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(1) Whether it is standard practice or not, it is certainly a good practice to give a draft of your comments to the author. At some conferences it is explicitly required by the organizers, which makes me think there's probably a weak presumption in favor of doing it, even at those conferences in which it isn't explicitly required.

(2) One thing that I think a good commentary should do that you don't mention is provide a short summary of the arguments of the paper. People get tired at conferences, and they doze off/tune out. Especially at a conference like ROME, which has a LOT of talks. So I think starting a commentary with a brief summary of what you take the main gist of the paper to be (before you get into constructive feedback) is probably a good idea.

Justin Snedegar

I think you should definitely send the comments to the speaker, and if possible more than a week ahead of time -- closer to 3 weeks or even a month is great, if you can swing it (I think the APA requires six weeks, for example). This helps both of the goals you list: there's more motivation for the author to think through things carefully if she has time to do so before the conference, and the discussion is likely to be more productive for everyone if the author has thought-out responses.

On some occasions, I've gone back and forth a couple of times with the speaker/commentator (depending on my role). I think this is especially useful in giving the speaker a chance to think about the comments and improve the paper as a result. It also improves the session, since the speaker doesn't have to waste time clearing up misunderstandings (or at least can notice that something could be easily misunderstood, and think of a better way to present it during the response to comments).



I thought that revising a paper after it had been accepted to a conference was frowned upon. After all, the review process accepted the original paper, not the revised one. I've heard of several occasions where the author of a paper revised his/her paper in light of the commentary right before the conference without letting the commentator review the revised edition. The commentator is then left reading comments that don't apply anymore. I guess by your suggestion the author lets the commentator know that the paper is being revised and should therefore revise the comments accordingly.

David Morrow

Thanks for the post, Trevor. I was actually thinking of writing a post along the same lines after commenting on a paper the other week. I agree with what you (and your professor) said. In addition, my preference is for commentaries that focus on "big picture" issues rather than nitpicky problems. Among other reasons, this is because the conference attendees will usually only have heard an oral presentation and may not be able to follow the nitpicky critique. (It's fine and helpful to send nitpicky critiques to the author. Just be clear about which comments you'll actually deliver at the conference.)

I think style is important in commentaries, too. I've seen commentaries in which it seems like the commentator's main goal is to prove how smart he or she is--or worse, how much smarter he or she is than the presenter. I much prefer commentaries that are framed as attempts to help the author improve the paper.

Another thing that irks me is when commentators spend their time arguing against the starting assumptions of the paper, even though many people hold those assumptions. Most philosophy papers have the form, "Assuming x, y, and z, q follows from p." Unless x, y, and z are really unusual or outlandish assumptions, objecting to them isn't a good use of time at the conference. For instance, if a paper is trying to solve a particular problem in virtue ethics, don't spend your commentary arguing that consequentialism is better than virtue ethics.

One variation on the last caveat: Don't let your commentary take the form, "The author wrote paper X on topic Y. But I think that, if you're going to write about topic Y, you should write paper Z."

Marcus Arvan

Trevor: great questions to raise on this blog. Here are a few of my own thoughts.

First thought: I don't think it's necessary, or even advisable, to resummarize the main arguments from the paper. As an audience member, I've found this annoying. I just sat through the paper! Instead, I think it's best to summarize the main elements that you intend to object to or raise questions about. In other words, try to focus your audience's attention on the specific parts of the paper you have questions about.

Second thought: I'd like to second David's comments about intention and tone. I think it's a good idea -- as a matter of collegiality -- to see your job as one of aiming to *help* the paper-writer improve their paper. I too have seen too many commentators (often, though not always, people early in their careers) behave as though they think it is their job to present as devastating a critique of the paper they're commenting on as possible. I think this is a horrible mistake. Even if the paper is truly awful, a good commentator should in my view try to make their comments at least somewhat constructive. If you have problems with the paper, by all means, raise them. But it's important to do it in the right way, and also not have your entire commentary. In terms of doing it in the right way, this is mostly a matter of striking a kind of conciliatory voice. Instead of saying things like, "X is wrong about Y", it's often better to say something like, "I have the following concern about X's assertion of Y, namely...". Second, I think it's important to try to find something *good* in the paper to focus on: something you can highlight to your audience as an important (if problematic) contribution. In some cases (as in the case of a horrible paper), it can be difficult to do this. Still, I think it's a good idea, in the spirit of kindness and collegiality. Finally, though, I think it's important not to be obsequious. People can see right through you if it's obvious that you're trying to be "too kind." Try to find something about the paper that you *genuinely* think is interesting, and highlight it as such (even if it is only interestingly wrong, poorly formulated, etc.)

Third thought: I like it when people just send me an email asking me when I'd like their comments. I tend not to like getting them too early. A couple of days to a week before the conference tends to suit me just fine.

Trevor Hedberg

Thanks for the feedback, everyone. I'll bear these suggestions in mind when I read the paper and get my comments in order.

I am also a big fan of making the commentaries critical but not hostile (which some of you have suggested). I probably should have mentioned it in the main post. I think philosophy proceeds best as a collegial dialogue, one that a genuine effort by all parties involved to solve a complex philosophical question. Of course, it doesn't always turn out that way, but I think that's what we ought to aspire to.

Kyle Whyte

Very interesting. Though what do you do when it is the presenter who responds uncharitably to the commentary in the Q/A? I have seen that happen quite a few times. While the commentary was constructive, the presenter treated it like an insult of the highest order. Should the commentator, then, emphasize that she or he is being constructive? Or should the commentator take the gloves off at that point, as the presenter has changed things beyond the constructive tone set by the commentator? Or is there some better way to handle this?

David Morrow


I'd be inclined just to let it go, at least during the session. That's partly because I doubt that further discussion would be productive, but it's mostly because the audience needs their turn. Responding to the presenter seems to beg for a response from the presenter, which will eat up even more of the session. Maybe I'd follow up with an email, but maybe not.

Marcus Arvan


I'd let it go too. The person who behaves uncharitably usually looks all the worse to the audience, and they're probably the belligerent type of person who won't yield to reason. If you let it go, you're not only being the better person; you look that way to those in attendance.

Justin Snedegar


I should clarify that I had in mind that either (i) the author could present things in a different way in the part of the session where she is able to respond to the comments, or (ii) if the comments exhibited a misunderstanding that isn't likely to be shared, will likely distract everyone from the rest of the talk, etc., then the author and commentator might together decide it's better if the author tweaks how she presents the idea - possibly explicitly heading off the misunderstanding - in the talk. Scenario (ii) doesn't really seem to me to count as revising the paper in any objectionable way, assuming you aren't just reading it out loud, and assuming the commentator is in on the process and is happy to talk about more useful things in the commentary.

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