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IN MY OPINION

The B-list conference circuit

They have their attractions but you have to ask yourself, is it really worth going?

By TERRANCE LAVENDER | OCT 31 2012

I’m standing in a dingy, dimly lit classroom at a small university somewhere in Europe, preparing to tell the world about my research. I glance back at the screen to make sure my PowerPoint presentation is displayed and ready to go, and then I look at my audience.

There are about 40 people in the room, but I notice with dismay that only about 10 are looking at me. The rest are hunched over their laptops or iPads. The noise of fingers hitting typewriter keys is rather disheartening.

I look at the moderator. He nods and I start to speak.

Twenty minutes later, it’s all over. There are a few questions and a smattering of applause. Many in the audience didn’t ever look up during my talk; too busy working on their own papers, looking at Facebook or chatting with colleagues (ironic given the fuss many faculty members make about disruptive behaviour by undergrads).

It’s taken me 12 hours’ flying time and $2,500 of university and personal money to get here for that 20 minutes. I’ll sit in on presentations from about 10 other researchers, view the dozen or so posters on display, take the obligatory tour of a local historic site, attend the conference dinner, and then head back to Canada with my souvenir conference bag, conference-paper memory stick, and increasingly hazy memories of just what was said at the conference.

And in four weeks time I’ll do it all over again. This time I’ll be going to Genoa, Italy. That trip will take 15 hours, but this time I’ll get to speak for 30 minutes, instead of 20. And they say the Italian Riviera is lovely, even in November.

Is it worth it? The scramble to get colleagues to cover our teaching obligations, the hours spent filling out travel grant applications and searching for convenient and cheap airline tickets, then the long flight followed by three or four days in featureless rooms listening to talks about planned research or pilot studies, followed by the flight back and the scramble to get caught up with all the work we missed?

I’m beginning to think it isn’t worth it. Yes, I get to hear about new research somewhat related to my field, but the papers presented tend not to be the strongest, and better-quality, more-relevant research can be found in a few seconds on the web. Yes, I get to meet other researchers, but very rarely do I contact them again. And yes, I do get to experience a new city, but I’m not sure the university should be subsidizing my sightseeing, even if travel does broaden the mind.

So why do we do it? As Tim Kovacs of the University of Bristol notes, there are four reasons to attend a conference:

  • to learn abut the area
  • to interact with other researchers
  • to add a publication to your CV
  • to have a holiday somewhere nice

For grad students like me, the third reason is often the deciding factor. PhD students, like other academics, are expected to publish frequently. Scholarships, grants and fellowships depend on fat resumés. But publishing can be difficult for multi-tasking grad students, and it’s very tempting to take the easy road and reposition part of the dissertation as a conference paper.

I’m not arguing that all conferences are a waste of time and money. You can make useful contacts and discover papers that you wouldn’t find through an academic search engine. And both large multi-faceted conferences and smaller select events can be intellectually stimulating and help renew your own academic excitement.

But I am getting disillusioned about the value of what you could call the “B-list” conferences. (They’re easy to spot — a few hundred delegates, a handful of papers, a preponderance of grad students, an obscure but exotic venue). I don’t doubt the sincerity of the conference organizers or the credentials of those who present; I just wonder whether these conferences are worthwhile.

Perhaps university departments could be convinced to put less emphasis on conference presentations for career advancement and scholarship acceptance. That would be easier on strained university travel budgets, too. Another option, as University Affairs noted a few years ago, is the virtual conference. Virtual conferences make a lot of sense. No carbon footprint. No jet lag. No pricey hotel bill.

I’ll have to think about it. Once I get back from Genoa with my conference swag.

Terrance Lavender is a PhD candidate in interactive arts and technology at Simon Fraser University.

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  1. Tobias / October 31, 2012 at 10:21 am

    This is a funny coincidence: I *just* posted ‘The rough guide for setting up fake-ish academic conferences’ (http://bitly.com/Uh22FR) as a mock ‘how-to’ manual, inspired by B- or probably even C-List conference invitations that I receive regularly

  2. Rod McNaughton / October 31, 2012 at 11:00 am

    I would expression caution in distinguishing “A” and “B” list conferences using the criteria stated in this article (small size, high proportion of graduate students, exotic location).

    There are different kinds of conferences, with different objectives, and a range of potential outcomes. Of course, conferences are also co-created: attendees receive value in proportion to their engagement and contribution.

    My experience is that the conferences considered “A” level in my discipline are often very large (5000+ participants) and expensive. Their size makes it difficult to obtain meaningful feedback or to build lasting relationships. Many consider the primary contribution of these onferences to be “job markets”.

    In contrast, smaller boutique conferences can provide an opportunity for more focused attention to a developing area of research, and create a venue in which richer social relationships can form. These conferences can be more developmental, especially for junior colleagues, and are more likely to make a commitment to helping presenters take the next steps toward publishing their research.

    Our research group, ie-scholars, has held an annual conference for 15 years. We usually have between 75 and 100 attendees from around the world. The conference series has resulted in numerous long-lasting international research collaborations, several of which have received significant funding. A book series has spun out of the conference, and we attempt to publish 2-3 special issues of journals from the papers presented each year.

    Rather than perceive conferences as being “A” or “B” level, I would encourage potential attendees to have a strategy for their conference selection and to evaluate the potential of a conference to accomplish certain objectives.

    Attending a portfolio of conference types may contribute more to professional development than simply being seen at an “A” conference.

  3. Reuben Kaufman / October 31, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    I was about to compose a similar response as Rod’s, but he got there first, and did it more elegantly than I would have done!

    Terrance does indeed make good points in general. I may even be convinced that there may be several leagues of quality, but it ain’t based on size, at least not in my field (ticks!), where the undisputed premier international conference rarely exceeds 250. In fact, I tend to shun the mega conferences for exactly the reason that Rod states.

  4. Will C van den Hoonaard / October 31, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    We held a major conference in Fredericton on “Ethics Rupture,” 25-28 Oct. 2012. It became a A-list conference. How? (1) we picked up all attendees at the airport, no matter when they arrived and took each to their hotels, (2) we only had plenary sessions, (3) we made sure no one ate dinner alone by having sign-up sheets, (4) we replied to every email immediately, (5) sent our progress reports, (6) made everyone feel welcome and appreciated, (7) had ample food, and (8) only charged a very modest fee unless you were a presentor (in which case it was free). A true community developed.

  5. Alex Lautensach / October 31, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    I agree with Rod McNaughton’s cautionary comment about the distinction between “A” and “B” grades. Such rankings convey an implication of objectivity that I find does not match the diversity of events out there.

    Two tricks that my partner and I use to make conference trips the highlight of our year is to (1) co-present or at least both present papers, and (2) attach a vacation – which calls for an interesting location (at least in the vicinity of the conference)and, unfortunately, a date outside the teaching term. It works for us.

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