Saturday, June 19, 2010

Citations in talks

Here at the ASME Summer Bioengineering Conference, I was struck by how unhelpful some of the talks can be when referring to published works. This, by the way, is not a knock against SBC (a conference near and dear to my heart and one for which I will be Program Chair in 2012), but something that's bugged me for years at many conferences and seminars. It's just that the happy convergence of staying indoors to avoid the sweltering heat and now having a blog inspired me to finally write about this pet peeve of mine. (OK, I admit that I sympathized with the author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, so read on -- or not -- in that context. :-)

Particularly, it is frustrating to see a citation to, say, "Zhang et al., 2008" on a slide. Try doing a PubMed or Google Scholar search on this. OK, maybe it makes sense in the context of the slide's bullet point, but when you -- well I, anyway -- are scribbling notes and trying to pay attention to the talk and trying not to spill the coffee cup that you've sneaked into the session, it's hard to remember to write down a few choice keywords from the slide to remind you what the reference is about.

Of course this shorthand derives from the fact that "Zhang et al., 2008" is how one would cite it in a journal article, but there you can find a handy reference list at the back for the details. In a talk, that don't make no sense. Instead, for years I have found the following to be a compact but still-informative construct: "Zhang+, Ann Biomed Eng 2008". The plus sign saves the precious 5-7 characters of "et al", "et al." or (shudder) "et. al.". The journal name is absolutely essential for honing the search result from potentially thousands of hits to just a few. The year hones the search further, and also alerts you right away to whether this is a classic work or recent finding.

Just my $0.02 on the matter. Now considering an expedition to the beach so I can, as the late, great George Carlin used to say, neutralize the blue.

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