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    • CommentAuthorMTS
    • CommentTimeJan 5th 2012 edited
    Hi all,

    I have been wondering recently what other practices other mathematicians follow when deciding whether/how much to talk about work in progress. I have been considering asking a soft-question on this topic, and I would like to ask (a) whether the community feels that such a question would be appropriate for this site, and (b) if so, how could this question best be phrased so as to be useful to the most people (and also to avoid being closed)?

    Tentative wording for the question:

    Title: Presenting work in progress

    At some point in the evolution of a project, one has to decide when to start talking about it in seminars and at conferences. I am interested in hearing about how other mathematicians make this decision. Of course the decision to give a talk on work in progress may depend on the state of the project, on the venue and the audience, and on other factors.

    My specific questions are:
    (1) At what stage of a project do you consider it to be ready to talk about?
    (2) How does the venue (departmental seminar/colloquium/conference/other) affect your decision?
    (3) What other factors do you consider when deciding whether to talk about work in progress?


    I'd welcome any suggestions for improvement.

    I think the wording of the question is clear and good.

    Whether it's appropriate for MO is another matter. I suspect other people have stronger opinions about this than I do.


    Not appropriate for MO. This question belongs on a discussion board.

    • CommentAuthortheojf
    • CommentTimeJan 5th 2012

    Hi MTS,

    Of questions that are broadly in the "advice" category, this is one of the best I've seen. It is certainly something I would eagerly talk about with friends, over tea or a beer or just sitting around the office. I probably won't participate in the MO question only because I generally don't post responses to advice questions; that said, this is one where I would read the comments others give.

    I'm sure that the aesthetic on MO is for advice questions to be CW, and I would recommend that you make this one be as well, if only because someone will insist more strongly than I am that it be CW. Maybe you were already planning to do so — you didn't say in your original post. (Actually, if advice questions didn't garner a lot of trafic, I would not think them necessarily CW. But I would like to receive advice from mathematicians with strong reputations as mathematicians, and such reputation should be strongly influenced by their mathematical abilities, although other factors of course matter, and giving advice is something that should certainly be rewarded. The problem, at least based on my impression, is that advice questions often receive much more attention than mathematical questions, and so non-CW advice questions would lead to too much point accrual for non-math.)

    Anyway, I'm rambling. I think you should ask this question. Then I think you should leave a comment with a link to this discussion. CW means that people who feel strongly about how to improve the question (if they think it needs improving) can improve it. The link means that people who feel the question may not be appropriate have somewhere to talk about it.



    Not appropriate.

    I really do not like seeing advice questions on MO. It's not just a prejudice against "soft questions", it's also because I think that the potential is for them to do more harm than good. There is no easy way to sift the responses. There would be a big difference between someone saying, "This was my instinctive reaction when reading this question ..." and "I was in this situation and I did this, but on reflection I wish I'd done that." but it is rare that the answerers put that sort of information in to their answers.

    At the very least, I would want it to be phrased so that:

    1. It was not asking for advice but for experiences
    2. It was not asking for "happenstance" experiences but for occasions where the person actually thought about what they were going to do.

    The point of the last is that I suspect that most people don't think about this. You get an invite to give a talk at a conference, you're fed up with talking about the same old thing, so you look round for some project that you're working on that could make an interesting talk, and you talk about that. There's no real sense of having sat down and thought, "Is this project really ready for public exposure?". So I'd only be interested in reading those experiences where people have actually thought about the dangers (??) of talking too early or too late about something.



    I was about to write that although I'm not personally very interested in this particular question, I'm happy to see this type of advice question on MO -- I think MO is better with this sort of question than without. But the more I think about it, the more I'm curious to see what answers people give, so I hope you do ask the question.

    • CommentAuthorMTS
    • CommentTimeJan 6th 2012
    Thanks to everyone for your input so far. I would like to address some comments that people have made.

    Theo, yes, I had been planning to make the question community wiki but I forgot to include that in my original post. I think it is a good idea to link to this discussion also.

    Bill, could you say why you don't feel this is appropriate? Do you oppose advice questions in general, or is there something specific to this question that you feel makes it inappropriate?

    Andrew, I do get what you are saying. My feeling was that by asking specifically what factors people consider when deciding whether to talk about something, I would be filtering down somewhat to people who had given the matter some careful thought. It seems that it might be a little patronizing to explicitly say "Please only post an answer if you've thought about it already." But I do agree that it might be useful to have some analysis also of whether people thought they had made the right or wrong choice in a given instance.

