Having studied conferences for the last 10 years, I have come to find a disparity in the amount of time and resources scientists put into them and the benefits scientists get out of them as far as transmitting and receiving knowledge. My research shows that conference outputs actually form the numerically dominant medium of global scientific communication, but in terms of disseminating our work to audiences who could use it, their cost and lack of “impact” call into question their sustainability, and urge us to consider how we can better utilize our time, effort, and money.

Conferences are popular events for scientists to meet in person and share results and ideas. Over the last couple of decades, the number of meetings has grown at a rate of roughly 10 percent year over year, and they are clearly not going to go away.

My research has...

The evidence shows that at anything other than small events, we simply cannot engage with all of the presentations we might find beneficial, so we miss lots of what is on offer and typically select some of the first material we encounter. This experience subsequently affects how we view and approach conferences, as well as the way we view and appreciate conference work. 

The material presented at conferences is rarely available after the event in its original form, being mainly relegated to abstract or title mentions and often only available to restricted audiences. There is also strong evidence that shows we do not convert our conference papers into peer-reviewed articles as often as we like to think, with rates of 37.3 percent reported for abstracts and presentations, and as low as 1 percent for posters. Therefore, we waste vast amounts of potentially useful knowledge, and relatedly, the significant resources (time, effort, money, environmental resources, etc.) that go into producing it. My research has found that conference outputs conservatively exceed peer-reviewed journal articles by 110 percent, and this means we are not using our most prevalent medium of scientific communication to anywhere near its full potential. The negative monetary cost of this runs to billions of dollars every year—money we really don’t have to spare.

The first conference proceedings actually pre-dates the first journal, and conferences have been well-established aspects of how science is conducted, especially since the 1960s. But why do we continue to invest in meetings when the outputs aren’t readily obvious? Firstly, because everybody else is doing it, so we see it as the status quo. Secondly, regardless of protests to the contrary, we tend to use someone else’s money (whole or in part) to support our conference activities. Paid time to develop conference materials, allowances for “professional development,” internal support for fees, travel, and accommodation, use of research budget funding to “disseminate results to peer audiences,” some of this is private, but ultimately, most of it comes from the taxpayer. We rarely spend no work time on conference preparation,  nor do we fund all of our fees and subsistence from our own pockets—we just couldn’t afford to.

Regardless of publication platform, it only makes sense to try to give our work the best chance of being seen, and this also applies to our conference activities.

When I mention the idea of “value” or “return on investment” to academics, there is often an offended refutation that defends conference practices to be of immense value, but the evidence (or rather its lack) suggests otherwise. The idea that conference activities should have some form of measurable benefit may be viewed as being neoliberal, and people often refer to less tangible benefits such as participating in professional networking, accessing “cutting edge research,” getting feedback on projects, learning about career opportunities, etc. However, if we consider the massive economic contributions of the MICE industry (meetings, incentives, conferences, & exhibitions) and the still multi-billion-dollar expenditures of mainly public money we dedicate to attending conferences each year, then it is only practical and right to consider what we get for our investment. Disseminating our work in journals is still “the gold standard” for scientific communication, and high–impact factor publication often has a positive influence on scientists’ careers. Conference presentations are all too readily seen as “lesser publications,” and while most journal papers tend to be cited, depending on discipline, relatively few papers tend to be “highly cited.” However, regardless of publication platform, it only makes sense to try to give our work the best chance of being seen, and this also applies to our conference activities.

I see the way forward as actually an opportunity to develop scientific communication as a whole, and to produce a new “academic currency” that makes our conference outputs and activities as valued as our increasingly questioned staple, the journal article. If we can more reliably centralize, host, disseminate, evaluate, and report this huge body of presumably useful knowledge, then we can employ all sorts of media, auto-translate speech and text (which is definitely better than nothing), and reach truly international and meaningfully large audiences.

I love going to conferences, but the truth is that they are unreliable. In short (and in line with the title of a paper I recently published), they give us “what we want,” but not “what we need.” Overall, we have done very little to change the basic conference format for 50 years, and the findings of my research show fairly conclusively that in terms of fiscal and knowledge economies, and also in terms of the environmental impact caused by our conference travel, our current practices are unsustainable and need immediate development. So, while various individual meetings are making efforts to offer conference information in different available formats, it still remains uncollated and difficult to access. Perhaps we need to adopt the same mindset that we are embracing in the concept of open-access journal publishing, in order to make our conference activities not only beneficial to ourselves, but also beneficial to those who might use our work.

Nicholas Rowe is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Lapland in Finland.

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