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Dr. Crazy is freaking the frack out because she needs to write a paper for a conference in June, and somehow finish the semester, pack up her apartment (and kitty cats), and move into her new house all by herself. All of this must happen in the next month or so. It’s times like this that it must be oh-so-tempting to reach into the drawer and present something that one has presented before at another conference or meeting, right? (Dr. Crazy isn’t going to do this, of course, because on the panel is a Dr. Bigshot whom she wants to impress with her intellectual rigor, which is why she’s freaking out now.)
Her post got me thinking: is it acceptable to present the same paper or give the same lecture twice at conferences, seminars, or invited lectures? Is it ever cool to lecture on material you’ve already published? I remember going to a conference as a graduate student and seeing someone who was then regarded as an up-and-comer who gave what seemed to me to be a lazy talk based on notes sketched on a cocktail napkin, and then at the end he gestured to a stack of copies of an article he had just published and announced “well, anyway, I’ve just published this all in this article in the Journal of the History of Blibbityblab, so feel free to take a copy on your way out.”
That seemed to me to be profoundly uncool. Why the heck did I bother to show up at this panel and listen politely to this guy, when I could have just picked up a copy of the JHB? I’m looking for spankin’-fresh ideas at professional conferences, not three-day-old leftovers from Dr. Ripoff. Besides, how boring for the presenter to be rehashing stuff he had already worked out. (That alone would seem to be reason enough to avoid this kind of performance!) I vowed then and there never to present published material, and never to give the same talk twice–a vow I have adhered to (mostly) in my career so far.
Why only mostly? Well, I will admit that I gave two different versions of the same conference paper once, at two different conferences five months apart. But, I revised it in-between the two conferences, and then immediately after the second conference, it was accepted for publication. So I worked on extending and revising it that summer, and it was published the following winter. All in all, a speedy and enterprising journey for my little paper/s! (And a singular one: nothing in my career ever has gone from conference paper to publication as an article in a single year.) I also gave the same invited lecture about my then just-published book twice in two days at two different (but nearly neighboring) universities, because when I called a friend to tell her that I’d be in town to give the lecture at the one university, she said, “let me see if we can bring you out here too to talk about your book.” So, it was with the full knowledge of the other university inviting me to speak that I’d be giving the same talk at the first uni. I’ve never, ever given talks based on material that was already published, in part because of my bad memory of Dr. Ripoff described above, but also because I can’t think of anything more boring (for me! nevermind the audience) than talking about something I’ve already figured out and moved on.
What do you all think? Am I too exacting, or Slacky McSlackerson? Does it make a difference if we’re talking about giving the same (or substantially the same) unpublished paper, versus published work? Would you answer this question differently if we’re talking about professional conferences versus an invited lecture? Are there different accepted standards in different disciplines? (There are a lot of different variables at work.) I realize that for some stars who get invited to deliver lectures all over the country several times a year that it’s probably not realistic to write something brilliantly and totally original for each outing. But in those (rare!) cases, what are the rules? There seems to me to be a good argument for giving something that’s polished and accessible to a wider audience rather than something that’s so fresh and new you haven’t worked out all of the details yet. But–how many times can you shop the same old lecture? (Or how many times would you want to? You don’t want to be that person with a reputation for giving the same paper or lecture, over and over again. And we all have heard they’re out there, right?)