Do we need to rethink academic conferences?

EPIP (European Policy for Intellectual Property) – as the website states - is an international, independent, interdisciplinary, non-profit association of researchers that grew out of a network financed by the European Commission in 2003-05. The annual EPIP conference took place from 14th - 16th September 2022, at Cambridge University and online. This year’s theme was “Opening IP for a Better World?” 

Over the three days, there was an overwhelming amount of activity, including 160 accepted papers, roundtables, no fewer than three key notes, not to mention the networking, drinks, and a gala dinner. 

This Kat had the honour of attending the conference on Thursday 15th September, during which time there were five parallel sessions that ran from 8am to 7pm, ambitiously followed by the dinner. Whilst some academics might be delighted by this range and volume of choice, this one does not have the resilience nor the social stamina for that level of conferencing, and so her attendance was online. 

You can find the full program here, and download the book of abstracts here

Instead of reporting on the presentations from the conference (sorry EPIP!) there are two questions that I have been reflecting on that I am keen to discuss and hear from IPKat readers about their views on these points. [Although, it is important to add a caveat: these questions are not a reflection specifically on EPIP, or apply to all of the presentations made at the conference, but these are general thoughts gathered after the latest season of academic conferences that this Kat has attended.]

Just a thought... 
 Image: Riana Harvey
What is the point of academic conferences? / What is the point of academics?

Is it just my perception, or are there more conferences and events than ever? Daily invitations for workshops, seminars, conferences, and symposiums fill my inbox. On the positive side, this is great, there are many compelling reasons to attend. Whether that is sharing research to be scrutinised by our peers to help improve our work, or learning from other’s presentations, offering feedback and discussion to develop the discourse around a topic, perhaps disseminating more polished ideas in knowledge exchange or building networks and community in the pursuit of research, education, and scholarship. 

But, are we overdoing it? And have we lost sight of the key purposes of an academic conference? Should we present every idea that we have, however underdeveloped? Or is that entirely the point? What do you think?

My view is "no", we should not be presenting every idea that pops into our minds, because although we may be holders of PhD’s or professorships, this does not mean that we are immune to terrible ideas. By terrible ideas, what I mean is useless ideas. And I understand that this is based on my belief that my job as an academic is to be useful. In my employment contract it says, “undertake scholarly activity.” Well, what is scholarly activity? Is it just thinking about things for the sake of thinking about them? Or are we actually trying to achieve something, as the EPIP conference title alludes to, are we trying to make the world a better place, or not?

If not, then carry on organising events for no reason other than something to do and invite anyone who has had a fruitless thought about anything. But, if we are trying to be useful and make the world a better place, as I suspect many of us are, might we be more mindful about the number of events we are organising, and think more carefully about what it is that we are trying to achieve - both in terms of the conference itself, and as a result, the presentations delivered. What problem does our research/presentation try to address? Does this ‘idea’ have any relevance or application in the world beyond our offices? In the wise words of copyright jurisprudence, it’s about “quality, not quantity,” and to borrow further from our shared parlance, should we be not purely aesthetic, but also functional?! 

Asking these questions about the point of academics may seem controversial, but only if you’re worried that the answer is that there is no point. Of course there is, and I am sure there is an entire body of literature to back it up, but my argument here is not scholarly. It is simply that it is important for us to reflect, regularly and deeply, on what it is that we are doing and why. 

What do readers think?

Do we need to rethink academic conferences? Do we need to rethink academic conferences? Reviewed by Hayleigh Bosher on Thursday, October 27, 2022 Rating: 5


  1. It is quite true that the offer regarding conferences is simply overwhelming, just reading the programmes is out of reach.
    Another comment is that typically each conference has an agenda matching the interests of a certain professional group. The EPIP conference mentioned in the post is a case in point. The focus of the programme is all about the mantra of "openness" and questioning the legitimacy of IP on the basis of institutional/political considerations. All of this fits quite neatly the agenda of the EU Commission focusing on "creative commons", "open data" and so forth and the primacy of internal market and free competition over IP. It is no wonder that academics are busy lecturing and publishing along this angle, it is critical for them to acquire visibility and credibility on such issues in order to secure funding for their programmes from the EU Commission.
    Analysis based on real-life experience shows that "openness" if taken as an ideology is a dangerous illusion. Sharing information with others and opening must also include control over the sharing process, and it has to be a flexible process, the type of information to be shared and the type of relationship must evolve as a cooperation develops.

  2. There are too many academic conferences providing a one-sided view of IP due to the lack of relevant experience of academics outside of their narrow-minded group of peers. Each academic finding the need to be more critical of the industries that rely on IP protection for their existence and the benefits it brings to society. Academics will happily kill off the laws that feed their scholarly writings and move on to the next field like a plague of locusts. A high and might view that all monopolies are evil clearly attracts funding from the European Commission, which is keen to dismantle centuries of advances, no doubt based on successful lobbying from the many entrants to the European Union that have strong generics industries, yet invest nothing in innovative pharmaceutical research.

    Such academics/articles/conferences are failing in their duties to education and research.

  3. I wrote my comment prior to reading that of Francis Hagel. My suspicion that EU funding is at the heart of the academic problem may be correct.

  4. Academics typically lack the practical experience of business and how IP is used to support the business of a company. But I think the major problem is their anti-patent bias, rooted in their academic ethics - which is inevitable – and in the wrong notion that patents are to be equated to monopolies. Patents provide exclusive rights to an given solution, not commercial exclusivity to a market. In addition patents are not self-executing, they only provide the right to be asserted in court by the owner, which is extremely different.
    The anti-patent bias and fixation on « monopoly » totally ignores that the patent system relies on a quid pro quo, i.e. the publication of an invention in return for the award of exclusive rights, and that the efficient and free of charge dissemination of technical information to the credit of the patent system is a huge benefit of worldwide public interest. It is telling that most IP-related academic papers are silent about this benefit of the patent system.
    Another aspect of this bias is that it ignores the various ways in which patents and pending patent applications can be taken to advantage in the building of mutually beneficial collaborations between businesses, or between public research entities and businesses.

    1. I only disagree on one point - that anti-patent bias is inevitable based on academic ethics. It is not an ethical stance to be so anti-IP, but an ignorant stance. In the world of science, academic research leads the way, with industry building on the advances. In the world of IP, academics are armchair critics, having not put on a pair of "IP boots". Not only are academics opining from the sidelines, they are not even watching the action, instead resorting to generating statistics, generating nonsense conclusions, and, more dangerously, influencing policy makers who naively believe academics have something to offer.


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