Of congress abstracts and papers

Daniel Gile

February 7, 2007


Scholars communicate their ideas and findings in several ways. In congresses, in particular, they can present oral papers, they can discuss issues informally with colleagues, and they can exchange written papers (previously published). Written papers can be informationally dense, as interested readers can take their time to understand them and process all the information. Readers are also free to stop reading a paper when they think it is not relevant or interesting enough, or to skip those parts of a paper they feel are not relevant enough for them or too difficult to process for their apparent added value. When listening to an oral paper, if it is informationally very dense, people in the audience may feel somewhat frustrated, put questions to the author, request clarification and hasten to read the paper when it is published. If papers are not dense enough, people in the audience, who are captive to the extent they are civilized and polite, can find it very frustrating to spend successive periods of 20 minutes listening to speakers who – they feel – have nothing worth listening to say. They may feel they are wasting their time, and may prefer to spend it outside the conference rooms in discussions with colleagues. We are painfully aware of the fact when we are in the audience, but often forget it when we take on the role of speakers. How much of what we say will be of interest to the audience? How much is of general introductory nature, already known to all? How much is repetition? How much thought do we devote to these questions before and when we take the floor?

            When screening abstracts before a conference, referees try to assess the potential added value of the paper which will be presented. How much new data, new theoretical input, new methodology, new speculative ideas which might interest the audience and stimulate research seem to be offered? When the abstract says the paper will report the findings of an empirical study, such an assessment is relatively easy to make if referees are familiar with the literature in the field. When the abstract announces a discussion of an already popular topic (a few examples are interdisciplinarity in TS, translation competence, training curricula and school translation versus professional translation) or is too vague about the presentation’s specific contribution, it becomes difficult to predict the value of the paper to the audience in session.

            In abstracts received before EST Congresses, there are often lengthy general introductions, which turn out to be very similar to the introductions offered in the subsequent written papers, and just one or two sentences about the author’s specific contribution. And yet, in most cases, these are the sentences on which referees will base their assessment. Perhaps authors could be bold enough to do without introductions designed to fill in the quota of a few hundred words for the abstract and offer a bit more information about their original input?