The goal of a good discussion is to explain to the audience where the paper fits into the general social science/policy framework and to help the paper improve for the future. The goal is not to destroy a paper but to improve it (see exception below). Discussants are serving science!
- Frame question— why is it important? (You can mention your own work here if applicable.)
- Briefly summarize paper. If the presenter is great, you will be able to skip the summary or only go over what you see as the most important parts. If the presenter is terrible, your audience will really appreciate figuring out what they just heard, so it’s good to be thorough on your slides if you don’t know a priori how good the presenter will be. If applicable, here would be a great place to take the author’s work through a “sniff test”– Bridgette Madrian is one of the best discussants I’ve seen, and one of my favorite discussions of hers was where she took a person’s paper (on whether or not we need 70% of our income after retirement) and applied it to her own life with a spreadsheet and came to the conclusion that the paper’s thesis was plausible. Sometimes discussants will call up experts in the industry to ask their qualitative opinion. Really great discussants will sometimes replicate or extend with another dataset. None of these things are necessary, but if they’re easy for you or an RA to do, they can really push you to be memorable (though being invited to discuss more papers is not necessarily something you want to do!).
- Constructively point out problems with the paper and suggest solutions (if any). Don’t be a dick. Frame these as questions to think about, how big a problem you think they are etc . Don’t use this part as a place to talk about why your work is awesome and theirs sucks. If you do mention your work in this spot, use it only as a place to commiserate with standard problems and suggest solutions that could work for them.
- Extensions for the future, broader impact. Here’s a place where you can talk up your own work if it is related and can speak to the paper you’re discussing.
How many slides do you want? Fewer than the number of minutes you have to present. It is better to go short than to go long.
- The authors haven’t actually done anything yet: Spent the majority of your time on why this is an interesting question and suggestions for future work. (Also ok to use a chunk of your time talking about your own related work.) Use the word “preliminary” a lot.
- The authors clearly haven’t addressed causality but causality needs to be addressed (or any other major elephant in the paper issue): Spent the majority of your time on why this is an interesting question. Talk about the problems of getting to causality and (if easy for you to do) what other authors have done and (if easy for you to do) the problems with what they’ve done (or if not problematic, then suggest these authors follow). Gently mention that causality is something that these authors need to think about. The audience will understand. Then suggest future work (which will include really nailing down causality).
- You don’t get the paper to discuss until the night before at 3am: Feel free to spend the entire time talking about your own work, or to come up with something off the cuff while they’re giving the presentation (it is AOK to note that you did not get the paper until the night before, but that should be the extent of your dickishness).
- The paper is poorly done and the results, if taken at face value, will do real harm to people, particularly those from marginalized groups: In this case, it is ok to firmly and politely destroy the paper for shoddy craftsmanship. You can do so in a professional manner in steps 2 and 3. You’re still not being a dick, but you don’t have to frame things as questions to think about but as real methodological problems. It’s ok to throw around the terms “dangerous” and “needs stronger proof”. It’s a shame that there are still guys (and the occasional woman) who write papers with sexist/racist agendas who ignore basic science in order to prove that wealthy white men are superior and deserve their privilege, but there are. They shouldn’t be allowed to do bad science.
Academic readers– is this about right? What things are the same or different in your discipline? Any other tips?