Suspending Precirculated Papers at the AHA Annual Meeting

The idea of offering precirculated paper sessions at the annual meeting seems intuitively obvious. Sessions using this format are organized around presentations (on paper or in formats like PowerPoint) made available in advance, to allow for less reading during the session and more time for active and engaged discussion of the findings. At smaller workshops and seminars it allows for more substantive discussion between authors and audience. Unfortunately, it has not worked out that way at the AHA, and so, as you may have noticed in the list of Council decisions we posted yesterday, the precirculated papers category has been eliminated from the annual meeting.

The first precirculated paper sessions were incorporated into the annual meeting in 2006. While participation started off strongly (44 precirculated papers for 10 sessions were submitted for the 2006 meeting), over the next five years participation has declined, panelists are often confused at what “precirculated papers” means, and audience members rarely read the papers.

Several issues with precirculated papers have developed over the years.

  1. No one reads them. Through informal surveys we’ve found that few attendees of annual meetings take the time to read precirculated papers before they attend the session. In one session, only a few audience members in a roomful of people raised their hands when asked who had read any of the precirculated papers.
  2. Submission tardiness. We ask that presenters submit their precirculated papers on December 1 each year. This gives staff the time to upload the papers well before the annual meeting (when there are many details to take care of) and the holidays. Unfortunately, most presenters don’t make the deadline, and while the staff tries to accommodate reasonably late submissions (a few days to a week late) every year papers are sent in days before the meeting when staff is traveling or caught up in other annual meeting preparations, and too late for most audience members to have a chance to read them.
  3. Not submitting. Every year at least a 20 percent of presenters don’t submit their precirculated paper at all. For the 2010 meeting only 6 out of the planned 32 papers were submitted.
  4. Not understanding what “precirculated papers” means. For the 2011 meeting multiple presenters in precirculated paper sessions were shocked and upset when they received an e-mail from staff asking them to submit their paper. They didn’t realize that precirculated paper meant that their paper would be distributed online for annual meeting attendees to read beforehand. They thought precirculated paper meant they would share their papers with their chair and fellow panelists before the meeting, but with no one else. While AHA staff worked on the explanation of precirculated papers to make it clearer for future meetings, it was disheartening to learn that after five years in existence this category was still misunderstood.
  5. Staff time. In an effort to collect all the precirculated papers each year, the staff sends friendly reminder e-mails before the submission deadline, and follows up with presenters who don’t submit. This is an acceptable use of staff time, but frustrating when it often proves fruitless.

The AHA staff and Council regularly work on ways to reform and improve the annual meeting, and the end of precirculated papers now doesn’t mean the end forever. However, if precirculated paper sessions do return, they’ll need to be reimagined in order to improve participation and readership. As always, we’re interested to hear your thoughts; feel free to leave your comment below.

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  1. Randolph Hollingsworth

    Pre- or post-circulated… it’s a great idea to open up access. Especially as the use of mobile devices at conferences grows in popularity, being able to read along and/or refer back to a section when confused… or just being able to access a paper you weren’t able to hear in a concurrent session… please, don’t give up on this!

  2. Nancy Morgan

    I agree with Mr. Hollingsworth, the circulated papers are important for many reasons, including for those of us who want to attend more sessions than we can. Perhaps posting the pre-circulated papers can be streamlined. Part of the problem is the date to submit them. A December 1st deadline is just before the end of the fall term. I am sure that many scholars plan to use “holiday” time to edit and revise. I understand that there are many last minute details to attend to when setting up a conference. However, I also think it is possible to upload papers even one week before the conference date. Remember that the papers will be sent electronically, so who ever is doing the uploading, can perform the function anywhere. If a day is put aside for three people to upload submissions, even a few hundred should be reasonably uploaded on the one day that is scheduled for that purpose. The deadline for submissions should be strictly adhered to (i.e. midnight before the uploading day—it is, after all, one week before the conference.) Also, submitters should be encouraged to check their uploaded paper by a specified time, later in the uploading day, to check for errors.
    It can be done. What do you think?