At the conference sessions with refereed papers, sometimes the discussants are thoughtful, thorough and well-prepared. Sometimes they make comments about the papers without being mean, vicious or sounding like they are giving the paper an additional and public research review. And they might even state questions for discussion instead of stifling it.
But while discussants sometimes do the job, synthesizing the papers and presenting a perspective for discussion, I doubt if they are worth keeping.
Whenever value of discussants is questioned, the quick reply is "What if there is no discussion?" In other words, a session chair and three presenters, who probably lead classroom discussions as part of their academic jobs, can't be trusted to generate discussion out of a room full of people with advanced degrees, all of whom are all there by choice because they traveled to the city, paid to register for the conference and selected to attend that session with research papers of interest instead of sightseeing, socializing or going to other sessions on the program. Yeah, right! Under those conditions, if there is no discussion, having a discussant would not help.
More commonly, the well-known problems with discussants are often heard: non-expert reviews of papers, comments that dwell on details in the written paper not mentioned in the presentation, soapbox performances and presenters that are negative because the person chosen as discussant just seems to enjoy being mean.
Admittedly, the discussant is sometimes a major part of the session's attraction, especially when a well-known expert's point of view is known to be in opposition to the researchers on the program. But in these rare exceptions, the discussant is really an additional, invited presenter tied to one or two papers. These are special sessions, requiring something different from standard formats; if someone gives an additional research paper to fill out such a session, he or she probably would be ignored.
"Professor P. will give his paper and Dr. M. will then comment," says the chair cum referee. "No hitting below the belt and when you break, break clean. Now shake hands and give us a show!"
A marketing conference last Spring witnessed the full range of discussant performances. Pick any conference and your experiences would probably be the same. At one session, the discussant was seen reading the papers during the presentations and writing notes, giving "prepared" comments that totally ignored what was said. At another, the person started off by saying, "Well, the presentations did not match the papers I was sent," and proceeded to critique what she alone had read, not what those of us present heard. Once the discussant actually tried to find a common thread for all the papers and lay out discussion questions, but since the chair only called on questions from the rest of us and no one actually "lead" discussion, the questions raised were effectively ignored.
At any conference, whenever the discussant is introduced, the audience members have their own questions or comments on their minds, so they fidget and mutter, often not really hearing these critiques because they are thinking of their own questions or comments. Some just leave the room for a few minutes, returning when the discussant has finally sat down.
Little could be said that would be true of all discussants other than, overall, they discuss papers but often discourage discussion. At best, they take up time when others in the audience could raise their own points of contention. At worst -- and most commonly -- they hold a personal lecture directed toward the research presenters, talking directly to them on things to be done in future work, or revisions to make the discussant happy if he or she is a reviewer when it is sent to a journal.
And sometimes the discussants have no idea about the background material dealing with the research they are there to discuss. Now and then, the audience hears an honest confession of sorts, as the named discussion creators state they took the job to request travel money from their department heads. Or to fill the program, discussants are recruited and scheduled regardless of their expertise. It would be a safe bet that a large number of people reading this have at some point been asked to be discussant on a paper for which they did not know the basic literature.
No session needs to have a discussant. Instead, and better, the session chair could be more than an announcer, timekeeper and biography reader.
The American Academy of Advertising has eliminated discussants. Instead of just introducing people, the chair is now a discussion leader and the papers are the basis for active discussion. At their conference last Spring, researchers got comments from a room full of people and those in attendance had an opportunity to be more than an audience. The Advertising Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications wrote guidelines for discussants, though I have heard from people attending their most recent meeting that the best discussions were when the discussant just said, "good papers," and quickly got out of the way for the lively comments and debate that ensued.
But at marketing conferences, discussants remain the norm and, surprisingly, I still get asked to be one. And at some meetings each paper has its own discussant (so much for pulling together the papers in the session).
The Association for Consumer Research at least recognizes that discussants are to pull together the ideas of papers and try to give coherence to discussion. Instead of "Discussants," the people with that job are now called "Synthesizers."
But under any name, I doubt that discussants are worth keeping.