    Based on the comments people have made so far, I am leaning towards posting the question in community wiki format, as written above, except that I would add something like:

    "If you have had relevant experiences speaking about unfinished work that have informed your decision process, then I would be interested in hearing about those experiences as well."
    I want to record my vote that the question is appropriate.
    OK so I want to record my vote that the question isn't appropriate, because it's not a mathematical question, it's a fluffy question that might be of interest to some people who visit this site but in my opinion is exactly the sort of question that pushes the site away from where I'd like to see it. The problem is that each "answer" will be an opinion rather than a universally applicable fact. That's not to say that the question isn't interesting! But I can read fluff on blogs.
    • CommentAuthormarkvs
    • CommentTimeJan 6th 2012 edited
    I think the question is not appropriate. It has nothing to do with mathematics, the answers would consist either of personal stories or anecdotes. This question is of the same kind as the notorious questions about maiden names, raising mathematicians (everybody who knows American literature should remember this Mark Twain story:, cocktail party jokes, colorful language, "what to do if I want to steal somebody else's result" (sorry, I do not remember exact title but there was a question like that), and so on. I agree that these questions go very well with beer but it is not good in a research oriented Web site.
    • CommentAuthorgilkalai
    • CommentTimeJan 6th 2012
    I think that the question is appropriate for MO.

    My reasons are close to that of Kevin, MTS. The question itself is fine, but, IMO, belongs on a discussion board or a blog, not on MO. I also fear harm to MO beyond just having a question that is not in line with its purpose (with, e.g., the inevitable stories about "lock your briefcase when xxx comes to down and don't talk about your unpublished results"), which I suspect is also in the back of Mark's mind.

    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeJan 7th 2012

    Personally I have not much against the question (and that some effort on it, including first asking here, by the OP was made is a big plus to me). Yet, it is diffuclt for me to envision what type of answers (deserving the name) there could be. One can come up with reasons for doing one thing and its opposite. Say, talking about something gives information away, so there is some risk somebody will use it in ways negative for me. But, somebody might also provide relevant feedback information positive for me. And, having talked about it establishes some weak form of priority, if ever it should be needed...It all depends.

    And I am not really convinced of the usefulness of a list of things somebody considers. To me this does not seem to be the type of question where I can see much value in knowing what other people tend to do. In particular, since IMO implictly or explcitly, these will all be if-then answers. If there is some reasonable worry somebody will abuse the information, then do not give it away. If there is no risk somebody will abuse the infoprmation and you are reasonably sure it is correct, there is no reason not to give it away. And so on. But all this seems rather obvious to me. The tricky thing is to know in which situation one will be. And to decide this such a question won't help.

    MTS said:

    I am interested in hearing about how other mathematicians make this decision.

    A question I'd have, to decide what I think about the appropriateness of the question, would be: why? This is not meant to be rude, I really do not see why this is relevant (beyond general curiosity). And if it is not really relevant to have the question, since there is some opposition to it, I would say let's rather not have it. But perhaps there is some relvance I am missing, and then I would change my mind to saying. OK, this might be really useful, so despite some worries one can have, let us have the question.

    I personally don't have a major problem with CW soft-questions if they are math-specific and well-written. This question as written would apply equally to any other science and the answers are likely to be the same, e.g, put your time-stamped slides on the web to get priority and don't give things away to noted thieves, etc...
    • CommentAuthorEmerton
    • CommentTimeJan 7th 2012

    Dear quid,

    Surely another important issue is whether the claims being made are actually correct or not. This is my own biggest concern when reporting on work-in-progress (which I take to mean work for which all details are not yet carefully written down in a form that everyone can check), although I am still much more cavalier about this than some of my coauthors, and many other mathematicians.

    In any event, it seems to me that it could be very useful, especially for younger mathematicians, to have a list of (and some commentary on) the various issues to consider. (Already it seems that your considerations and mine are quite different, and so it seems quite conceivable that the OP hasn't thought of some subset of them.)



    Disclaimer: I no longer participate on the main site, apart from occasional comments; perhaps my opinion should be discounted accordingly.

    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeJan 7th 2012

    Dear Emerton,

    there is no intention on my side to fight against this question. So, mainly for the record. I wrote (added emphasis):

    If there is no risk somebody will abuse the information and you are reasonably sure it is correct, there is no reason not to give it away.

    So, we of course agree 'correctness' is another aspect to consider. Surely, there are still other aspects, neiter you nor I mentioned so far; but also I did not try to be exhaustive (note the 'Say...' and 'And so on.') [Also, from the fact that I choose priority as example one should not necessarily infer this is my main concern.]

    An interesting side question would be what does 'reasonably sure' above mean. As you mention, quite different things to different people. So that one is back to what I pointed out as a potential problem of this question: one has many things that seem in general/when said abstarctly more or less clear, but the decision/judgement in practise is the problem.

