracts of abstracts in haiku form.) LPSC abstracts are way better and more useful over the long term than DPS abstracts, which are often little more than advertisements. You will often find LPSC abstracts cited in the references to published papers.
  • Culture: For reasons I don't understand, oral sessions at recent DPS meetings seem to be run tightly and discussion is encouraged, while LPSC sessions are less strict and there's less discussion. At recent DPS oral sessions, speakers were held pretty strictly to their 5 or 6 minutes for talks, 3 minutes for questions, and 1 or 2 minutes for transitions between speakers. At LPSC sessions, speakers are supposed to talk for 10 minutes with 3 for questions and 2 for transitions, but most speakers run to 12 or 13 minutes and there is rarely time for more than one quick question between talks. Some scientists (most of them senior ones) have a habit of running totally through their 15 minutes and eating into someone else's talk time, which is, in my humble opinion, arrogant and insulting to their peers.

I think it's a combination of these factors that made me enjoy the oral sessions at last October's Division for Planetary Sciences meeting more than at this year's Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Consider the talk length. With such short talks at DPS, speakers were forced to distill their presentation into just one or two main points that they wished to convey. At LPSC, speakers rambled on about their data gathering methods and reported lots and lots of data and went down lots of side channels that were tangential to the focus of their investigations. Many of them seemed to be trying to cram most of a 45-minute colloquium talk into their 15-minute oral session slot.

It's possible that LPSC talks run long because the abstracts are long. LPSC abstracts are just awesome. They are condensed versions of professional papers that give you a good solid understanding of the science being done without requiring you to read a 30-page paper. If you find an abstract on a topic from a few years ago that is really important and worth investigating further, odds are good that you'll find a recent professional paper on the same topic. However, two printed pages of text is too much material to get through in a 10-minute talk. People try to do it anyway.

I think that LPSC presenters should lean on their abstracts more. They waste precious minutes talking about calibrations and results from all their different model runs. They should stick all that stuff in the space provided by the two-page abstract, briefly describe their study framework, then use most of their talk time to deliver the most important results, discussion, and conclusions. And then stop when they get to that 10-minute mark, and welcome discussion.

The Lunar and Planetary Science Conference organizers have got to get tough on speakers running over their length. The whole reason for professional meetings is to have face-to-face discussion. I learned a lot from most questions and responses. Presenters shouldn't fear these questions; I'd rather hear people's objections before I submit a paper, so I could anticipate them and handle them in the first draft of a submitted paper rather than on revision (or worse, rejection). Isn't that why I'd be presenting my in-progress work at a meeting in the first place? Do I need to employ reverse psychology and accuse people of not having the guts to face their peers' questions?

There is one problem that's common to the two meetings: bad PowerPoint presentations. This, too, was a topic I discussed with a lot of people at LPSC. I shared some of my recommendations, and people shared some great ones with me. I plan to write a post about that soon, but before I do, I'd like to solicit suggestions on giving good conference talks. Name websites or just offer tips. I have a few resources already (for instance, three volumes of Edward Tufte's work), but I welcome more suggestions!

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