The ethics of conference speakers

Helen KaraDr Helen Kara has been an independent researcher since 1999 and writes and teaches on research methods.

She is the author of Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide (Policy Press, 2015). She is not, and never has been, an academic, though she has learned to speak the language.

In 2015, Helen was the first fully independent researcher to be conferred as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. She is also a Visiting Fellow at the UK’s National Centre for Research Methods. Her latest book is Research Ethics in the Real World: Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives (Policy Press, 2018).

Helen’s webiste is helenkara.com and she tweets at @DrHelenKara. Her ORCID is 0000-0001-7348-0963


Photo by Luke Michael | unsplash.com

Photo by Luke Michael | unsplash.com

In March 2018 Stanford University in California held a two-day conference in applied history. There were 30 speakers. Every single one was male and white.

Like most academic fields, applied history is dominated by white men. However, there are also many women and people of colour who work and study within the discipline. No doubt there are also queer historians and historians with disabilities. To be fair to Stanford, three female historians had been invited to take part in the conference, but each of them declined due to previous commitments. To be fair to women, I’m sure that more than 10% of historians are female. Stanford inadvertently made history itself by ending up with the biggest manel ever. (For those who haven’t heard the term before, a manel is a panel comprised entirely of men.)

Of course the media, as usual, reported this event as though gender is binary. While there is some point in prioritising women, who still face structural discrimination in professional life, this also risks further marginalising trans and non-binary people. Their voices are equally important, as are those of people from different sexual orientations, belief systems, and so on. Read more of this post

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How important is it to present at conferences early in one’s career? (Part 2)

Way back when, Julie Gold asked: “How important is it, really, to present papers early in one’s career?” (Research Whisperer’s Facebook page, 3 Feb 2018).

This post is part 2 of the answers received for Julie Gold’s question. If you missed it, here’s part 1!

I must admit my initial response was based around a preference for breaking down the dependence on conferences as THE place to share findings or research ideas. This was, in part, because of the assumptions about researcher mobility and material support that this entails.

However, on reading my trusted colleagues’ views and reflecting on the dynamics of academia more generally, I’ve shifted my opinions.

This post features responses from Kylie ‘Happy Academic’ Ball, Kerstin ‘Postdoc Training’ Fritsches, and urban archeologist Sarah Hayes.

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How important is it to present at conferences early in one’s career? (Part 1)

Way back when, Julie Gold asked: “How important is it, really, to present papers early in one’s career?” (Research Whisperer’s Facebook page, 3 Feb 2018).

I took Julie’s question to be about presenting at conferences and my short, immediate answer (in my head) after I saw it was this:

“Even though many things have changed in academia, and I’d argue that most people could do with less conference-ing (rather than more), though getting the word out about your work early in your career is very important and sustained networking even more so.

There are many ways to do this, though, that don’t HAVE to be conferences – it’s just that conferences still retain a standard allure for academia that will take a longer time to shift…”

Then I stopped and thought a bit more about what I was saying. I realised how narrow my own experiences were (humanities, based in Australia, relatively recent social media zealot) in the broader pool of academic conference lore.

In addition, I’m speaking from a ‘mid-career’ position in the system, with established networks and an established track-record of conference presentation and attendance.

So, I approached a wider circle of Research Whisperer colleagues from various disciplines, perspectives and career stages. They were brilliant! They responded with thoughtful, useful advice and fascinating sharing of their experiences.

In fact, their responses were too good (and, therefore, hard to slice down) so this planned single post has become a 2-parter!

Here’s part one, featuring Inger ‘Thesis Whisperer’ Mewburn, Dani Barrington, Euan Ritchie, and Eva Alisic. Read more of this post

Calling time on conferences

Portrait of Dani BarringtonDr Dani Barrington is a Lecturer in Water, Sanitation and Health at University of Leeds and an Honorary Fellow at The University of Queensland

Dani works in the field of water, sanitation and health in developed and developing communities. She is passionate about working at the nexus of technology and society, particularly investigating how appropriate technologies, community-led programs and public policy can improve health and well-being outcomes.

She tweets at @Dani_BarringtonYou can read Dani’s other Research Whisperer posts here.


I love attending conferences. Not because of the exotic locations, but because of the amazing conversations.

