Conferences mean high times but low returns

Academic gatherings may be fun, but they do little to advance knowledge. To justify the public spending that supports them, such events must do more to provide benefits to those who don’t attend, argues Nicholas Rowe

April 12, 2018
An illustration of an audience of conference delegates
Source: Getty/Alamy/iStock

For many academics, scientists and professionals, attending conferences is not only part of their obligation to stay current in their field and to disseminate their work: it is also among the more enjoyable aspects of their jobs. True, it takes considerable effort to prepare our presentations, and sometimes we have to travel long distances to deliver them, but we often return with the glow of having had “a good time”, full of good intentions for the future, and laden with goody bags full of complimentary pens, Post-it notes and other branded paraphernalia.

There are plenty of magazine and journal articles that voice support for the knowledge exchange and the networking that take place at conferences. But how thoroughly we follow through on all those good intentions is actually rather unclear. In truth, there is only piecemeal evidence of our conference papers being turned into publications or of our conference interactions resulting in fruitful collaborations.

Some conferences seek to devise policy advice on a particular issue, and can therefore be expected to have an impact on society. But these should be distinguished from the more frequent meetings of particular interest groups (which are geared to serve a membership), as well as from the themed open-call international conferences that are aimed at a particular sector. It is this last type of meeting that has proliferated since the advent of more affordable air travel, and instances of them are visible in their thousands on conference alert websites and in the ubiquitous “calls for papers” that invade our email inboxes. Our engagement with these events has also been condemned as unnecessary and environmentally destructive, attracting the label of “conference tourism”.

Still, you might argue, if everyone has fun and potentially learns a little in the process, why complain? The answer is that although conferences are often supported with grants and research funding, the money ultimately comes from either taxpayers or non-profit organisations. Hence, the return on all that investment merits a greater level of scrutiny than it typically receives, especially when there are so many competing calls for funding, both within the academy and beyond.

Each year, the “Mice” industry (meetings, incentives, conferences and events) makes a multibillion-pound contribution in terms of job creation and revenue generation. Direct spending figures on meetings activities have been published for the UK (£19.4 billion in 2016); Canada (C$32.2 billion – £18 billion at today’s exchange rates – in 2006); Denmark (DKr20.8 billion – £2.5 billion – in 2010); and Australia (A$28 billion – £16 billion – in 2013). In the US, the Mice industry generated a staggering $280 billion (£200 billion) in 2012 – exceeding even the contribution of the automotive industry. So it cannot be denied that conferences make an important economic impact at the national level.

What proportion of these figures is accounted for by the “ASP” (academic, scientific and professional) sector is less clear because there is no central research that investigates the field beyond the considerations of the meetings industry, and conference outputs are widely dispersed in discipline-specific literature. However, the global ASP sector is clearly a significant player, consisting of more than 22,000 higher education institutions, 17,500 scientific associations and societies and multiple disciplines, fields, specialities and professions. If each of the higher education institutions and scientific associations held just one event per year, then, using published figures for average conference attendance and assuming a 50 per cent presentation rate, this would result in 4.5 million presentations per year. That figure is 80 per cent higher than the 2.5 million journal articles that were published in 2014.

Even this conservative estimate would make conference presentation a – if not the – major medium of scientific communication for the ASP sector. But, in reality, many higher education institutions host far more than one event a year. For example, the University of Oxford has more than 600 meeting venues, accommodating between 60 and 900 guests, while the University of Cambridge hosted about 300 academic events in 2017. Moreover, dedicated conference venues will obviously try to maximise their occupancy and can accommodate thousands of delegates, further underlining the potential magnitude of the conference sector.

As far back as 1963, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation reported on the contents, influence, value and availability of scientific conference papers and proceedings, noting high levels of inaccessibility, poor distribution, lost research and language restrictions. The report’s authors even went as far as to say that conference work was being created with the aim of legitimising attendance rather than serving any intellectual need. Although the value of social interaction at conferences was acknowledged, it was felt that only tangible outputs offered long-term benefit to the global research community.

However, the report’s calls for reform prompted little change over the following 50 years. In 2017, a mapping review of conference posters revealed an exponential increase in the publication of conference outputs, especially from the 1990s onwards, but it concluded that issues of poor access and distribution still prevailed.

Given the levels of engagement that academic conferences enjoy, it is only reasonable to assume a proportionally large degree of financial investment by delegates and their funders. There is no comprehensive research to explore this, but giving a presentation is rapidly becoming a prerequisite of being funded to attend a conference, and this is reflected in the high rates of presentation seen at events. Many conferences host concurrent streams of oral presentations, and poster sessions can feature literally thousands of ­posters. All this activity entails cost, and given the expense of international travel, accommodation and conference fees, it is fair to assume that the majority of attendees seek some degree of support from funders.

According to a recent study of more than 800 UK education conference attendees, each one spent an average of £1,568 – or £2,269 if they were an international delegate – on travel, registration fee, accommodation and workplace or institutional support (such as paid preparation time, or paid study leave to attend). When these figures are generalised to the global setting, ASP conference expenditure can be conservatively estimated to be in the region of £11.5 billion a year: a figure similar to estimates offered elsewhere.

When seen in the context of the mass events that take place, the impact of this becomes clear. As an example, the American Geophysical Union 2016 meeting hosted 25,000 delegates and featured 22,000 presentations. If the average delegate costs were applied to this meeting, the total cost would approach a staggering $48 million for this single event alone.

Dinner table of conference delegates

Conferences evolved in an era before mass communication and global connectivity, when it was necessary to travel in order to meet and present to peers. In smaller, more focused meetings, introductions were made, ideas exchanged and issues debated, with a strong potential for exposure and involvement. As a result, they offered positive outcomes at individual, group and policy levels.

