What’s the point of conferences?

Well, here I am back in the office making a start on my extensive to-do list. Writing it, I mean. Not actually doing any of it.

It was nice to get away for a couple of weeks, to meet up with some old friends I haven’t seen for a while and also to catch up on some of the developments in my own field and other related areas. We do have pretty good seminar series here at Sussex which should in principle allow me to keep up to date with developments in my own research area, but unfortunately the timing of these events often clashes with other meetings  that I’m obliged to attend as Head of School. Escaping to a conference is a way of focussing on research for a while without interruption. At least that’s the idea.

While at the meeting, however, I was struck by a couple of things. First was that during the morning plenary lectures given by invited speakers almost everyone in the audience was spending much more time working on their laptops than listening to the talk.  This has been pretty standard at every meeting I’ve been to for the last several years. Now that everyone uses powerpoint (or equivalent) for such presentations nobody in the audience feels the need to take notes so to occupy themselves they spend the time answering emails or pottering about on Facebook. That behaviour does not depend on the quality of the talk, either. Since nobody seems to listen very much the question naturally arises as to whether the presentations have any intrinsic value at all. It often seems to me that the conference talk has turned into a kind of ritual that persists despite nobody really knowing what it’s for or how it originated. An hour is too long to talk if you really want people to listen, but we go on doing it.

The part of a conference session that’s more interesting is the discussion after each talk. Sometimes there’s a genuine discussion from which you learn something quite significant or get an idea for a new study.  There’s often also a considerable amount of posturing, preening and point-scoring which is less agreeable but in its own way I suppose fairly interesting.

At the meeting I was attending the afternoons were devoted to discussion sessions for which we split into groups. I was allocated to “Gravitation and Cosmology”; others were on “Cosmic Rays”, “Neutrino Physics and Astrophysics”, and so on. The group I was, of about 25 people, was a nice size for discussion. These sessions were generally planned around short “informal” presentations intended to stimulate discussion, but generally these presentations were about the same length as the plenary talks and also given in Powerpoint. There was discussion, but the format turned out to be less different from the morning sessions than I’d hoped for. I’m even more convinced than ever that Powerpoint presentations used in this way stifle rather than stimulate discussion and debate. The pre-prepared presentation is often used as a crutch by a speaker reluctant to adopt a more improvisatory approach that would probably be less polished but arguably more likely to generate new thoughts.

I don’t know whether the rise of Powerpoint is itself to blame for our collective unwillingness inability to find other ways of talking about science, but I’d love to try organizing a workshop or conference along lines radically different from the usual “I talk, you listen” format in which the presenter is active and the audience passive for far too long.

All this convinced me that the answer to the question “What is the point of conferences?” has very little to do with the formal  programme and more with the informal parts, especially the conversations over coffee and at dinner. Perhaps I should try arranging a conference that has nothing but dinner and coffee breaks on the schedule?

29 Responses to “What’s the point of conferences?”

  1. Chris Chaloner Says:

    Or the industrial equivalent – my proposal that the expensive industry stands at the Farnborough Air Show could be replaced by a large marquee with a bar in the middle…
    Chris

  2. Couldn’t agree more with your assessment! Many conferences have become only boondoggles to interesting places. However, I don’t blame powerpoint (I’m old enough to remember the era of overhead transparencies, whose only difference from a powerpoint talk is the occasional unintentional shuffling of slides due to a last minute spill while walking up to the podium. Not that this ever happened to me … ) I blame the accessibility of laptop computers and smart phones combined with the widespread addiction to social media for the mass disengagement of the audience. Ah, the good ‘ole days, when people just took a nap during a boring conference presentation!

  3. I have wondered about ‘flipping the conference’ (cf ‘flipping the classroom’). Speakers would make videos of their talks (or just make the ppt available if they were not up to that). Conference attendees would view the talks ahead of the meeting and the sessions would just be discussions.

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    I really liked conferences. I found they gave me an intense period (days long) of talks about a range of subjects. That provided an excellent opportunity to learn the background to fields beyond the narrow ones I was researching in, and to learn about current active research that was fresher than the completed work that appeared in journals. They also gave me the chance to see and meet researchers I would never get to see face to face otherwise.

    Computer presentations tend to be a bit dry and formal. The practice of speakers displaying the main points of each slide as text and then stating something similar verbally is not an ideal format. It gives two competing versions of the same material, with the audience having to cope with following two simultaneous versions of the same thing. My view is that showing only titles and pictures on the screen, while explaining the material verbally, is actually a much better format for conferences.

    Conferences also allow younger and more junior researchers to get noticed by established academics. This may help with future job hunting.

    My main regret about conferences is that I did not manage to get to more. The problem I had as a postgraduate, postdoc and fixed-term lecturer was that I did not have access to the funding to choose to attend many conferences. So people attending conferences should enjoy and benefit from them. They should realise they are lucky to be able to attend.

