published in Marketing Educator, vol. 14 (Summer 1995): p. 7
How Discussants Prevent Discussion
(And Why They Shouldn't)
Herbert Jack Rotfeld
Professor, Harbert College of Business
Administrative Fellow to the Graduate School
Auburn University, Alabama
Anyone who ever attended an academic conference is familiar with the basic format: a session chair introduces three research papers and an additional person designated as a discussant. While actual attendance at our session was a bit sparse, my comments as a discussant for research papers at a recent conference generated comments among several people for the next couple days. This is what I said. A discussant is a person who, while not having written a paper, has a forum to make a speech. While I will not be an exception, my speech will not be typical.And it will be brief.

For many in my position, the discussant presentations could validly be titled, "The Arrogant Twit You Failed to Properly Cite Might Be Your Discussant." And, in the past, I have been guilty of that.

But today, I will take two minutes to discuss discussants.

I read the papers for this session before the conference. I wasn't too happy having to read one because something by Tolstoy would have been shorter. I wanted to wait for the movie version. I wrote extensive notes on what I would say and I even prepared transparencies. But after attending numerous research sessions earlier day, and listening to the discussants that followed, I am bothered. I wonder why anyone should be a discussant, or if they are really serving a useful purpose anymore beyond giving additional people a basis to request travel money.

Originally -- apparently before the fall of the Second Temple by the memory of some people -- discussants would summarize the paper presentations, try to find a common thread for the session, and briefly give a prod and focus for questions. In other words, they would start the ball rolling for audience questions and open discussion. Granted, this would be difficult when the papers lack any clear connection or relationship, as is the case with the second paper listed in your program for this session. At this conference, there is an additional problem at some sessions that have each paper listed in the program as having its own discussant, creating a situation in which overlapping material becomes a distraction.

Regardless, discussants now fill time that could have been used for questions and stifle points of attention that people in the audience might wish to raise. Instead of stimulating discussion, the discussants are now critics, searching for bad things to say. When they are done, the session's scheduled time is exhausted and the meeting period is over.

Of course, we have all seen discussants that are more interesting than the papers. But really, discussants are not meant to be the main attraction of a session. And sometimes the discussants are just plain mean, winning the Jerry Springer collegiality award.

Notwithstanding academic ego, mine included, no discussant is all knowing. And for a variety of reasons, there are times that discussants are far from having expertise on the papers to be discussed. At the opening social gathering last night, two people told me they were assigned as discussants for papers on which they know nothing. I might know more about this research subject than many of you. I might know less about it than some others. And yet, we have all attended sessions where the discussant did not allow ignorance of the subject or total misunderstanding of the paper to get in the way of making negative comments.

Let's not ignore or forget that every paper on the program already had blind reviews to get accepted for presentation at the conference. Is there really a need for yet another, though now public, critique? It might be different if the presentations at a session gave clashing interpretations of data or were based on different assumptions. The discussants and discussion could followed the papers with replies, and then with author rebuttals. But that is not the case at this conference, nor have I seen it at any conference in the past. Instead, each session has research presentations, then the work is critiqued by the discussant, and then the session often ends.

It is a universal of conferences that our research presentations leave out a large amount of material from what is described in the written papers. The details might eventually be available in the conference proceedings, if the conference has printed proceedings available, but many papers (including these three) are expected to be abstracted for the proceedings to allow for later journal submission. This means that, except for the reviewers, the session chair and me, none of you will read these papers until they are revised, altered and published in a journal. That is, if it gets accepted and published in a journal. That's assuming that the presenters intent to publish it anywhere and did not give you some work they tossed together to get travel money. I don't think you need to hear my review of a paper you might never get a chance to read.

I could easily give a detailed presentation rivaling that of the research papers in total verbiage. I could explain how I would have done their research, or tell them how to improve their analysis of current theories.

But I don't want to take up your time with that.

At earlier sessions, I heard some papers that could have generated a lively and interesting discussion. But by the time the discussants were done, the session was out of time and over. I'd rather participate in a discussion. That's why I come to conferences. I can always read a paper, or call people for information or opinions on research, and I don't need to travel just to hear other people read to me.

My comments today might not lead to an end of discussants, though it probably will mean this is the last time anyone will ask me to do the job.

But I want your discussion. And having said that, I think I'm done here.

Post-script, added on this we page at a future date: Apparently, someone was cared about what I had to say. For this particular organization, this conference was the last time the organization had discussants on their programs. A few years later, the draft preliminary program listed discussants, but they were quickly dropped when a member of the Executive Committee not-very-privately said, "I thought we had killed that bit of stupidity."