Calling time on conferences

Portrait of Dani BarringtonDr Dani Barrington is a Lecturer in Water, Sanitation and Health at University of Leeds and an Honorary Fellow at The University of Queensland

Dani works in the field of water, sanitation and health in developed and developing communities. She is passionate about working at the nexus of technology and society, particularly investigating how appropriate technologies, community-led programs and public policy can improve health and well-being outcomes.

She tweets at @Dani_BarringtonYou can read Dani’s other Research Whisperer posts here.

I love attending conferences. Not because of the exotic locations, but because of the amazing conversations.

Who has time for sightseeing when there’s so much networking to be done? I meet new people, continue discussions with existing colleagues, and get fired up about what’s going on in my field and how my latest research idea might fit in.

Recently, there have been articles about how prohibitively expensive conferences are, particularly for early career researchers (ECRs).

Photo by Mikael Kristenson |
Photo by Mikael Kristenson |

In some cases, these articles call for a scrapping  of the traditional model in favour of cheaper and more inclusive events, such as webinars. This worries me. Although I definitely agree with them on some issues, I feel like some of these “calls to arms” are missing the point of conferences and what I think makes them a useful expense.

Then I realised that, in most cases, the way that conferences are designed misses the point…

I’m a strong believer that the reason for attending a conference is to engage with your academic (or professional) community, understand where things are going in your field, meet new colleagues and brainstorm exciting new collaborations.

But, when I think about it, the average conference that I’ve attended has entailed six to eight hours a day of presentations and two hours a day of networking (lunch and tea). I notice that during the presentations many people in the audience (myself included) play on their phones or take the opportunity to perfect their own slides. During the breaks, they rush around trying to find people they want to meet in person – and we all know that even with the best intentions it’s very difficult to get through your entire conference “To Meet” list in lunch and tea breaks alone.

However, a few weeks ago I attended Confluence, an annual event run by Water@Leeds. The format consisted mainly of three minute “Lightning Talks” by researchers so that we could all get to know what one another was working on. I noticed something interesting: no-one was playing on their phones or laptops. They were all listening.

As much as I like my University of Leeds colleagues, I don’t think this was because they’re just more polite than the average conference-goer! I think the format was the key, which led to the following internal debate:

“All conferences should be like this! I’m so interested!”

“But you can’t present much content in 3 minutes.”

“How much of the content at a conference am I REALLY interested in, at least in depth?”

“But you can’t ask questions.”

“How often do I zone out during the question time, where it’s often more about the audience member wanting to get a word in edgeways than something the rest of us are interested in?”

I understand that we need presentations. We need to know who works on what and, thus, who to network with and which papers to download. I am not suggesting we scrap conference schedules altogether and just go to the pub.

But if the traditional presentation is fifteen minutes (excluding questions), then by moving to three-minute slots we could hear about five times as much research! Or we could reduce the length of the official conference and invest more resources in workshops where ECRs could further develop skills. Perhaps this could be when more senior academics schedule their side meetings, rather than squatting around a chair-less table during a twenty minute tea break, trying to plan an international collaboration, or having to skip conference sessions all together.

A further benefit to ECRs, who often get relegated to poster presentations (and, as such, may find it difficult to secure funding to attend), may be the opportunity to get more experience presenting their work. With more speakers, we could all hear about what more people are doing. Thinking back to my own time as a postgraduate student, I already knew what the “big names” were working on. And, let’s be honest, most academics don’t present their ground-breaking work at conferences anyway. There is an unwritten rule that you have to get it published first or someone might pip you to the post!

What was always more useful to me was what the people whose names I didn’t know were working on. Giving everyone a chance to get up and say something means that meeting other researchers is automatically much easier.  Instead of waiting for the conference drinks to work up the Dutch courage to ask the dreaded “Hi, what do you work on?” question (followed by polite nodding and realising you have no idea – nor, perhaps, interest in – what their field is) we could approach people with an idea of what they work on, what we’re both interested in, and how we might collaborate.

These three-minute presentations may not seem as prestigious as giving a full presentation (replete with the hated presentation outline and that bloody ‘Any Questions’ slide!). But having an abstract published on a USB stick that, let’s be honest, most of us wipe clean to fill with TV shows other work once we get home is not the point of attending a conference. Besides which, while I can’t vouch for everyone, I make about 95% of my conference session decisions based on titles alone. I do understand that abstracts are useful when reviewing presenter applications, but I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think that more than a handful of people actually read them.

And then conference proceedings…

I have never had an academic tell me they are useful to the author’s career, and they seem to be more of a distraction. Would it not be more useful to put our energy into punchy titles and communicating plain-language summaries of our work, rather than a short paper that may seem great but that rarely counts as serious output and, in many cases, can stop you from publishing elsewhere (i.e. in a journal that your university considers ‘counts’ more – but let’s not get started on the flaws of bibliometrics or we’ll be here all day!).

With the worldwide popularity of the Three Minute Thesis competition, I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more pressure put on later-stage academics to get their elevator pitch down pat. We all go on about what a useful skill this is for our students, so why not practice what we preach?

My suggestion does not necessarily make conferences more accessible in terms of cost. I do agree that where the primary objective is mass knowledge transfer, cheaper options like online conferences and webinars are a no-brainer. But if the goal of face-to-face events is to make new connections and spark intellectual debate, then I think we do need to get people together in person (at least until Virtual Reality catches up). Such an approach could at least increase bang-for-buck.

So, now I find myself torn between two worlds – not “for” or “against” conferences – but wanting their quality to match up to their potential. Three minutes is not that long, but, from little things, big things grow…

Many thanks to Mat Francis for helping me get my thoughts into coherent sentences!

One comment

  1. Great article. We recently had what was called a “soapbox” meeting at our University under one of our research themes – something I’ve never heard of before. About 20 people showed up and spoke for a maximum of 3 minutes on their area of research and/or research projects/ideas. Being a relatively new employee, I learnt so much more about what other members of the Faculty were up to and who I should go talk to afterwards in that 1 hour than I ever would have in a two day Symposium! Although we only really heard soundbites about each other’s work, it meant everyone had to be focused and could then target those with whom they felt could be good to work with. Much more efficient, interesting and useful all round I felt.

    Liked by 1 person

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