    • “The practice of speakers displaying the main points of each slide as text and then stating something similar verbally is not an ideal format. It gives two competing versions of the same material, with the audience having to cope with following two simultaneous versions of the same thing. My view is that showing only titles and pictures on the screen, while explaining the material verbally, is actually a much better format for conferences.”

      This is how I tend to do it. (I don’t use PowerPoint, of course. Until a few years ago I used transparencies, but now I bring a PDF file (ultimately generated from LaTeX) on a USB stick.) The slides are plots and so on and just a few words of text, as much a reminder to me as to what to say next as to the audience (I don’t want to have to follow the presentation and my own notes). The actual talk is improvised, depending on the audience, the questions they ask during the talk etc.

      PDF has another advantage, of course: I can practice the talk anywhere. I don’t have a laptop but did recently buy an eBook reader (currently reading Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men) which can display PDFs. So, one can go over it on a train, in a plane, in a box, with a fox, etc. (I tend to do at least one dry run so that I can be sure not to exceed my time. It works better in German, but one can translate the pun as “One can talk about anything but one shouldn’t talk about more than an hour” (“Man kann über alles reden, aber nicht über eine Stunde”).)

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Good. That must be a better style for a talk, even if it goes against the norm to some extent.

        I used to use OpenOffice or LibreOffice for meeting or seminar talks (they are, of course, very similar to PowerPoint), or PDF files created by those programmes. That gives very nice presentations visually. It’s only more recently that I learnt how to mimic that style with PDF files created using LaTeX and the Beamer package.

  5. “almost everyone in the audience was spending much more time working on their laptops than listening to the talk”

    Quite simply, this should be forbidden. There are some things one just does not do. There is an interesting story about Rick Wakeman leaving Yes (one of the many times he did so) because Jon Anderson got fed up with him having a curry under the piano during a passage when he had nothing to play. (It wasn’t his fault; the roadie had misunderstood him; Wakeman wanted a curry after the show.) Yes, maybe some people take notes on a laptop, and one could of course be writing a novel in a notebook, but I think both of these are rare enough that one could say “notebook yes, laptop no”.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Forbidden? Have some respect for personal freedom.

      I simply take a book, and quietly read it during the boring talks. Perhaps I should be flogged for that?

  6. All this convinced me that the answer to the question “What is the point of conferences?” has very little to do with the formal programme and more with the informal parts, especially the conversations over coffee and at dinner.

    The informal parts are certainly worth going for. However, at least at good conferences, the talks are good as well. Ideally, these two areas interact.

  7. Hi all, While I agree with all these points, one issue with most major conferences and also seminars/colloquia at most institutes is usually only people who do trendy stuff or big names /their students/colleagues/friends get invited. Usually one
    rarely talks from speakers working on non-conventional topics
    (or unknown speakers who have made some breakthrough).
    Of course part of the problem is that they don’t have funds
    to attend conferences/workshops. But certainly they can be invited for seminars/colloquia

    • Well, conferences usually have “invited talks” and “contributed talks”. Obviously the first category will include the big names, but the others are often students etc. Anyone can submit an abstract for a talk. Of course, the organizers might reject it if they think it is off-topic, or not interesting enough, or wrong etc. Most conferences have more requests for talks than there is time.

      As for seminars at institutes etc, obviously no-one who is unknown will be asked to give a talk. The organizers probably have enough speakers, so why scour the web in search of some off-beat speaker? On the other hand, you can invite yourself to give a seminar, i.e. ask someone at the institute if you can give a talk. Of course, they are under no obligation to offer you a spot, but this does happen.

  8. The large conference is a waste of time; speakers drop in, give talk, leave. In the end the library is far more useful. I avoid these like the plague and generally refuse to participate unless there is latitude in the organisation, so that a session can be re-aligned into something akin to the small meeting.
    Small meetings, such as workshops and Gordon Research Conferences are different. Admittedly, at the back there are people on their laptops shopping, but the pressure to present unpublished material, the pressure on the Chair to develop new areas of the field and bring in new speakers (aka PhD students and postdocs) ensure talks that are not covered by the library – it may be a year or two before the presented data appear in print. The ring fencing of discussion time (the golden ratio, talk:discussion 2:1) is guarded preciously, astute chairing ensures all get to ask questions, and in a GRC, running a GRS beforehand boosts the confidence of PhD students and postdocs, so they get stuck in at the GRC like the old lags. Lots of formal and informal poster time ensure a 3* meeting (Michelin restaurant guide, not REF!), which was well worth the trip.
    So some meetings are a waste of time, but others are most useful, What puzzles me is why the successful format has not been copied more extensively and how the large meetings can survive.

      • GRC = Gordon Research Conference; GRS = Gordon Research Seminar. Note that though GRC stipulates a minimum 24 h stay for speakers, many GRCs stipulate that speakers have to stay the course or they don’t get re-imbursed. This is good!

    • “The large conference is a waste of time; speakers drop in, give talk, leave.”

