Being a Discussant 9

Chairing a session and
Being a Discussant
Science Communication
Tips for presenting, chairing, and
discussing at conferences
The major pointers (the three P's):
• Be prepared - regardless of the role you have, make
sure to prepare fully beforehand.
• Be professional - make sure you act professionally
throughout the process.
• Be prompt - Make sure to show up early for our
panel. You should be at the room at least 10 minutes
before "show time" so that you can prepare yourself,
and interact with presenters.
Chairing the session
• Speak confidently -- good voice projection and eye contact is
important. So look at the audience !!
• Speak sufficiently slowly that each word is clear. Do not
‘swallow’ words.
• Introduce the speaker/presenter by covering, at the very least,
their name and the title of what they will present. You may
also include a little of their background.
• Also introduce the discussant and explain any aspects of their
role you would like to being to the attention of the audience.
Being a Chair
Your main job is to facilitate the presentations.
• Keep time. Be prepared to hand the speaker a
slip of paper with time remaining at 3 minutes
before the end and 1 minutes before the end.
• You can allow each person a minute or so
beyond their allotted time, but then wait for
them to take a breath and simply interject
something like "Time is up. Could you please
wrap up now?"
Managing Questions
• Chairs usually manage the questions coming from the
audience. Begin by saying ‘Now, I would like to open the
session up for questions. If it's a small group, you can ask
people to identify themselves.
• If people go on too long with their questions/comments, you
can ask them to get to the point in a polite way, but don't
sweat on it. Try to manage things well, but don't worry if
you don't.
• Ending the session. Say something like, ‘Well, if there are no
more questions, I would like to conclude by thanking our
presenter for providing us with their presentation and I
would now like to call on the discussant to provide a critique
of the presentation and the manner in which it was
Being a Discussant
The major task of a discussant is to provide focused and
useful constructive criticism and suggestions for their
Make specific constructive criticisms and suggestions –
include at least the following 4 aspects.
Begin with one positive element of the paper.
Goal of paper or presentation.
Point out something that they could do which would
strengthen the paper.
Comment on the goal aspects of their presentation
ability, but also draw attention to anything that you
feel should be improved
The Target Groups
The discussant has to satisfy two key groups
• First, the discussant is responsible to the audience at the
session. The audience normally see the discussant as the
person who can best provide a ‘road map’ for research in
this area and interpret the poster/paper in the context of
that road map (this applies to your NOS presentations).
• Second, the discussant is responsible to the author of the
poster/paper. The author are looking for meaningful and
constructive feedback on the paper. The discussant has to
do all of this in a very short period of time!
What NEITHER group is looking for is for the discussant to
talk about THEIR OWN research. That is not the purpose of
a discussant! Please refrain from treading down that path.
Think positive
Always start your intervention as a discussant by
pointing out what the poster/NOS presentation has
tried to do (what do you see as its main message)
how it helped to provide a new and interesting
empirical material, came to a surprising insight, or
whatever (what do you like about it).
Almost all presentations are potentially good, and it
is your duty to make sure that comes out.
A critique of the position developed in the paper can
wait until after you've done that.
• Remember, that most criticism can be made
constructive simply by phrasing it as "One thing
that you might do to strengthen your
argument/presentation is to [bring more of the
recent literature on X to bear on the topic]
[speak more loudly/slower]"
• or "The excellent theoretical material that you
have brought together in the poster/paper could
be presented even more compellingly by [making
use of some of the empirical material as
anecdotal illustrations of the key theoretical
points] [being more emphatic in you use of
Other factors when being a poster or
a paper discussant
• Your comments are meant to be the most
thought-through reactions that the author
receives on that presentation.
• Your comments should concentrate on making
a poster/paper better: having a poster/paper
discussed at a workshop is an important
formal moment in the process of writing a
paper, and you are the institutional vehicle
for that.
Rules for Discussants
There are two simple rules to follow:
1. Do not do unto others what you would not want to
have done unto you;. That is, give the type of
comments that you would like to receive yourself.
2. Divide up your critique
By and large, a poster/paper can be evaluated using
three criteria:
• the central argument – what it is and how it was
• the method, (what this is and how it was made clear)
• the organisation/presentation of the poster/paper.
Going into more detail about
being a discussant for a conference
poster/paper or set of papers.
These points go beyond our little
practice sessions and try to help in
the real conference situation
Central argument
Try to capture the central argument of the poster/paper in a
few words. Often the author benefits tremendously simply
by having you re-state what he or she was trying to say.
This may take the form of:
 pointing out other positions in the debate that the author
did not acknowledge,
 a head-on critique of the central claim of the poster/paper,
with which you disagree, or
 the presentation of "disturbing" new facts that you have
and which fit rather uneasily with the point of the
• Explicitly address issues of design and method.
Again, the first step in this process is to (re)state
what the author is trying to do, and assess it on
those terms.
• Always be helpful, i.e. think through, in a virtual or
real discussion with the author, how methodological
problems could be resolved.
• If you disagree with the method –on principle or
for this particular research question—make clear
why you disagree.
• Method is important, but avoid getting bogged
down by it.
