Response and Data: Phonology at general linguistics conferences

From Stephanie Shih (email: shih@ucmerced.edu)

Spurred on by the interesting discussion of phonology at general linguistics conferences (initiated by Abby Kaplan, https://blogs.umass.edu/phonolist/2016/05/31/discussion-phonology-at-general-linguistics-conferences/), I was curious what the actual numbers are.

Is it the case that the data reflect our intuitions about the footprint of phonology? Here is the data, between 1978 and the present for five general conferences: GLOW, BLS, CLS, NELS, and WCCFL. Details of data collection are included at the end. Raw data is available here: http://stephsus.github.io/linguometrics

Overall, the average representation of “p” papers at general linguistics conferences sits at between 24–27% for the time period, 1980–2016. GLOW is a major outlier, at a historical 13%. WCCFL has the highest historical average, at 27.24%, though CLS matches this in the recent data that is available (average 27.5%, for years 2009–2016). So in terms of getting the most “bang for your buck” if one wants to hobnob with the most phonologists, CLS looks like the best recent bet. In comparison to these averages, the % dissertations on the “p” side from 2009–2012 is ~19% (from this Proquest count: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4349). This 19% includes both phonetics and phonology dissertations. Counting just phonology: 13.59%.

I think there’s been a general intuition that I’ve heard echoed both in the Phonolist discussion and in private conversations that phonology is increasingly less well-represented at general linguistics conferences overall. Looking at the data, there certainly is a marked drop between 2009–2013, for NELS, WCCFL, and even BLS. I’m quite curious what caused this drop. 2013 was the first year of AMP, but that is probably more of a reaction to the perceived drop in phonology representation than the cause of it. In 2014–2015, there looks to have been a recovery of “p” papers at the various conferences, even though there are more “p”-specialty conferences available now (e.g., AMP, LabPhon, etc.).

Also from eyeballing the data, it doesn’t look like the introduction of AMP has lessened the number of “p” papers at other general conferences, at least in the short time period that AMP has been around so far. In both 2014–2015, levels for most of the other conferences rise. There’s been a bit of a drop in 2016 so far, and while this might be due to the increasing popularity of AMP, it’s probably more reasonable to suspect that it’s just the vicissitudes of a natural research cycle, as we can see from the previous 30 years.

Ultimately, the answer of what causes fluctuations in the “p” participation in conferences is most likely a multi-factor one. The temporal closeness of AMP and NELS, for instance, might in the end bleed off some NELS participation (but affect, say, WCCFL less). Our perception of trends probably also affects submissions (e.g., “oh, Conference X didn’t have a lot of p-papers last year, so we won’t submit there this year,” or “oh crap, we should submit to Conference X now to keep up p-representation”). Additionally, who the hosts are, who the reviewers are, and who the invited speakers are might matter. Juliet Stanton suggests also that if there is a specific phonology session at the conference might encourage “p” participation, so perhaps in addition to an effort to submit individual papers to general conferences, making an effort to organize special phonology sessions at conferences will increase “p” with greater impact.

Data

Data was collected based what was easily available on the web. Most NELS, WCCFL, and BLS numbers are based on the table of contents of the published volumes, and thus may not exactly reflect the actual programs of the conferences. When no published volumes were available, data from web-available conference timetables were used (either from the existing conference website or Linguist List posting).

Years reflect the year in which the conference was held, not the year in which the proceedings were published. No distinction was made between invited talks, regular talks, special session talks, and posters. If anyone has conference programs from the missing years available, I would happily welcome the contribution to fill in the missing data.

Coding

Papers that fall into the “phonetics & phonology” (i.e., “p-oriented”) range were coded based on best educated guess given the title by me (and for the GLOW data, by Juliet Stanton). For papers that were about morphology or the phonology-syntax interface, I erred on the side of inclusive, so many of these are counted for “p”. In particular, morphology and phonology-syntax interface papers whose primary authors identify as phonologists were coded as “p”, under the assumption that  part of having a phonological representation at a conference is about the researchers themselves in addition to actual papers about phonology. If anything, these numbers for “p” are more inclusive than exclusive.

(Acknowledgements to Juliet Stanton for the GLOW data, and to Adam Chong for discussion about this data.)

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5 comments on “Response and Data: Phonology at general linguistics conferences
  1. Abby Kaplan says:

    This is really helpful; thank you!

    I agree that it’s not yet obvious that AMP is having a major effect on other conferences, although a minor effect is certainly possible. (I’ve thought explicitly about the AMP ~ NELS tradeoff, and I know colleagues who’ve done the same – but not AMP ~ WCCFL, etc.) And the data here is certainly consistent with my intuition that the overall phenomenon long predates AMP.