But while the Unesco report saw conference publications as providing important evidence of research endeavours and outcomes, conference papers have always come a poor second to peer-reviewed journal articles, mainly because of their inconsistent quality markers and publishing practices. Some fields, such as computer science and engineering, give high value to conference papers and to conferences whose proceedings are recognised in citation databases such as the Web of Science and Scopus. However, these select fields are not representative of the full range of ASP disciplines, and there is evidence that up to 70 per cent of conference papers and 99 per cent of conference posters are still not published beyond an abstract or title mention.

Therefore, the idea that conference papers are important as “works in progress”, and that the feedback received at conferences helps to shape them into full papers, is questionable. As a further restriction, papers hosted by conference organisers might be made available only to members or registered attendees, so their utility and recognition is limited. “Publishing” obscure special editions is also questionable if we consider who they will actually reach. With this in mind, it is fair to rethink Unesco’s original question of how well we “share research” through conference presentations – especially when we consider the broad scope of today’s digitally networked society.

The limitations on reaching a meaningful audience also extend to the conference itself. First, unless you are a sub-atomic particle, it is not possible to be physically present in two places at the same time, so attending one presentation necessarily means missing any work presented in concurrent strands. It is commonly assumed that conference attendees select what interests them most, thereby deriving maximum benefit from the schedule. However, we become aware of what is on offer only by reading the conference proceedings, and while there are no studies showing how much time we dedicate to reading conference proceedings, the mass of abstracts for large-scale meetings would require days of attention to get through, given that even a good reader can manage only 500 words a minute, or 30,000 an hour. So it is fair to assume that a lot of the material that is in principle on offer is missed or is discovered only by accident.

Meanwhile, the limits of our capacity to attend presentations is easily calculated by dividing the hours available by the session lengths. And if we assume that it takes six minutes to find, read and discuss a poster, then in a 90-minute poster session you could visit only 15 posters. In both cases, the typically time- and place-bound nature of conferences entails that we rarely have an opportunity to catch up with what we miss.

If we consider the percentage of the delegate body we can meaningfully interact with and the amount of information we can realistically consume, then although subjectively enjoyable, even a busy conference schedule offers little in the way of predictable opportunities for knowledge sharing and communication. Also, given that our interaction in oral sessions is often limited to the “10 minutes for questions” (if we are lucky) that follows a presentation, conference presentation seems to be a costly way to go about obtaining feedback that can be elicited more reliably via other means.

Talk of cost, value and output tends to prompt defensive reactions in the academic community, and a barrage of poor excuses is offered in support of the status quo. However, assertions alone are insufficient. It is hard to envisage any other publicly funded sector that does not have an obligation to report on its use of such significant levels of funding. A more robust body of evidence is required to validate our subjective perspectives on knowledge development, professional socialisation and societal benefit. In particular, claims that conferences were never meant to be publication venues, or that conference papers are only works in progress, are clearly out of step with the modern professional climate.

Economic theory revolves on a premise of optimisation, whereby we choose the best service or item that we can afford. However, behavioural economics shows that humans will often act in ways that do not conform to ideas of optimisation, and conferences seem to offer a good example. My own preliminary research shows that while delegates are happy with their subjective conference experiences, when they look at how their efforts are seen and valued by others, their conference-related activities generally fall short of their needs and expectations.

So why do we persist in this hit-and-miss academic strategy? The answer may lie in the privilege we enjoy as academics, scientists and professionals. Despite complaints about dwindling levels of conference support, delegates from more economically developed countries typically receive some form of financial or paid-time assistance. There is therefore an understandable reluctance to place this at risk, particularly given the enjoyment that conferences offer.

Physical conference events are great, and will likely continue to grow in the future. However, we need to ensure that they offer a tangible benefit not just to attendees but also to the wider ASP community, and to the society it serves.

There is huge value to be had in conferences, which could transform them into a genuine academic currency on a par with peer-reviewed journal papers. For example, technology exists that allows an infinite amount of data to be housed online, with user-friendly search tools and interfaces that can expand informational capacity. Speech and text can be auto-translated with increasing reliability into a range of languages. Multimedia, such as video and podcasts, are increasingly simple to produce and host, so there is scope to expand conference outputs beyond the confines of textual papers and abstracts. The open-access movement is also gaining ground, and conference presentations do not have the copyright baggage associated with traditional publishing avenues. Online articles have been seen to achieve citation rates 4.5 times higher than offline articles, and developments in post-publication peer review offer a practical way to demonstrate the quality of conference work. And altmetrics, such as data on social media activity, may be used to give funders a better picture of the impact of the conference activities they support.

No other field of scientific communication offers this potential for development. However, to realise it, we need to change our thinking on what conferences are for, what people need and how this may best be achieved. If innovation were centrally coordinated, then tools and services could be developed to enhance conferences of all sizes, alongside the physical events.

The first published conference proceedings (La Fauconnerie du Roy avec la Conférence des Fauconniers) date back to 1644: 21 years before the first recorded journal (Le Journal des Sçavans). It is surely in the mutual interest of funders, organisers and the ASP community to take positive steps towards making sure that the Cinderella status of conference presenters is finally ended and that going to the academic ball provides as much demonstrable and sustainable value as does writing an academic paper. 

Nicholas Rowe is a transdisciplinary educationalist, with interests in scientific communication and professional development. He is working on a PhD at the University of Lapland examining the efficacy of poster presentation at academic and scientific conferences. He is also an academic language editor for Finnish universities.

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