One of the things that “bugs” (i.e., annoys) me is the lack of attention given to assignment of discussants at Association/section/segment conferences. Of course, that assumes there is a discussant given the fact that in order to promote attendance some conferences have significant portions of their conference schedule without discussants. That is a subject for another day – does access result in equality/equity or dilution of scholarly conference purpose?
Why does this discussant issue bug me? For graduates of non-elite Ph.D. Programs conferences are one of the main options open to them to get feedback on their work prior to journal submission. But the conference paper volume often leads to rushed short reviews, at best, from conference reviewers. That means the only source of real feedback for the young scholar is the discussant.
Yet by the time organizers get to assigning discussants they (the organizers) are exhausted! They have dealt with large volume of papers, dealt with reviewers that promise and do not deliver, tried to combine papers into sessions that make sense, and now they need to solicit/assign/obtain discussants. No wonder it is done in a rushed manner with little thought to the quality of feedback to the scholar. Just get the schedule filled to meet the printing deadline for the conference program!
A few years ago I took part in a ‘secret’ experiment. I was asked by the “scientific/conference committee” to step in and assign discussants as they were exhausted and out of time. There were sixty papers on the program and a pool of volunteer discussants to assign plus the ability to twist arms of presenting authors to discuss papers even if they had not volunteered. The Conference organizers were praised by attendees for having the best match of feedback and discussant quality match at the Conference in years.
Why? I was a fresh face with some energy and while it was a very long day of matching subjects to cells it was probably one of the most productive days I have had in terms of helping scholars get feedback! Imagine, improving the quality of feedback on 60 papers with one (hard) days work! Senior academics rarely can make that impact for so little investment in time!
The point of this is not to highlight how great I am (although those whose dislike me will read it that way) but to highlight that the process can be improved. Is this the definitive way forward, heck no! But it illustrates that the status quo does not have to be!!! hopefully food for thought!