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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How abstract can an abstract be?

I'd like to submit an abstract for a conference on Constitutional Law that is scheduled for next November.  The abstract is due in a week or so. The problem is, I'm between projects (sort of: I'm finishing three "other" projects), and I have no idea what I'd like to write next, though I suspect very strongly that it will involve First Amendment law.  Now I can "invent" a project in a week as well as the next person, but is it honest to submit a proposal or abstract when you know that the paper you actually present next November may bear zero resemblance to the proposal or abstract? 

On a related note, I've always envied those people who have a fixed research agenda comprising ten years' worth of projects, all revolving around one central idea or theme.  I'm the kind of person who is (a) easily bored and (b) discovers a research agenda only after ten years of seemingly disparate publications.  In fact, I shouldn't even call my "agenda" an agenda.  It is more like a central preoccupation (with how assumptions about audiences shape speech torts or First Amendment doctrine) that I keep returning to whether I mean to or not.   By the way, this is an admission I can only make because I'm tenured and have a publication track record.  Assuredly it would be an unwise admission for an untenured person to make. Rather than being a sign of intellectual curiosity, it might unfairly be construed as dilettantism. 

Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on May 11, 2011 at 11:31 PM in Lyrissa Lidsky | Permalink

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Comments

I'd approach this question by asking what you communicate to the organizers by submitting an abstract. If your representation is "this is the idea I will present," then my opinion is that you should more or less stick to that. This general conclusion comes with two qualifications, though.

First, the amount of leeway you have might depend on the specificity of the conference topic. Fidelity to your proposal will be more important if the topic is recent developments in First Amendment law versus recent developments in constitutional law, for example. Second, there should be some leeway for the development of your ideas and conclusions as you draft the paper. If for this reason what you plan to submit is significantly different than what you proposed, it would be courteous to let the organizers know, because the change might affect the panel lineups, etc. This second consideration highlights the practical importance of sticking to your proposal: the conference planners select participants and otherwise plan the conference based on the ideas they expect to be presented.

Posted by: Patrick Luff | May 12, 2011 7:01:39 AM

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