Rethinking academic conferences

Following the previous Katpost [here] which raised some questions about the effectiveness of academic conferences, I received a number of direct responses from readers leading to some constructive conversations on the topic. [A selection of anonymised quotes is provided below]. 

Thinking of solutions now!
 Image: Riana Harvey

The overwhelming feeling from readers was an agreement in favour of rethinking academic conferences - many expressed similar and additional concerns to those that I raised in my post. Some readers even commented that as a result of these concerns they had made the decision to boycott conferences all together.

Whilst I totally respect those voting with their feet and think that we should all consider more carefully which conferences serve us, I am also writing this second post in the hope of sharing good practice and solving the problem at its source. 

As such, based on the comments and conversations with readers, here is a summary of things to consider when organising your next academic conference: 

Have a clear, focused theme that translates in the presentations selected. Share the theme with the conference delegates beforehand. 

Select quality presentations, over quantity. This could mean problem solving, or distinctive – but either way it is a thought-out idea, not an initial idea, meaning that the researcher has conducted some research into their idea. 

Initial ideas section. For those who do see the benefit of sharing initial ideas, you could hold a special quick-fire session specifically catering to ideas at early development stage for initial feedback.

Mix-up the delivery. We are totally bored of PowerPoint presentations. And even the most enthusiastic attentive academics cannot sit through 12 hours of back-to-back slideshows. Encourage participants to engage with innovative delivery styles, it could be interactive or immersive. Find other ways of demonstrating research outcomes. 

Debates and Discussion. We all want critical thinking, but it doesn’t have to be so linear. You could get together a panel of divergent views, perspectives or experiences and create a juicy debate. The best conferences are those in which academics, practitioners and institutional actors come together to discuss, debate and problem solve.

Impact and collaboration. Bring in stakeholders or people at the effect of the law you are debating and promote a culture of thinking about the real-world impact of the research you are discussing. For UK based academics there is a growing emphasis on the need for impactful research (directly because of the REF), but for all academics it is important to consider the relevance and impact of our research. 

Longer breaks. We are not robots. Grabbing a quick coffee and going to the loo before rushing back to the presentations is not an adequate break. If you really want people to effectively engage in fruitful thinking and discussion, they need to be on form. Once, at an ICEPOPS conference, I led the conference audience in a guided meditation – the power of mindful practices to revive the energy in the room is miraculous! But even if that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, we still need more than 15 mins between long sessions to enjoy an actual cup of tea. 

Speaking of tea, we are all dehydrated. Please can we all agree to stop with the miniature cups?

More networking time. Most everyone agrees that one of the main benefits of academic conferences is the networking and socialising. Although some people find that part challenging. So, here is a solution – gamify the networking. Get creative. You could have a speed-dating style networking event timetabled, or you could have a networking ‘Bingo’ game running throughout the day.

Reasonable and inclusive timetable. Yes, some corporate conferences run from dawn till dusk. But that is not us, we are not driven by the same goals and should not seek to replicate their agendas. It is impractical, exclusionary and perpetuates the long-established neglect of work-life balance in academia. People have families, responsibilities, and lives to live. Again, this comes down to the issue of excess, a quality short conference is far more beneficial than trying to squeeze a week’s worth of presentations into a couple of days. 

Hybrid. Although there was a preference by many for in person conferences, allowing audience members to also attend online does promote accessibility and enables those who are unable to travel to still attend. Don’t forget that your online attendees still want to network, so make sure to arrange an online session for that too. 

Consider the environment. Ever been to a carbon neutral academic conference? Thought not. Let’s take some responsibility here and improve our efforts. The bar is set incredibly low at this point, so simply asking delegates to bring their own water bottle and name badge would be an improvement.

Reasonable fees. The point of academic conferences is not to make a financial profit. It is to host meaningful discussion and useful research, testing ideas and approaches before an audience of peers and leading experts and engage the academic community in furthering research. So, with that in mind, we are of course happy to cover the cost of catering but let’s reign it in. Consider sponsorship and funding to reduce the delegate fees, be honest and reasonable. 

Appreciate your contributors. If you are asking an academic to give you their time and expertise to organise, review or convene for your conference, it is nothing short of exploitative to charge them for the privilege of attending. This is particularly underhand where the conference organisers are making a profit and the fees are high. 

If you think there is something that we have missed, please share by commenting below, thank you! 

Quotes from feedback (anonymised): 

I wanted to tell you that I wholeheartedly support your comments. Changing the focus of such large gatherings to discussion of meaningful and useful research and testing new ideas and approaches before an audience of peers and leading experts is long overdue.  I always felt this applied as well to many of the STEM conferences which I attended during my career in industry.  However I fear that whilst career progression in academia continues to be influenced mainly by the number rather than substance of publications, conferences…will continue to proliferate with seemingly little filter of the quality and usefulness of contributions.

Completely agree – a good conference allows us to both present our research and receive constructive feedback. This means organisers need to be selective about the papers that are being presented.

The “what are we doing?” stage is a compulsory step of any academic career (it should be of any career, but, hey, we are the thinking people, right?🤓)  And, yes, more workshops (small group with a PRECISE focus in mind) and less mega-conferences

Even before the pandemic I had stopped attending large conferences with many parallel sessions, nowadays I can't see the point, so I just don't. I know I may be missing out on key networking, but I was never good at that anyway.

As a gentle counterpoint to @BosherHayleigh, perhaps critical thinking is itself useful (regardless of the subject matter to which we might apply it). Also, by way of borrowing, rather than looking specifically to quality, or function, we could endeavor to be distinctive :)

I have been musing on this very issue lately. Particularly when we consider the emissions caused by travel to and from these events and all the other environmental costs of putting these on…Lately for me this has become a strange source of anxiety. Every research trip I go on I am constantly wondering: is the scholarship that will come of this worth the carbon I am burning on this long flight?

Rethinking academic conferences Rethinking academic conferences Reviewed by Hayleigh Bosher on Wednesday, November 02, 2022 Rating: 5

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