Saturday, May 31, 2008

Double-Dipping with Conference Papers: The Snail's Way of Networking

In the May 20, 2008, issue of Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik writes in a piece titled, "Double Dipping in Conference Papers," about a debate among political scientists concerning whether one should be presenting new material at each conference in which one participates. If one presents what is essentially the same paper repeatedly, should tenure and promotion committees view this as CV "padding"? Opinions are divided, some seeing this as a non-issue, and entirely up to the scholar if he/she wishes to represent the same material to different audiences, while others see it as unfair:
"The traditional reason given for double presentations — getting feedback and then revising — remains a strong justification, according to the articles in the journal. But many question whether in fact such revisions are taking place, as opposed to other motivations (such as CV padding). A variety of ethical issues are raised: Is this fair at a time that major conferences are turning away record number of paper proposals? Do those who fill résumés in this way gain an unfair edge over those who give fewer (but perhaps more original) papers? Do those who double dip have an obligation to flag the practice?"

My comments and questions are largely based on personal experience, and I wonder if others would concur or take exception, or note other differences.

It is fairly rare, from what I have understood of the Canadian academic context, for one's conference presentations to be given much if any weight at all where hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions are concerned. One reason for that is that many conferences have a high acceptance rate, in some cases that can be 100%, and I know of at least one association in Canada that deliberately commits itself to total acceptance. Therefore, it is not seen as a major achievement to have been accepted to present at a conference, to begin with. Why anyone would want to "pad" their CV on this score becomes a little dubious. Moreover, when instructed on where to list one's conference papers in one's CV, typically instructions by tenure committees and granting agencies have us place them towards the end of the CV, which again underscores the kind of importance which they are given.

Secondly, one has to wonder about the real intentions behind presenting the same paper more than once. One reason to wonder is that conference attendance can be expensive. In my experience, which dates back to well before I obtained my doctoral degree, the average expenditure was in the $800-$1,100 US range. Moreover, one sometimes has to wait months between conferences. Then, at the conference itself, you discover that you are presenting on the Saturday morning of the last day of the event, or on the first day, at 8:00am -- or at the same time as a group of world-famous big wigs -- and the number of panelists might rival the number of audience members. In other words, this hardly seems to be a cost-effective, efficient, or even logical way to proceed in obtaining peer review. My suspicion is that we might grasp at respectable and professional-sounding reasons to cover for more mundane reasons, for example: "I will probably never see Helsinki if I don't go to this conference," or, "I inflated the budget in my grant application, and I really need to spend this money, so why not see Australia while I am at it?" or something else.

I do think that international, via air, conference participation will diminish, if it has not done so already, if for no other reason than the various fuel surcharges that place the purchase of airline tickets increasingly out of reach. That one spent, perhaps, a total of $2,500 US to just read a paper for 15 minutes, might cause some individuals to feel embarrassment, knowing that at the end of the year, or at the end of a grant, someone may be reviewing how the money was spent.

What troubles me is that efforts to cast double-dipping as an "increased peer review measure" appear disingenuous. Why not email the paper to a listserv, or individually to dozens of academics who belong to an association? Why not post the paper online?

And this is what I have discovered in my experience: posting a paper online can get you years of feedback. In some cases, the papers themselves may end up being cited -- I have a couple of decidedly non-peer reviewed papers online which have been cited in several respected publications -- and my own peer reviewed work in print that is cited by no one (continuing this particular line of discussion will take me away from the topic of this post).

Finally, having seen, on multiple occasions, the process and results of e-mail seminars organized by the media anthropology network of the European Association for Social Anthropology (EASA) -- with one wrapping up as I type this -- it seems that far more effective and widespread feedback is obtained, at virtually no cost, compared to the typical conference paper that moves on feet. Moreover, there is no need for repetition -- the duplication effort is covered by people making copies, transmitting copies of the paper further afield, etc.

I do not think one can outright "ban" conference attendance, and in some cases it can be well worth attending in-person conferences for a variety of reasons. However, given these newer possibilities afforded by the Internet, I would hope that more individuals would at least feel the need to rationalize their choices, especially if and when they draw on public funds, and to minimize their financial demands on the public and their impacts on the environment.

So, my question is very different from what is in the article cited above -- simply put, it's not whether double-dipping is unethical on scholastic grounds, the question is: why would you even bother doing so?

No comments: