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Monday, June 11, 2012

SiF 2012 Conference: A Review and Post-Script

SiF 2012 Conference: A Review and Post-Script

This Firegroup Blog post presents the thoughts of a PhD student in Structural Fire Engineering after attending the recent SiF2012 Conference in Zurich, Switzerland. 

The “Structures in Fire” (SiF) movement first held a  workshop in 2000. From the outset there was a clear objective for these workshops:

“The main mission of SiF conferences is to provide an opportunity for researchers and engineers to share their research, technology and expertise with their peers at an international forum.”

“The focus of the conference is on the behaviour of structures under fire exposure, including the ‘art, science and practice of structural fire engineering’…” Conference handout.

In 2008, a more formalised set up was established with a steering committee for the rebranded “SiF Movement”.  The restructuring was due to the ever growing number of attendees and submissions to present at the workshops; for example at the 6th International conference held at Michigan State University in 2010 more than 200 abstracts were received with 123 papers being selected for publication and presentation as posters or as formal oral presentations. The 7th International Conference on “Structures in Fire” (SiF 2012), held at the beginning of June in the beautiful city of Zurich, in Switzerland, received an even greater number of submissions with only 83 papers being presented in poster or in oral form.  The seminar facilities and general areas at ETH Zurich were fantastic and the set-up for the formal oral presentations and poster presentations was excellent.  Also, the new poster session format breathed life into what is usually a slow and quiet hour or so where most people check e-mails rather than discuss the work in the papers, and the organizers should be commended on this format (two parallel session of five minute presentations back to back with then a general discussion period at the posters over coffee). The lack of functioning wifi access may actually have helped here also!

The high number of submissions compared to the relatively low number of accepted papers should have led to the cream of the crop being selected for either the formal 20 minute presentation or for presentation in one of two parallel poster sessions, but as evident by the open delegate forum which was held during Day 2 of the conference, the review process and thus selection of the papers was rather severely criticised.  

This was not the first time this had occurred. At the SiF 2010 conference (the first that I attended) the review process was discussed in a similar delegates’ open forum. This resulted in the introduction of using two page extended abstracts, rather than single paragraph abstracts, to judge the quality of the work to be presented at the SiF 2012 conference.  The abstracts were also reviewed anonymously by three experts and the accepted abstracts were then asked to produce full papers.  

So why are there still complaints regarding the review process and the quality of presented work?

First, the reviewers in some instances had >10 two-page abstracts to review in less than two weeks, which is not conducive to selecting with high quality control. Second, it easier to convey experimental programs over analytical ones and might be one of the reasons that a large percentage of the presentations given at this year’s conference were predominantly experimental in theme.  In two-page abstracts, experimental methods, results and outcomes can be summarised relatively easily, whereas analytical models and more abstract work need more space to fully explain.  
Other issues with the presented papers, with these views shared by many conference participants, were:

1.       Too many papers lacked novel or significant context:
Many of the presented papers struggled to inform the listener of why they should care about the work being presented; there was little context to the work provided in most cases. Even the most engaging presentations and presenters frustrate delegates by still not clearly saying at any point why the work was done and why we should care about it.

2.       The lost art of presenting:
Too many of the presentations were difficult to follow and were easy to disengage from with which detracted from the discussions, as instead of collective expertise being used to further research and how to apply it in the real world, questions were being asked simply for clarification rather than for extension.  For the presentations that were presented well constructive discussions generally followed.  There were three trends that could be seen when comparing the good and bad discussions.
                                             i.            Language barrier – Many of those who did not have a good grasp of English, the chosen language of the conference, struggled to communicate their work effectively. This problem is admittedly very hard to solve.
                                           ii.            Hard to see the forest through the trees – many of the presenters had graphs or images, on which they would be making a comment, but rarely did they explain what the graph or image was showing or representing.  For those who aren’t experts in the area (which should be a large portion of the audience if the research being presented is at the cutting edge of the science), there would be no way of understanding what they were looking at.
                                          iii.            Mathematical blindness – as was evident with the images, there were too many equations with not enough explanation, and in some case there were too many equations to even keep track of.  The effect of this was to turn the slide in to a blur of black and white with little apparent meaning.

3.       The works presented in the papers, on the most part, were not put through academic rigour:
With the papers being presented on the basis of only a 2-page abstract, the actual work presented in the 10-page papers was not critiqued at all, nor rigorously assessed, but only checked for editorial issues.  This led to the quality of the papers being presented being lower than it really should have been be for the SiF conference series. 

The conference was also missing a key ingredient; industrial contributions.  Most of the delegates and presenters were academics, me included. Without delegates from consultancy and industry, those who apply the information in the real world, we fool ourselves that we are doing a good job because we lose perspective and context to our work and presentations. Our work becomes self-satisfying rather than industry leading, and we end up producing redundant, sometimes pointless knowledge.

So where could we go to improve the SiF Movement which seems to many of us to be stalling?

First, we need to increase the quality of the papers presented, which could be done by full paper submissions being reviewed and papers selected on this rather than on 2-page abstracts. This would also need a change in the amount of time for each paper to be reviewed; no-one would be able to rigorously review 10+ papers in two-weeks, and the number of reviewers looking at submissions.  One idea that I overheard was to say that if you are wanting to submit a paper to the conference then you would be automatically expected to review at least three other papers with the stipulation that if the papers that you are reviewing are not returned in a timely fashion and do not pass a board of reviewers quality control for a rigorous review, then your own paper would be rejected.

Second, the presentations need to be improved, and so maybe these should be reviewed as well, not for content but for length and for style, and a set of guidelines produced to help those presenting to communicate effectively. Guidelines could include, amongst other things, stipulations that if you are presenting graphs and equations that you explain clearly what the audience is looking at, and why they are looking at it.  If the quality of the work is good enough and the presentation of it clear, then issues of language are significantly lessened.

Finally, we need to remain relevant to the construction industry.  One way of doing this is to invite our industrial partners to join us and invite them to speak on the subjects that they feel are of major concern to them.  They could be designers, consultants, materials suppliers, architects, practitioners, and we could discuss what matters to them and to the broader building design industry, rather than existing in an isolated academic bubble with few industrialists present.

All in all, although still young as a conference series, what should be the leading conference for matters pertaining to structures in fire still needs time to grow, develop, and mature so that we can be fully effective and relevant to today’s needs.

David Rush

1 comment:

sablo01 said...

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