Organisation of the poster
• Often the weakest part of conference poster/is
the organisation: posters are written with one
particular outline in mind, and as the poster
evolves, some of that can get lost.
• On organisational issues, you should be very tough:
after all, that is the main instrument that the
author has for making an impact.
• It is usually this dimension of a poster/paper which
is most easily revised.
• A poorly organised poster/paper is difficult to
read, and if the argument is worthwhile, then that
is a pity.
Building your commentary
1. Act as if the presentation is all you'll know. Given that
title, what might (s)he say?
2. If you can read through the material multiple times.
Each time you'll see something different, because you
will have had different intervening experiences and you
are a different reader.
3. Have definitions of key terms or seek clarification on
behelf of the audience (as Authors may not do this).
You can always say, “these people are not talking about
this phenomenon, as it is usually defined. It is usually
defined as X.
Possible sample leading comments
a. “You can do even more with this argument than what we've
heard here. For instance,…”
b. “The predominant reference in this paper is X. What if it
had been Y?”
c. “We came to this symposium with assumptions affecting our
reactions. There are at least four reactions people can have:
(i) that's absurd (deny assumption); (ii) that's interesting
(disconfirm weak assumption)’ (iii) that's obvious (affirms
assumptions); (iv) that's irrelevant (does not speak to
assumptions). What is the pattern of reactions to what we
have heard?”
d. “Given this topic, I expected the presenter to say X.
Much to my surprise he/she said Y. What can we make of
A Realistic preview of the
discussant’s role
1. You'll get none of the posters/papers in advance.
2. At the session there will be little time left for you to
make your comments.
3. In the time left, you'll be introduced as the person who
will pull all of this together. (this refers to discussing a
set of papers).
4. The audience wants you to sit down so they can ask their
5. Being a discussant is fun to do, because you have a
chance to spot connections and you don't have to worry
about writing a paper during the holidays so as to get a
slot at the meeting (being involved is often important for
seeking funding !!).
Coping without see posters in advance
• Take notes.
• To get your bearings. Why that title for the paper ? Is
there a better title? Has the presentation a good sequence?
• It is OK to draw the audience in: Thus “before we get to
your questions, let me ask you in the audience to take on the
role of discussant for the moment. What do you think are
the big ideas we heard, what surprised you, what's
controversial, what will you take away? (Don’t allow the person
working in the same research area to sleep !!)
• Skim a recent newspaper. Something will have been relevant
to the topic. For example “There is a certain timeliness to
these presentations, at least judging from this item in
today's ‘Postimees”.
Possible Questions
1. Isn't being a discussant just the same as being a
manuscript reviewer?
Ans: Probably, but it shouldn't be. In a symposium,
authors have a chance to correct misperceptions
of a discussant right away.
The thinking of a discussant should not be, ‘show
me why this is a major contribution to the
The thinking is something like, ‘you wouldn't have
put all this work into this topic unless you thought
there was something important to say’.
2. How do you make sessions exciting?
Ans: One definition of “exciting” is a session in
which motivated people prepare, do their
homework, make a coherent argument within
their allotted time, and have something
interesting to say. And if it is said in an
interesting way, perhaps even in a provocative
way, then the session might be interesting.
And the discussant can ‘liven things up’ by
trying to ‘create an atmosphere’ and perhaps
playing ‘devil’s advocate’.
Don’t dwell on small points
Page-by-page comments are good for email
communication, but look pedantic in a public
discussion. Only if the poster is full of
contradictions does it make sense to (carefully)
point that out to the author.
Discussing small points only makes sense, really,
if they are vital for the poster as a whole – but
then they can hardly be called "small" points !!
And don’t forget, the author is present. If you
annoy them, they may make a few choice
remarks about you as a discussant !!!
Be succinct
The discussant is not expected to take more than ten
minutes –this implies that you concentrate on major
points in the critique (a critique is both +ve and –ve).
The discussion afterwards may give you time to develop
any other arguments.
On the other hand, a discussant is not going to say much
if the comments are too short. The discussant is
expected to be able to make meaningful points that
take at least 5 minutes. Without that the audience
can feel ‘cheated’.
Write out the comments for the
author's purpose
Send the author an email with a written version of
your comments.
You will be more economical when you are forced to
write them up, and discover where you were, perhaps,
exaggerating your criticisms.
Nothing disciplines and organises thinking as much as
writing. Giving the author written comments is also a
sign that you took the paper seriously and it will
therefore always be appreciated.
The End
For the following sessions, I wish
• One person to chair each presentation.
• A separate person to be a discussant.
The presenters of their posters or their NOS
papers are the major persons, but the chair
and discussant are also under scutiny. Their
efforts will help the session enormously.
Using English
Science Communication
Use of English Guidelines
English has rules, but virtually all are broken in some
And there is no control over English. It is changing.
This means there is no actual ‘correct’ English, except
that taken as acceptable by others.
The good news: Technically, you can never be wrong in
your pronounciation, use, or spelling of English !!
So don’t worry !
The bad news: Others need to understand you !!
Which English should be used
Use ‘English’ English in Europe. (But if you use
‘American’ English, be consistent and don’t switch from
‘American’ English to ‘English’ English.