    I also agree that having specific phonology-themed sessions can be a worthwhile approach. (I was at NELS 2009 for precisely that reason, although I couldn’t say whether the peak in that year is due to the session or is just noise.) This could be particularly helpful for anyone who for practical reasons is limited in the number of conferences they can attend (e.g., grad students in departments without generous conference travel reimbursement). A single session with people who are working on topics very close to yours may be just as valuable as two or three on more distantly related topics – and then you also have the benefit of being at a general linguistics conference and getting a broader perspective on the field.

  2. Eric Bakovic says:

    Thanks, Stephanie (and Juliet) for gathering and discussing these data!

    I’d like to underscore what I think is an important point that Stephanie raises in her post when she writes: “Our perception of trends probably also affects submissions”. I think this is *definitely* the case. Especially given the relatively small numbers & differences that we’re talking about here, this seems to me to be a direct counterpoint to any “bang for your buck” conclusions that one might be tempted to draw from data like these. If all of us who read Phonolist commited to submitting our best abstracts to GLOW next time — and to agree to review for them if asked — I believe we’d make a new purple peak (or violet vertex) in that graph.

    But that’s just about increasing participation. Riffing off of what Bruce notes in his comment on Abby’s original post (https://blogs.umass.edu/phonolist/2016/05/31/discussion-phonology-at-general-linguistics-conferences/#comment-957), I think that any commitment on our part(s) — that is, individual or collective — to grab hold of a greater percentage of any of these general linguistics conferences needs to be balanced by a commitment to communicate our work in a way that speaks to non-phonologists (and to encourage our non-phonologist colleagues at such conferences to do the same for us and others). In other words, the kinds of abstracts we submit to, say, AMP, OCP, mfm, LabPhon, etc., should be qualitatively different from those we submit to, say, LSA, WCCFL, NELS, BLS, CLS, etc. (Abstract reviewers should also keep these distinctions in mind, of course.)

    [Note: I say all this with a non-zero amount of guilt for having submitted the “wrong” kinds of abstracts to certain conferences myself (and also for having reviewed abstracts without keeping the specialist/generalist distinction in mind). I’m all about the self-improvement thing, though.]

  3. Juliet Stanton says:

    Peter Jurgec points out that I made a small error with the GLOW 2016 data: there was one phonology poster, bringing the total to 1.6% (still impressively low). Many apologies!

  4. Shigeto says:

    Thanks Stephanie!

    Just a few thoughts. In 2013 for the first meeting of AMP, I submitted a similar abstract to both AMP and NELS. It was accepted by both, and I withdrew from NELS. I imagine that this is not an uncommon strategy—so I suspect that the influence of AMP on NELS may be real.

    Re: Abby’s comment. I have organized Formal Approaches to Japanese Linguistics 7 and am organizing Japanese Korean Linguistics 24, both of which have, most likely, less p-side submissions than the general linguistics conferences discussed here. For FAJL 7, since Junko Ito and I were organizing members, I encouraged people around me to submit abstracts and managed to have a session specifically on phonology. For JK 24, we also cover sociolinguistics and functional linguistics, so slots for phonology are more limited (although syntax still dominates the overall submission). To address this problem, Junko and I decided to have a satellite workshop on phonology. So I think I am agreeing with Abby that there is a way to increase more p-side presentations in general conferences, in a strategic way.

    Re: Eric’s comment. I agree with this too. When I gave an invited talk at FAJL 8 (not FAJL 7), I knew that most participants were syntacticians, so I talked about the “The role of information theory in linguistics” and discussed what this means to Chomskian linguistics. Of course the examples and analysis were phonological, but at least that worked well—I didn’t see anybody falling asleep despite the fact that my talk was the last talk at the end of a long day. I didn’t think about this until now, but Eric’s comment encourages me to keep doing this.

  5. Joe Pater says:

    Could AMP actually increase phonological participation at NELS?

    An anecdote: a European AMP 2015 participant decided to submit to NELS because he could go to both in one trip – they were scheduled a week apart that year, and are again this year.

    A hopeful speculation: The community building and interactions that AMP facilitates will lead to more and better phonology, which will lead to more work being submitted to NELS (and other conferences like it).

    A note: When I read Stephanie’s post, I concluded that phonology is over-represented at general linguistics conferences, with 13.59% of the dissertations and 27.5% of the talks. But by clicking the link, I could see quickly that this is incorrect: 13.51% is over a wider range of sub-fields than is represented at NELS et al. Eyeballing the syntax and phonology dissertation bars, it looks like there is maybe only 25% more syntax, which I suspect is a much smaller difference than we’d find in the conferences.

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