    But, if you and others think it is useful to compile a sort of check list, I certainly won't try to stop you (via a vote to close). Whether this is true for all others in the discussion so far, I doubt it; but I will stay out of it, on either side, so this is not really my problem.

    Best wishes,


    ps.I think it was good to mention your inactivity in this thread, else you might be counted among the mathematicians that leave due to this type of question, which I assume is not the motivation. Finally, while off-topic here, let me say that the combination of competence, patience, and friendliness you showed (and I hope in some form will continue to show!) in your contributions here, to me is absolutely amazing.


    re quid's ps - hear, hear!

    • CommentAuthorMTS
    • CommentTimeJan 7th 2012

    Again, thanks to everyone for the input. Again, I will address some remarks people have made.

    First, to quid: the reason that I want to ask this question is that I am close to finishing my PhD and I am now at the point where I have a couple of projects on the go, but none in a totally finished state, and I am trying to work out criteria for myself to decide when my work is ready to be presented. While I have some thoughts of my own on the matter, I would like to hear from others as well. I have asked my advisor as well as some other mathematicians for their thoughts, and now I would like to ask the broader community.

    Kevin Buzzard, Bill Johnson, and bsteinberg have all said that they feel that the question is not math-specific, and I certainly understand this point of view. This question is not math-specific. However, as Matthew Emerton said, this "could be very useful, especially for younger mathematicians," and there are several advice questions already on the site that seem to be not math-specific, and yet which have attracted a lot of votes and answers. For example: how to use arxiv?, presenting a paper: do's and don'ts, what counts as an invited talk?, etc.

    Under the what kind of questions can I ask here? section of the FAQ, the following appears:

    You'll notice that there is the occasional question making a list of something, asking about the workings of the mathematical community, or something else which isn't really a math question. Such questions can be helpful to the community, but it is extremely tricky to ask them in a way that produces a useful response.

    I feel that this question, while not strictly mathematical, is one which can be helpful to the community. I also feel that I have phrased it with specific questions rather than as a prompt for general discussion. I will include also a request that people keep anecdotes anonymous. I will monitor this thread for another day or so, but I will probably post the question after that.

    I really appreciate that this community is able to remain respectful while disagreeing. I am proud to be a part of MO. Whether or not the question is closed, I thank you again for all of your thoughts.

    • CommentAuthorgilkalai
    • CommentTimeJan 8th 2012 edited
    Dear MTS,

    As I said, I think that the question you were about to ask is appropriate for MO. It is a reasonably good advice question of the kind that is asked here from time to time and the answers are sometimes (but not always) of interest. As Mathiew said this question may be useful for a young mathematician and while there are aspects about this question that apply in other areas there are also some aspects which are very unique to mathematics.

    Your question can be a nice MO contribution, but I doubt, based on the specific situation that you described, that the answers will be useful to you. (Of course, questions where the OP motives are to contribute to others are also welcome.) The situation for you depends much on the details of your progress and on what exactly "not totally finished" means. The main piece of avice I can give for issues like this is to give them serious thought, and in cases of graduate students - to consult also with the supervisor (who should also give them serious thought). In other words, not to make the decision based on ad hoc reasons. (I cannot swear that I always followed my own good advice...) Different people behave differently and there is not a "book answer". It looks that you already spent some time thinking about the issue and this is very good.

    It looks to me that the most important thing for you is to progress in your almost finished but not yet finished projects (maybe, one at a time) and probably this is even more important than promoting the case for this question on MO (especially in view of it being controversial). So here is a suggestion - ask this question on MO (if it still interets you) in the summer. Probably at that time you could also contribute a well-thought answer and others may follow. Another piece of advice about your question itself (and again I cannot swear that I followed it always) is this: If *you* are in doubt if it is time to publically present your work-in-progress then waiting for several weeks or a few months is a good policy.
    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeJan 8th 2012

    @MTS: thank you for the elaboration.

    Since I said something which can be seen as critical towards the question, while I claimed to be neutral, something supportive, too:

    While the question is not mathematical, I would maintain it is somewhat math-specific. From what I know from what some friends tell me, a researcher in life sciences will in all likelihood give a quite different answer from the one a mathematician will give. Or, from what I saw on some thematic blogs and alike, in certain parts of physics there can be strict rules which member of a research group is allowed to say what by which time regarding some experiments.

    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeJan 8th 2012

    ( Emerton wrote

    Disclaimer: I no longer participate on the main site, apart from occasional comments; perhaps my opinion should be discounted accordingly.

    I hope this is a temporary situation! )