Thus for ‘English’ English, it is programme, not
program (exception – when it is a computer program)
And colour, labour, harbour, centre,
realise, specialise, analyse, metre,
And ‘lift’ rather than ‘elevator’
‘flat’ rather than ‘apartment’
‘bonnet’ (of a car) rather than ‘hood’
‘petrol’ rather than ‘gas’ (gasoline)
In ‘English’ English, the emphasis is on the 2nd to
last syllable in a word) - there will be exceptions.
In ‘American’ English, the emphasis is usually on
the 3rd from last syllable.
Thus Tan- zan – i –a and Tan- zan- ia
Con-tro-ver-sy and Con-tro-ver-sy
Because English does not define the vowel sound
(no ‘ä’, ‘ō’, etc), pronounciation can depend on your
origins (change even within a country)
Try saying
And what about
Garage, Tomato, Margarine
And of course don’t forget words which have kept
their French pronounciation:
Bouquet, Gateaux, Buffet, Coup,
Checking English in sentences
‘About 50 years, a lot of recurrent difficulties in science
education were encountered in many countries’.
For about 50 years, many countries have encountered
recurring difficulties in science education.
‘This order of introduction of chemistry issues is reversed
to the order given in usual textbooks’.
This approach to chemistry issues is the reverse to that
usually given in textbooks.
Use of ‘a’ and ‘the’
This is difficult and unless you are a native English
speaker it is almost impossible to handle.
And even then, native speakers will disagree with
each other – especially Americans and the English
(with Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and
South Africans in between).
Generally, include ‘a’ for something- in general in
the singular.
Generally, include ‘the’ for something ‘specific’ and
definitely, if the specificity is to be emphasised.
Use of ‘the’ needed
• Mathematics is still widely used by the science.
• Put to test
Use of ‘a’ needed
• Biology is science subject
• Collect a data
• But Chemistry and Biology are science subjects
3. Nouns such as ‘civics, mathematics and ‘news’ require
singular verbs.
4. Nouns such as ‘scissors’ , ‘tweezers’ and ‘trousers‘ require
plural verbs. (There are two parts)
5. Collective nouns are words that imply more than one
person/thing, but that are considered singular and
take a singular verb, such as: ‘group, work, class, and
6. What about data? Is it data is, or data are ?
Take you pick, but be consistent. Data is
actually plural (singular is datum), but datum
is virtually never used.
Checking the English in sentences
‘Sensors and signal converters are used in
laboratory works for making different
measurements that offer the possibility to enter
information in computer and process it with the
help of special software.
work not works (line 2)
into the computer (line 4)
data rather than it (line 4)
The unnecessary use of plural
• So umbrellaology is not a science, but could be one part
of the researches of some social science.
• Practical works help to provide the better learning
Incorrect English word
• This results in quicker development of areas connected
to nature conservation.
Choice of words
In speech we tend to use simpler words (which are
often Germanic in origin) and prefer Germanic clausal
verbs – get up, go out, get off (a bus).
In writing we make much more frequent use of French origin
words – arise, exit, alight.
In writing we try to avoid some terms - ‘got’, ‘have to’, or
ending a sentence with a preposition (if we can),
Where are you going to?
(Where are you going?)
Where have you come from ?
(From where have you come?)
I have to write this essay (I am required to write
this essay)
Wrong preposition/ conjunctions
• For example the theory of the Sun being in the
centre of the Solar System.
• Also, in science the results of the tests are
depending of the person doing these tests
• The world is beyond of our ability to sense
• In my point of view, these are three main
reasons why people are trying to learn more
about the nature.
• Charles Darwin didn’t investigate all the nature
to make his theory of evolution.
Active and Passive Voice
Choosing Active Voice
In most non-scientific writing situations, active voice is
preferable Even in scientific writing, overuse of passive
voice, or use of passive voice in long and complicated
sentences, can cause readers to lose interest, or to
become confused.
Sentences in active voice are generally--though not
always—clearer and more direct than those in passive
Passive (more wordy); Active (more concise)
Choosing Passive Voice
The passive voice makes sense when the agent
performing the action is obvious, unimportant, or
or when a writer wishes to postpone mention of the
agent until the last part of the sentence, or to avoid
mentioning the agent at all.
The passive voice is effective in such circumstances
because it highlights the action and what is acted upon
rather than the agent performing the action.
Active/passive examples (omission
of agent doing the action)
• The warden is notifying police that three prisoners have
• Police are being notified that three prisoners have escaped.
• Researchers successfully performed a new experimental
technique yesterday.
• A new experimental technique was performed successfully
• "Authorities make rules to be broken," he said defiantly.
• "Rules are made to be broken," he said defiantly.
Avoid starting a sentence in active voice and
then shifting to passive.
Many customers found the coffee too bitter to drink, but
it was still ordered frequently.
Many customers found the coffee too bitter to drink, but
they still ordered it frequently.
He tried to act cool when he slipped on the ice, but he
was still laughed at by the other students.
He tried to act cool when he slipped on the ice, but the
other students still laughed at him.
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