Staying still

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 7 December 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


Photo by Wu Yi | unsplash.com

Photo by Wu Yi | unsplash.com

For as long as I’ve been in academia, one of the staples of scholarly life has been attending conferences. It’s traditionally how you cut your teeth as a researcher, test your ideas among peers and build those all-important networks for your career. Conferences are often held on fabulous sites in wonderful cities.

But there seems to be a turning of the tide when it comes to thinking about academic travel and conference mobility. Today, there’s a lot written about how conferences can be a waste of time and how they could be improved or shaken up to provide more value.

The imperative remains, however, that you must go to conferences.

But what if you don’t?

Green views

What if you think that the environmental impact of all this international jet-setting is too much? Many people do, and not just in a ‘yeah, we probably shouldn’t but what can you do…’ way. There are dedicated blogs, such as Flying Less, that give information on the problem.

There’s also a site where you can join Climate Scientists Who Don’t Fly. This group (who aren’t only made up of climate scientists now) describes its project this way: “we’re experimenting with having satisfying academic careers without all the flying; we hope that our openness about not flying helps to change this culture of flying, gradually reducing the professional handicap for those of us who choose to align our personal actions with our scientific knowledge of global warming”.

The group presents compelling reasons why we shouldn’t fly, and I think this school of thought will only grow as awareness of the alternatives spreads.

Budget and personal restrictions

Another take is the high cost of conference registrations and how flying in keynote speakers contributes substantially to this. If we are truly committed to freeing the conference, or at least ensuring that it is as equitable as possible, spending thousands on one international keynote speaker is unconscionable.

There are many alternatives: videoconferencing them in, inviting local emerging researchers or luminaries instead, or maybe not having invited speakers at all.

What if you can’t afford to fly? What if you’ve got zero funding and can’t (or refuse to) self-fund? What if you’re a person with caring responsibilities, health issues or disabilities, and travelling anywhere is an order of difficulty that can be overwhelming? Very few accommodations are made for people who can’t get to conferences and, in fact, those who can’t are made to feel—or even told directly—that they are compromising their career, that conferences are a must.

Caring responsibilities

This is an area where the ‘survival of the fittest’ academic mind-set comes into play very strongly. We hear that the ‘ideal scholar’ is someone who doesn’t have caring responsibilities (or can hand them over) and is highly mobile.

If regularly going to conferences is set up as a compulsory rite of passage, what happens to those who regularly fail? Are they worse scholars? If they’re well published but haven’t presented at an international conference, does it matter?

Only slowly—so slowly—are associations and convenors recognising the need for childcare considerations at their events. Some are now offering bursaries and awards for speakers to travel with their children. This is to be strongly encouraged, and it’s frustrating to think how rare such considerations still are.

No time

Or—and here’s a radical thought—what if you don’t want to go to conferences because you think they’re a waste of time? Many researchers feel that their time is better spent researching and writing articles, chapters or books; talking to colleagues and discussing ideas at length with critical friends (online and offline); and doing deep cultural work at home institutions or disciplines with research mentoring.

This is especially the case when many departments and universities are cutting back on supporting their staff to go to events but researchers’ work plans and surrounding academic cultures still insist that they must go.

These days, I don’t feel you have to go to conferences, for the following reasons:

1. Conferences can come to you

Online conferences, where people present and attend from wherever they are, are increasingly popular and well done. My early experiences with these formats weren’t great but they’re now much more likely to give good value and sustained benefits. There’s a whole other article to write about what makes a good online conference—look out for that one in 2018!

2. ‘Local’ conferences don’t have to be of lesser intellectual value

Academia reifies travel, hierarchies and exotic locales like no other. Some think that being able to say ‘When I was at ANZSCHLOCK in [exotic locale]…’ stands in for doing good scholarly work. It doesn’t. Some think that local scholars with good reputations aren’t good enough to feature for their conferences. They’re wrong. Others think that local equals parochial. It doesn’t have to.

I advise questioning these assumptions. They get bandied about a lot, in various forms. I don’t doubt there are examples aplenty of bad local conferences, but there are as many examples of bad national and international conferences. An outward-looking, thoughtfully convened smaller event that grows a local scholarly community isn’t a bad thing.

3. We do not need to ‘conference’ at all, do we?

I end with this provocation because I do wonder sometimes what the value of conferencing is. If it’s a question of networking and getting your name out there, I know of many researchers (myself included) who do the absolute majority of their networking (with old and new connections) through other means.

For me, that’s through social media and occasional face-to-face discussions. To get your name known within your discipline or area, it’s not just about the conferences you pop up at; it’s about doing good things within your field that people can see and attach to your name. It can mean becoming involved in societies or organisations as a postgrad or early career researcher, bringing groups together or into established associations, publishing differently or blogging effectively.