      I think that no-one should be allowed to speak at a conference (mere attendance is OK) unless he stays the whole time. The few exceptions should be publicly announced. Sometimes, they are OK. Other times, they are not.

      I’ve even seen a couple of junior researches intentionally leave a conference early, so that people would think they had something more important to do. 🙂

  9. “Conferences also allow younger and more junior researchers to get noticed by established academics. This may help with future job hunting.”

    Yes, I think this is a pretty big point of conferences. I’m not sure that’s a good thing either…

    • Why not? One can usually tell pretty quickly from a talk—and from the questions and answers—how good a person is.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        One problem is that not everyone has access to the funding to attend conferences.

        Failure to attend conferences was a major problem in my career. That happened because either there were insufficient funds or departmental hierarchies prevented me from spending money that was there.

      • If you are doing it on the institute’s budget and/or time then, of course, one can’t do it without their permission. If not, you can register and attend. Yes, it will cost some money, but you can travel cheaply, stay in a cheap hotel etc.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Yes, researchers can pay to attend conferences themselves, but that is in my view unacceptable. That we are seriously discussing this – and we are – shows just how unworkable the academic careers system has become.

        What is needed is for research councils to pay travel money for postdocs into funds held in the name of the postdoc within the university department/institute, not in the name of the grant holder. That way the postdoc would be able to choose to spend the money, and not have to wait for support or cooperation from somebody else to make participation at conferences possible. Research councils should also have small travel grant schemes to fund academics to attend conferences, with deadlines every few months to give flexibility.

      • I couldn’t agree more. More money would have certainly helped my career, and I know a couple of high-profile astronomers who have told me that they would have left the field long ago were it not for a wealthy spouse.

        It is something of a crap shoot which sort of position one ends up with: low-level stipend, research assistant, low-level fellowship, teaching job, high-level fellowship etc. Not only the pay but also the extra money can be quite different. What is needed is some sort of agreement to put all researchers, at least those with temporary jobs, on the same footing.

        Of course, to some extent the system depends on people willing to pay something themselves, even if it is just a month between jobs or whatever. Probably no-one who could afford it would leave the field if out of work for a month, and even if he did his idealism would help neither himself nor people in similar situations in the future (but would, of course, help the next person in line for the job). There is a dilemma: the behaviour which helps oneself in a concrete situation tends to worsen the situation of people who come along later, because the system starts to depend on it.

  10. Solving the ‘everyone checks their e-mail’ problem is very simple: don’t provide wifi in the conference hall. People will grumble, but I think they’ll also recognise it’s the right thing to do.

    Banning large amounts of text on powerpoint slides would probably also be a good idea, but it’s harder to enforce.

    I have been to plenty of large conferences that weren’t a waste of time. Helps if there is something else to do than listen to talks (e.g. well-organized discussion sessions, parallel sessions, splinter groups…).

    • These days, many people have some GSM-based or whatever internet access, so eliminating WIFI won’t be enough.

      • International roaming is still pretty expensive; it’d be a start to get rid of wifi. (Also, if you refrain from providing wifi with the explicit aim of stopping people web-surfing in the conference, you might get some peer pressure going on those people who try to circumvent such a prohibition…)

  11. Anton Garrett Says:

    ” the answer to the question “What is the point of conferences?” has very little to do with the formal programme and more with the informal parts, especially the conversations over coffee and at dinner. Perhaps I should try arranging a conference that has nothing but dinner and coffee breaks on the schedule?”

    You are right, but you won’t get sponsors without a program of talks.

  12. Faraday cage is the simplest solution I fear. This problematic behavior winds its way into meetings in every level of corporations as well. The age old “I talk, you listen” has given way to “you talk, and I surf the web incessantly while absolutely trying not to listen.”
    A collapsing Faraday cage would be costly at first, but once deployed (easily) it will have a hefty ROI.

  13. I don’t think it’s a question of WiFi at the conference centre or even PowerPoint slides. Instead the primary deciding factor in what fraction of people pay attention during talks is the size of the meeting. The larger the number of attendees, the greater the pressure on the organizers to allocate speaking slots to everyone, and the more crowded the schedule. The more crowded the schedule, the less people are able to pay attention to any talks, even the interesting ones. Plus 10- or 15-minute slots for speakers allow very little information to be communicated, in my opinion.

    This summer I attended one large conference with schedules running from 9 am to 7 pm everyday for a week, with a 90-minute break for lunch and two 15-minute coffee breaks. That’s pretty inhuman, no one can concentrate for that long, even if all the talks are interesting and well presented (which never happens). Even worse, once you’ve sat through several boring talks doing your crossword/checking emails, it’s that much harder to switch back on, even for talks that you actually find interesting.

    In terms of extracting information from the actual talks, the best conferences I have attended have been smaller ones with an entirely democratic format – 30 minutes per talk irrespective of whether the speaker is a professor or a PhD student – generous coffee breaks and either early finishes or a long break in the afternoon. Yes, not everyone gets to present a talk, but those who do find an attentive audience.

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