Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Shaking up the academic conference

Last week I was at a large conference of over 2,000 delegates. While I was there, an article was published in the Guardian, lamenting the huge expense and exclusivity of such conferences, which can be too costly for early career researchers to attend. I was lucky enough to have my trip paid for, but I wondered how many people were unable to attend due to finances, or how many people had forked out their own money to be there.

The Guardian article, written by two academics, highlighted the increasingly extravagant social programmes. If social events are included in the cost of the conference, researchers may wonder why their registration fee was not better spent elsewhere. On the other hand, if the social event is an added extra that is paid for, those with less money (due to any number of factors, including being an early career researcher, or from a poorer country) may opt out and miss important opportunities for networking.

The article also questioned whether or not conferences really deliver what they intend to. A survey of delegates at conferences in the water sector found that only 2% found conferences useful and cost-effective. So even when researchers can afford to get to a big conference, is it worth the effort and expense? Last week I found myself wondering what the added value was of attending conference talks compared to reading the latest papers.

I think there are a number of things that can be done to improve these international conferences. Keynote speakers often get their expenses paid, yet they are typically not the ones who are most in need of financial help. Keynote speakers who have access to conference funds could be encouraged to pay towards their own expenses, so that money can be directed more towards those in need.

Conferences could offer more in the way of online engagement to reach those who are not present. Conference tweeting is now very common, but this can be hard to follow from afar, so a move towards more formal online discussions, and video streaming, would be welcomed. Conferences could take place less regularly, particularly when there are many conferences that overlap in their themes. Within my field of research, educational neuroscience, there have been discussions about whether or not societies that typically hold separate conferences could run a joint event. This way, delegates would not have to choose which conference to attend in a given year.

Finally, conferences should aim to be better value for money. Researchers often attend a conference for a few days, and present just one talk or one poster. Multiple submissions could be encouraged, particularly to encourage early career researchers to discuss their ideas. Many conferences only allow submissions from those who have results at the time of submission. This excludes work that is finalised during the intervening months, and prevents discussion of new project ideas that are not yet underway. Opening up discussions to proposed work, which will most likely require different formats of conference session, would enable peers to help shape future research.

I will continue thinking about these issues over the coming months, as I am co-organising an upcoming conference. My aim is to encourage early career researchers to become more involved, and to provide settings for discussions of issues and ideas outside of the usual talk and questions format. While it is implied that these discussions will happen during coffee breaks and social events, I believe that these discussions should take a prominent role in conferences. The expertise present should be capitalised on so that researchers can work together to consider how best to address issues and move the research field forward. 


  1. I went to a conference where they had 'Unconference' sessions, which were small sessions, spontaneously arranged, attended by people with a specific shared interest which made them fantastic for more informal discussions. Very simple to organise: anyone who wants to present puts up their title on a sheet and if more than say 5 or 10 people sign up to show their interest in that session, it goes ahead. It's a great way of responding to issues which arise in the conference but which there is no other time to discuss

    1. Really pleased to hear that you had a good experience with this - we are planning something very similar for the upcoming SIG22 Neuroscience and Education conference. This format can make organisers anxious (what if nobody shows up for this bit, or nobody has any ideas?!) but I think there is real appetite for more informal and open discussions of issues.