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Are academic conferences obsolete in the information age?

November 6, 2012

Of the 4 academic conferences I’ve attended in the past 2 years, each one of them has resulted in a publication related to the content I presented at the conference. So, clearly, I’ve gotten some benefit from giving presentations at academic conferences.

What I’ve been wondering lately is whether I could have gotten the same benefits cheaper and easier without ever leaving my office.

I can think of 4 different kinds of benefits that researchers gain from attending academic conferences and each benefit seems like it’s becoming increasingly easy to gain online.

Benefit 1: Keeping up to speed on colleagues’ latest research

This can easily be accomplished by regular visits to journals’ online early-view web pages, and by subscribing to the blogs and/or email lists of journals, research societies and research colleagues.

Benefit 2: Communicating your latest research to your colleagues

Over the past year I have presented at two conferences and published two blog posts related to an article I recently published in PLOS ONE. PLOS ONE provides metrics for each article that allow anyone to track the page views and downloads of an article over time. After each conference, I could barely detect any jump in page views or downloads in my PLOS ONE article. However, after each blog post, I saw a definite boost in both page views and article downloads that lasted for weeks after making each blog post.

This suggests:

Online communication of new research is more effective than conference presentations on new research findings and/or I’m not very good at making conference presentations… I hope the former is the case.

Benefit 3: Networking

Networking can mean many things.

What I call ‘professional networking’ involves creating new professional connections by showing you’d be an intelligent person to collaborate with. My feeling is that this type of networking can be easily accomplished online by making regular intelligent comments on research blogs and listservs.

What I’m calling ‘social networking’ (not to be confused with facebooking) involves creating new connections among colleagues by showing you’d be an easy/fun person to collaborate with. This type of networking is admittedly easier by attending social events at conferences.

My personal preference is to gain network connections by showing that I’d be a valuable person to collaborate with, rather than gaining connections by showing I’d be an easy person to collaborate with (although I do also like to think I’m an easy person to collaborate with).

Benefit 4: Research-focused events

Conferences still have the edge over the internet with respect to offering professional workshops and meetings on important research topics. However, these aspects of conferences are typically not the focus. They are often scheduled outside the main dates of the conference, they sometimes cost extra to attend and as a result, they are usually poorly attended compared to the conference presentation sessions. Also, the capacity for hosting meetings and workshops online is increasing. In a few years it may be just as easy to facilitate these events online as at an academic conference.

Wrapping things up

Conferences have traditionally been an important forum for ‘confer’ring with research peers, but the internet may be making them less necessary than they once were. Most of us like to travel and socialize with like-minded people, but can we really justify the time and expense of academic conferences for these reasons alone?

Please let me know what you think.

If you agree that conferences are becoming obsolete, feel free to provide any tips on how you gain conference-type benefits without attending conferences.

If you feel that academic conferences are still essential in the internet age, please comment on why you have this opinion, in the hopes of restoring my enthusiasm for attending academic conferences in the future.


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  1. "Simple Twist Up" Dave permalink

    I believe the most beneficial aspect of conferences is building a community. It is easy to “like” a link or comment on a blog post, but building professional and personal friendships in the scientific community shouldn’t be done solely online. There is such a sense of emotional dis-connectivity with the information age. There is something great about having a beer with a colleague and discussing science.

    • I agree with you about the value of being able to hang-out and informally discuss science with colleagues. If we attended conferences enough for this to create strong professional and personal friendships, this would result in a great scientific community within a field. Are once-a-year conferences frequent enough to create strong bonds among researchers? I suppose they might be for some people, especially after attending the same conference for multiple years, but this hasn’t been my experience. While it is more difficult online, I feel that it is possible to create and maintain meaningful professional relationships online. But in the end it is true that you can’t sit down and have a beer with a colleague online and that form of communication is definately different from what occurs online. Is that kind of communication worth the time and expense of going to conference? I suspect you feel that it is worth it for you, but for me, I’m not so sure anymore.

