Talkshow: why don’t scientists do gigs?

The coronavirus crisis has meant that scientific meetings and seminars have moved online. This change has led to me wondering: why don’t scientists give talks the way that musicians do gigs?

The idea is: after posting a preprint or publishing a paper, a scientist advertises that they will livestream a seminar to explain the work. Attendance is free. A recording can be made available so that people in other timezones can watch later, on-demand. What better way to understand a scientist’s latest work than having them explain it to you, on your laptop? In music terms, these talks would be like a band doing a one-off concert to promote a new album. The key point is that the gig is organised by the scientist themselves.

Currently, academic talks are organised in two main ways:

  1. Meeting – lots of speakers and events happening over one or more days. Sometimes called symposium, conference, workshop. In music terms this is equivalent to a festival.
  2. Seminar – a single speaker gives a presentation as part of a regular series at an institution. These are usually closed to outsiders and typically small numbers of people attend. In music terms this would be something like playing one show at a specialist club.

In both cases, the invitation to participate comes from an organiser(s) of the event. It is actually rare to be invited because you have some new work to talk about. More often, the organisers simply want to hear from scientists that meet some criteria: of a certain calibre, doing interesting work, or who are strategically important. Wouldn’t it make more sense to give a talk when you have something new to say?

the academic gig is a natural extension of scientists promoting their own work

In many ways, an academic gig would be a natural extension of how scientists have promoted their work for years. In the past, a scientist may have mailed out reprints of their papers to others in the field that they thought might be interested. The advent of PDFs and email made this process easier. Blogging about your latest paper became popular sometime after that. And nowadays, many scientists and journals use Twitter to promote papers. In fact, right now the tweetorial – a series of tweets (or “thread”) – is de rigueur to explain a new paper or preprint. I see the academic gig as being the next logical step. In fact, I have seen some scientists make a “video abstract” of their paper.

New opportunities: promoting early career researchers

Since it is mainly PIs who are invited to present at Meetings and Seminars, the early career researchers who contribute to the work presented are usually excluded from the dissemination process. The best they can hope for is a hearty shout-out during the talk or on the Thank You slide. An academic gig would allow the PI to let the ECR researchers contribute to the talk by actually presenting their part of the work. This is a similar idea to letting a talented player take an extended solo during a musical gig.

New opportunities: increasing access

In a recent preprint Sarabipour et al. highlight several ways that scientific conferences could be improved. One issue is improving access so that researchers who cannot afford to attend a meeting or those who are not allowed to travel due to visa restrictions, can access the talks at conferences. If every scientist did a gig for their new paper, this would help everybody with an internet connection to access the work.

Pre-record and Q&A

So if everyone records a talk and anyone can watch it anywhere and anytime, what about the humble departmental seminar? Well, the scientist could appear for a Q&A after their pre-recorded talk has been played.

(Not so) Live and Dangerous? Image: Wikipedia

If you think about it, the current situation is somewhat strange. A scientist might give the same talk repeatedly at multiple seminar dates. What is the advantage of them doing so in real-time? OK, the presenter might alter a statement here or there to pique the interest of someone in the audience, but otherwise, it’s the same talk. Not only that, but you are at the mercy of video conferencing software for everything to go well.

Fans of hard rock and metal know that many “live recording” albums were in fact heavily overdubbed in the studio, a practice that dates back to Thin Lizzy’s “Live and Dangerous” album. A pre-recorded talk – free of all glitches – could be played in HD and the scientist could answer questions at the end, and even during the talk using a live chat function.

Hello, Cleveland!

A final anecdote on academic talks-as-gigs. I once witnessed a (very) famous US scientist have a Spinal Tap moment when they kicked off their talk by saying that they “hoped we had all enjoyed exploring Madrid during the break”. Since we were in Lisbon at the time, this caused much amusement.

The post title comes from “Talkshow” by The Departure from their album Dirty Words.

4 thoughts on “Talkshow: why don’t scientists do gigs?

  1. My gripe with seminar Q&As is that several of the “questions” end up being randoms in the audience droning on about their personal obsessions until someone cuts them off, or they peter out and the speaker says “So what’s the question?”. I imagine this would be even more of a Kafkaesque nightmare in a Zoom-type video chat.

    I think the Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) is a big advance over the conventional Q&A. Long rants can be filtered out simply by setting a length limit. Questions of no interest to the audience get no votes, and can be ignored. The main problem: as usually done, the vote count is displayed, and questions are ranked by that count. Popular questions bubble up the list, so you get the Matthew effect, and it degenerates into a brainless social media mob. But they can be done with blind voting, and you end up with penetrating questions and useful back-and-forths. Generating questions like that, and then feeding them into a live chat, could be a good way to add a human connection.

    1. Thanks Thomas. I really like the AMA idea to sort out good from bad questions. I have a similar gripe with seminar Q&As: that senior scientists try to boss the conversation. However my experience with virtual talks has been different. I’ve noticed that, online, the playing field is more level. Junior scientists ask great questions, I guess because they’re just typing away and not so inhibited about asking a question in a big room, plus everyone has time to formulate their question rather than spluttering it out live.

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