Rewriting History – The Art of Presenting Research

Chart of seminar attn levels

[Note: attention levels only reach 100% at the very beginning, when people are scoping out the snacks.. ooo teddy grahams, what a nice surprise]

A few weeks ago, my labmate Andrew and I were chatting about grad school reform (a recurring topic) as we rotavapped, and he shared with me some interesting observations about research talks. He began by pointing out that as young graduate students, we are taught that the key to giving a good research talk is to tell a compelling story. We also learn that if it is beneficial to the “story,” it is perfectly acceptable to present results out of chronological order. And it was this common practice of rearranging findings that left him feeling unsettled.

My first instinct was to reply that of course, people do that all the time because logical progressions help the audience absorb large amounts of data and follow the presenter’s thought process. Ah ok now I see what you’re getting at.. the latter part of that statement is not always true. In fact, it’s rare that the sequence of events presented in a seminar reflect the actual timeline. While chemists generally do start off with well precedented and grant worthy hypotheses, a lot of research is still done pretty empirically. And after a reaction has failed about 15 times you start resorting to those random/obscure reagents and hope the chemistry gods will just take pity and reward your perseverance.

Here’s the heart of the matter: is the reorganization of data actually dishonest and who does this really benefit? While this practice doesn’t violate ethical guidelines nearly to the extent of fraudulent data, there is some degree of misrepresentation. Also, let me say that I have seen talks where the presenter is pretty forthright and will admit they took a shot in the dark and were only able to later rationalize the result. I think audiences are receptive to honesty because we’re all too familiar with the process of coming up with an idea, testing it, having it fail and repeating until you arrive at something publishable. So would it be better for people to hear the buttoned up version that flatters someone’s intellectual prowess, or the factual series of events accompanied by real-time interpretations (hit or miss) of the results.

Personally, I’m not sure which I would prefer. Failed reactions don’t always lend themselves to exciting talks, but there is certainly value in sharing this information to save others from the same dead end. I especially enjoy when speakers acknowledge the role of serendipity, because 1) it’s true and 2) it doesn’t perpetuate this image of scientists as all-knowing (which is not true).

I’d be interested to find out if this is a common practice across other scientific fields or if its evolution is specific to organic chemistry. In any case, we shouldn’t accept these norms just because everyone does it; instead we need to be critically assessing the way we communicate and perform science. Scientists seek the truth of natural phenomena through experimentation, but our job doesn’t end once we’ve obtained the data. The federal funding system dictates that we share our knowledge with the community, but how we do so is entirely up to us.

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