If it’s a question of testing out your work before your peers, there are many ways to do that without having to travel to a conference (and you’d probably get better, more focused feedback in many cases than from randoms who attend your paper and have a comment rather than a question).

A colleague told me of an established professor in their field who posts draft papers on their Academia.edu profile and asks for any and all feedback.

If it’s a case of forcing you to write a paper that then gets published, I think we can skip the conference step and just write the paper.

What are conferences good for?

Let’s think through this slavish devotion to conferences. What work do conferences actually do? Is it a generational priority that is fading? If we want academia to be as inclusive as possible, thinking of regular travel to conferences as a compulsory part of scholarly life is not the way to do it.

And before you protest that conferences are where you can get noticed by the old guard, let’s have a serious think about whether our future as a scholarly community is best served by getting noticed by the old guard.

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is an academic at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

10 Responses to Staying still

  1. Brenda Gouws says:

    Very valuable conversation. I live in South Africa and it costs an arm and a leg to travel to academic conferences. To date I’ve had PhD funding via my university, but now that I’ve qualified finding funding is going to get increasing difficult.

    Like

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Yes, same here in Australia when a lot of ‘international’ societies and associations tend to have their major events in UK/Europe and North America. There’s the actual $ cost, then there’s the also large time cost…!

      Like

  2. mccnmatt says:

    Great to see you posting on this – so important. I have experimented with Skyping in for my panel on a couple of international conferences, which has worked okay, although you do miss the chance of going off for a cup of tea afterwards! But given that a flight from Australia to Europe gobbles up a huge amount of my “carbon budget” for the year, this is the route I am trying to take, along with presenting at local conferences. I have tried to mark my choice to minimise international flights in my professional development documents and link it to both the environment and my family commitments, because otherwise you can be accused of not being sufficiently international in your focus and impact. Yet another barrier for women with kids and others with caring responsibilities get held back, I’ve found. But I figure if you call it for what it is, that makes it hard for them to pretend it’s not an equality issue.

    Like

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks for sharing your experiences with these, and it’s good to hear that you’re trying alternative modes to ensure you can balance your priorities how you’d like (not to mention spelling out the reasons in that way – kudos!).

      It’s really hard when the culture of the sector can be so extreme (and this is accepted as ‘normal’) so that attempts to normalise it are treated as slowing down or being deficient in some way. I think there’s a lot of catching up to do with the protocols around having conferences/seminars where it is online or at a distance – there are many ways to be inclusive on those platforms and foster more interaction, but it all takes practice and know-how about the way it can work.

      Like

  3. Owen S says:

    Point well made Tseen. Computer Science conferences are an interesting case study. You may be aware that rankings have been attached to international Computer Science conferences via the Computing Ranking & Education (CORE) portal. In this way, a paper accepted into a Computer Science conference becomes a research output with a quality rank, analogous to journal articles with SCImago rankings. The rationale being that the field moves so quickly, journal articles are out of date by the time they’re published and hence conferences are the only way to ensure current relevance. CORE conferences are counted in the ERA exercise, which is the only discipline area I’m aware of which allows conference papers into the assessment. As a result, Computer Science Schools adopt approaches which encourage conference attendance via workload model allowances and financial incentive schemes.

    The CORE system is only recognised in Australia, and there’s a lack of agreement among Computer Scientists about its validity. Several Computer Scientists I’ve spoken to think CORE is irrelevant and that publishing in high quality journals should still be priority #1.

    Nevertheless, there is significant pressure for Computer Scientists (including HDR candidates) to attend conferences and present papers. When someone can’t afford to travel and present their paper, they sometimes purchase the conference registration and have a proxy present on their behalf. This is heavily frowned upon within the field due to the prevailing travel addiction.

    So all in all, Computer Science academia in Australia has set itself up a system which makes it almost impossible to break out of the conference cycle. You’d expect that such a technologically literate group could come up with a more innovative solution than travelling halfway across the world to talk at a group of nodding heads!

    Like

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks for reading, Owen, and sharing the instance of Comp Sci confs – I didn’t know about the rankings! Really interesting stuff. Can see the reasoning behind it but it really does embed the existing inequalities about presumed (hyper)mobility in the academic system. And, yes, I would’ve expected such a group to have found and normalised many alternative models for intellectual gatherings than oldskool in the flesh ones! This is also an interesting point to think about. Obviously, the resistance to alternative modes of meeting aren’t because of the tech threshold (which is what I had thought!). If people assumed that anything other than face-to-face is inferior, then it will be.

      I should say that I’m not advocating for death to all conferences – but I AM saying death to the unquestioning belief/pressure that academics must always be going to conferences to be up to date, connected, or ambitious. We can do things differently, in many ways better, and it can lessen the marginalisation of our colleagues who can’t be a mobile for whatever reasons.

      Like

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