Your conference paper – already published or work in progress?


You’re about to write a conference abstract. That sounds straightforward but it’s often not. There are things to decide even before you start writing. For example you have to choose what to focus on. And how cooked it already is. This choice may lead to two dilemmas.

Here’s the first – Do you put in one you prepared earlier, that is, a paper that is already published or at least already in review? Or do you put in an abstract that is still in progress?

Of course, in some disciplines, particularly those where there are peer-reviewed conference proceedings, you may not have the choice to present anything that has appeared elsewhere, you have no choice but to present new work. But this need not be work in progress. It can be publication ready. That’s another choice you have.but let’s stick with the dilemma for a bit. Humour me.

There are good reasons for writing a conference paper that is work in progress. You get the chance to develop an idea and then see how it works on the day. Even if you don’t get a lot of questions at the time, you still get the opportunity to see how your data and analysis plays out. You hear yourself speaking, you see how the PowerPoint goes. Is it plausible? Flawed? Promising? Never to see the light of day again?

And you can make a work in progress paper presentation even more meaningful. You can ask someone to come to your session and give you feedback. And another plus – you have the chance to show everyone your interest in the topic even if you haven’t published on it yet. Your conference paper says – in the programme and to whoever comes to your session –  hey I’m here, this is something I’m working on.

There are equally good reasons for presenting a paper that is already published or near publication. 1. You have a well-worked argument and a clear point to make. 2. You can promote your publication if it is in print or if it is accepted for publication. 3. And if the paper is in print, you may get some really interesting questions and interactions with people who have already read it, and have come to your session because they want to engage in conversation.

But getting to grips with the ready-or-not options does mean considering potential down sides too.  There are some risks. If your paper is published, there’s always a chance that some people will already have read it and won’t come. They’ve heard what you’ve got to say and they’ll use their conference time to go somewhere else, thanks all the same.

On the other hand, if you are presenting work in progress there is the chance that you won’t have it together enough, you’ll end up presenting something you’re not happy with. Oh no. That’s to be avoided if at all possible. There is of course also the very remote chance that someone will take your idea and run with it before you’ve had the chance to develop it fully.

Tricky eh. But that’s not all. Presenting work in progress can lead to dilemma two.

If you are presenting work in progress, there’s a good chance you’ll have moved on by the time you get to present the paper. The abstract you confidently wrote ages ago will no longer quite fit. So you have to decide whether you will still present the paper as it was, and is in the conference abstracts, or whether you will simply explain at the start of the presentation that you’ve been able to do more work. You’re presenting where you’re up to now, rather than where you were. (In support of this latter option, it’s probably good to know that this does actually happen a lot.)

Now, a further wrinkle is that if you are a doctoral researcher you may well find that your supervisor has strong views about work in progress – or not. And you’ll just have to go along with what they advise. Just know that there is no right answer to the conference paper dilemmas. And eventually you may want to take different options for different pieces of work.