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Some thoughts for young surgeons

Discussing Papers at National Meetings

Meeting and exchanging ideas with surgeons from other institutions – networking – is one of the major pleasures of academic medicine. Young surgeons sometimes find it hard to know how to get started. Committee activity (see previous post from 11/4/2014) is one sure-fire way. Another important activity is discussing papers at national meetings.

At most meetings, a period of question-and-answer (termed “discussion”) follows the presentation of a paper. Discussants may be invited (preselected), uninvited (members of the audience), or a mixture of both. Often an invited discussant leads off, followed by a couple of questions from the audience at large. You can recognize an invited discussant when the moderator says something like this, “The discussion will be opened by Dr. X.”

Until you actually serve as moderator for one of these sessions (which will come one day, as you get better known), you can’t really appreciate how important audience participation is. No one wants to give the paper that sparks no interest from the audience. No moderator wants to have to generate question after question because the audience is inert. You are doing everyone a favor by speaking up. In addition to gaining visibility and keeping the meeting lively, you may get another perk. Sometimes the discussions are published along with the papers. You can easily check this out by looking at the papers from a previous year’s meeting.

You may be invited to be a discussant if you have previously published in the same (relatively narrow) field, you are known to the session moderator, or if you have previously done a good job as a discussant.

A couple of tips for invited discussants:
• Review the manuscript before the meeting. Differentiate, for the audience, between comments and questions derived from the presentation and those from the manuscript.
• Begin with a few remarks, perhaps two or three paragraphs, which put the work into context. This is much like an editorial which accompanies a published paper.
• Develop three or four focused questions that will elucidate and illuminate the material presented. Resist the temptation to present your own data or to attempt to dazzle everyone with your prowess.
• If there is a logical flaw or some contradictory evidence, by all means point this out but be kind. Offer the presenter an opportunity to comment.
• Be kind. Begin and end your comments, even if some are critical, with a compliment and thanks for the opportunity to review.
• Don’t torture the resident. If the paper is presented by a resident, be kind. Often the senior faculty member who participated in the work will be hovering nearby, ready to “close the discussion” if the resident appears to be at sea. But – be kind. If I know that a resident will be presenting a paper, I will often seek the resident out and go through the points I am going to raise ahead of time. If you do this, make sure you tell the resident NOT to answer these questions in anticipation as he/she presents the paper.
• Three points/questions are plenty. Remember, both the presenter and the audience need to be able to remember all of these points to put it in context.

If you are NOT invited to discuss a paper:
• Go prepared. Review the abstract book or program before you go to your next meeting. Pick a couple of abstracts in your area of interest and list possible questions. Rise to ask questions that are of true interest to the audience. Do not give a mini-paper!
• Give your name and affiliation when you are given the opportunity to speak. Don’t assume that the moderator will recognize you – or even that he/she can see you clearly in the glare of the lights.
If the discussion is to be published:
• Give a printed copy of your remarks to the recorder.
• Keep a copy; you will have a chance to review and edit your discussion.
• Do not completely rewrite it in light of new information. Remain true to your original thoughts.

Get out there and start making your voice be heard. It will be good for you, and good for the group. Discussion is one of the things that distinguishes material presented before a live audience from the printed page. Participate in the great dialogue! Discussing papers leads to networking opportunities and may help you get committee appointments, all leading to greater visibility.
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