  2. I agree with most of your points. However there are three benefits that I see for conferences. I preface this by saying I am not a very outgoing person who is comfortable walking up and starting a conversation with strangers. To get the most out of a conference you have to be willing to do so, something that I am working on.

    1) Over the course of one day I can sit through 20 to 30 15 minute talks, and wander through a couple hundred posters about what people are doing. I may not always like their work or learn anything new, but sometimes you see a really cool talk or hear a really cool idea. Many of these people I have never heard of before, or they are on topics I would never google or see in the limited blogs I read on a week to week basis. While excruciatingly tiring at times, there is a benefit to a week long cram session of interesting ideas/new approaches/interesting people.

    2) There is nothing better than a good face to face chat about research. Whether it’s over a beer/coffee/crappy danish at a break. I think you can get a lot more out of talking in person than you can via email, blogs, skype, etc. A conference brings a lot of people together, some that you would never have a chance to talk to. A good example is the last evolution meeting in Ottawa. I got to meet several people from Europe who have lent me data, they knew me via email only and my limited online presence, we got to talk about ideas. I invited the person I wanted a job with to my talk and meet with them face to face before. It turned into a job offer. There is no online substitute for that.

    3) Specific to grad students. They are paid poorly and asked to work harder than they should. A conference is a nice break that lets them relax for a bit and get exposed to a variety of new people and ideas. I hesitate to call it a ‘reward’, but in some capacity it is.

    • You may be right about conferences being a long cram session where we’re all exposed to a high density of new ideas that may not be available to us online. They might also result in hearing the right combination of new ideas during the day that result in making new connections between topics that would have been difficult to make through online web-surfing.
      Conferences definately still have the edge in all of the benefits that come from from sharing beer/coffee/crappy danish with colleagues. As you point out, there are some real, non-trivial benefits that can stem from sharing a crappy danish.
      Jeff Clements also brought up the idea of conferences sort of being an “academic vacation” on facebook. I like this idea, but if this is their main purpose for grad students, who should foot the bill?

      • I wouldn’t go as far and call them vacations. To justify spending the money (often $1,000 to $1,500 for a one week conference), you have to work during the day. i.e. go to talks, look at posters, go to the extra seminars, and meet people. However, at night you can go out, see the sights, over indulge, etc. I also see no problem with taking a day off to go see daytime sights. Taking one day off from a four or five day conference is not a big deal as long as you are responsible about it. Another option is to stay an extra couple days, air fare to a city is often the most expensive part of travel. It costs a grant no more money if the student stays in the city for extra time (provided they cover all additional expenses, such as accommodation). Even with a student taking a day off a grant should pay for expenses directly related to attending the conference. I do think students should have to present a poster or talk to attend a conference. It’s good experience, and advertises the person that usually got the grant that paid for the work and the agency that funded the work.

      • Advertising is another aspect I didn’t think of. Would “feel-good, promotional, science-themed, socializing trips” be a better description of conferences than “academic vacations” then?

  3. I heard news on the radio yesterday evening that related to a conference of some sort. I was reminded of this blog post. It seemed to me that the news wouldn’t have covered the story if those involved had chosen to connect online.
    Maybe this can be described as “raising public awareness”. But I think there’s something to be said for occupying a venue, like a hotel, and spending the money associated with attending. The very extravagance of using up resources, which is one of your points against conferences, could be one of their benefits. Even those involved may be more likely to believe in the cause they dump a bunch of money into.
    There are, of course, those modest conferences that keep to themselves on campus and don’t get much promotion. I see less value in those. But perhaps the solution is more ambitious physical marketing for purely online events.

    • Interesting. This would make it important to make sure researchers are gathering together to confer for a specific purpose. I agree that conferring for a specific purpose would be more meaningful than conferring mainly for the sake of conferring. Communicating important messages to the general public is something that I don’t think is usually much of a focus of most conferences, but maybe it should more often be a stronger focus. Most conferences have yearly themes, but these are often no more than token themes or slogans. I’ll keep this in mind when deciding whether to attend future conferences.

  4. This blog post seems very relevant to my post and the following discussion, The Pros and Cons of Academic Blogging.

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