The thing with workshop papers…

By Joern Fischer

I’m currently at a workshop with a bunch of people interested in social-ecological systems. Almost inevitably at such workshops, the question arises how the results can be packaged into a nice paper (or even several). I’m sure I’m not the only one who has a love-hate relationship with such papers, and so I thought perhaps it is worth reflecting on the pros and cons of these exercises.

On the positive side, good workshops, with the right sets of people can lead to genuinely new ideas emerging. In a good workshop, the whole is more than the sum of the parts, and what emerges can be quite unique – and no individual person could have thought of it, or put it together like that. The resulting papers are typically conceptual pieces that draw on the range of expertise of the people present.

On the downside, such “synergy” papers don’t always work well. Perhaps the most important factor is whether the people at the workshop are truly synergistic in what they bring. This strikes me as an interesting trade-off. If you bring a diverse set of people to a workshop, chances of new and interesting synergies increase – but so does the risk that partcipants have nothing to say to each other (or split into sub-groups). On the other hand, if you bring an overly homogenous set of people to a workshop, “group-think” will take over, and the resulting outcomes may be deemed boring by many outside the workshop.

For workshop organisers (and to a lesser degree, participants), this leaves a few challenges. First, nice ideas and synergies cannot be forced, but they can be supported. Typically, a mix of flexibility, structure, and informal conversation is ideal. Flexibility improves the chances for “emergence” of new ideas; structure improves the likelihood of actually having something tangible at the end; and informal conversation provides an atmosphere of trust and shared spirit that ensures people with different perspectives dare to speak up and listen to one another.

And so I guess my love-hate relationship with workshop papers will continue! I’ve read papers from workshops that I found pathetic, and that seem to have largely got published because they had many famous people on the author list. But I’ve also read papers from workshops with truly nice ideas. The trouble is that one doesn’t quite know before a workshop (or before reading a workshop paper) which it’s going to be! So … don’t judge a book by its cover – some workshop papers are nice, but also, sometimes really good actors appear in really bad movies, and sometimes even together …

3 thoughts on “The thing with workshop papers…

  1. This reminds me of a workshop paper I read recently, with a bunch of big names as authors (including a laureate of the economics “Nobel” Prize): it is a synthesis paper about the use of social discount rates in environmental cost-benefit analyses. The nice and rather unusual thing is that while the paper has the form of a set of recommendations for policy-makers, the authors explicitly acknowledge that there are two conflicting approaches in this field (including among the workshop’s participants) and that they do not agree on what should actually be the state-of-the-art approach, even though they make clear which approach is supported by a majority of those involved. That was an interesting paper because they didn’t “force” synergies but, rather, agreed to disagree.

  2. Interesting piece! Perhaps, Joern, it should give us comfort on our own recent workshop paper attempt, given that it took the Nobel-winners 3 years from workshop to publication 🙂

    Not being an economist, a question about their methodology (and epistemology) occurs to me: There doesn’t seem to be an appreciation in discount rate analysis that greater consumption in time x may itself CAUSE *lower* consumption in time x + y. I would think this is a natural corollary to the natural capitals argument–if we are simply converting matter and energy, with the total ceiling set approximately by influx of sunlight + stored energy (fossil fuels, nuclear materials, hydro, arguably wind though it ultimately connects to sunlight again) * conversion efficiency, then there is a theoretical limit to consumption. If we take a more realistic (though still not unproblematic) approach and use Rockstrom et al.’s global boundaries, the same problem adheres (perhaps more explicitly): current consumption increases the costs/decreases the possibility of future consumption.

    While these ideas are, it seems, hard to incorporate into modern econ, they don’t seem impossible (and indeed, I know some heterodox types do incorporate these items; I have an Ecological Economics paper stored somewhere on my computer that considers all of this with exergy-type analyses). What gets me is that it would seem to me that simple intellectual curiousity should get more orthodox economists interested in such a question–one cannot (it would seem to me) ignore entirely the idea of entropy and the very obvious idea that “consumption” itself implies “using something up” in any elementary thermodynamic perspective.

    Perhaps I’m being naive–or I’m simply ignorant of the work doing this in the mainstream–but I just can’t get over how such questions, if nothing else, seem INTERESTING and should therefore merit more attention from scholars…

    • I think, what you have in mind can be relatively easily incorporated in the common social discounting approach (using the so-called Ramsey equation), as there is no logical argument against a negative discount rate – indeed, there exist lots of papers investigating how different kinds of uncertainty about the future influence the social discount rate, and under certain circumstances this may result in a negative social discount rate. Furthermore, there is the “Dismal Theorem” approach by Weitzman (a mainstream economist), who has shown that given some more or less realistic assumptions regarding the severity of a possible (even though not very probable) climate catastrophe the choice of the discount rate does not matter – the result of the cost-benefit analysis is always in favour of a consequent and rapid climate action.

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