Who has time for sightseeing when there’s so much networking to be done? I meet new people, continue discussions with existing colleagues, and get fired up about what’s going on in my field and how my latest research idea might fit in.

Recently, there have been articles about how prohibitively expensive conferences are, particularly for early career researchers (ECRs).

Photo by Mikael Kristenson | unsplash.com

Photo by Mikael Kristenson | unsplash.com

In some cases, these articles call for a scrapping  of the traditional model in favour of cheaper and more inclusive events, such as webinars. This worries me. Although I definitely agree with them on some issues, I feel like some of these “calls to arms” are missing the point of conferences and what I think makes them a useful expense.

Then I realised that, in most cases, the way that conferences are designed misses the point…

Read more of this post

Free the academic conference

Craig Lundy photoCraig Lundy is a Senior Lecturer in Social Theory at Nottingham Trent University.

After finishing his PhD in Philosophy at the University of New South Wales, Craig held a series of teaching and research positions in the UK and Australia, moving between the fields of Sociology, Cultural Studies and Politics. Most of Craig’s research has focused on exploring the nature of change, and in particular the usefulness of Gilles Deleuze and related thinkers for understanding processes of transformation. His ORCID is 0000-0002-6087-1161

In 2011-12, Craig teamed up with like-minded colleagues in London to create an annual conference with inclusivity at its heart – the London Conference in Critical Thought (LCCT).

This post speaks to one of the issues that prompted the creation of the LCCT: large and unfair conference registration fees.


2016 London Conference in Critical Thought program | Photo sourced from Twitter's @A2K4D

2016 London Conference in Critical Thought program | Photo sourced from Twitter’s @A2K4D

We have a problem with academic conference registration fees.

Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for a multi-day conference to attract a registration fee in the region of AUD$600 (USD$450, €400, £330). I have seen fees that are even larger, but it is the size of the ‘average’ or ‘competitively priced’ conferences that are perhaps greater cause for alarm.

There are of course exceptions to the rule, but need I say that the exceptions prove the rule, and only highlight our problem. Such sums may not be a big deal to some sections of academia, but they make conference participation prohibitive to many. Bearing this in mind, it becomes apparent what our problem really is: not nearly enough academics on ‘hard’ employment contracts see a problem with the status quo, and even fewer are willing to speak about the problem, let alone do something about it.

The status quo is morally compromised

Conference organisers do their best to put on events that serve the needs of their constituencies, and they generously sacrifice their time and labour for the good of the academic community. It’s important that we acknowledge and applaud their efforts.

Nevertheless, it must be said that the status quo regarding conference registration fees is to a large extent morally compromised. There are a lot of things that could be said here to illustrate the point, but I’ll limit myself to one: while ‘standard’ participants pay a registration fee, it is commonplace for keynote speakers to have their expenses subsidised or paid entirely by the conference organisers, these costs being covered (at least in part) by the collection of conference registration fees.

So, when participants such as students or unemployed/underemployed postdocs pay and ‘star’ keynotes don’t, we have a situation where the least wealthy participants are paying the way for the most wealthy. And I have yet to come across a convincing justification for this situation. Read more of this post

Great conference dinners – Part 2

glasses-1036424_640The first part of this post – Great conference dinners – Part 1 – talked about my reasons for wanting to write about conference dinners in the first place, and presented some stats about the respondents, and the components of conference dinners they considered great.

The post generated really interesting comments, and garnered good discussion on Twitter, too. I was particularly taken by @siandart’s comment about the conference dinner she attended at SeaWorld because it captures how the experience can roll out for someone across time. There can be great elements, but the end of the event can derail warm and fuzzy feelings about the earlier experience:

Prize winners (best answer to an earlier posted question, and person who brought the most delegates) got to go in the water and pat a dolphin, we all got to see a dolphin show, and then it had really average food, but I accept that in exceptional venues. The downside was there were only 2 buses back to the resort the conference was at – so while we did escape before the dancing started, it was still a venue with no way out (short of hiring a taxi to drive an hour or so, I guess).

With that in mind, I present Part 2 below. It talks about the formalities and the optional activities, and reveals the responses to my ‘would you conference dinner on a boat?’ question!

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Great conference dinners – Part 1

glasses-1036424_640Those of you who know me, or have heard my rants from afar, will know that there are several things that send me into major hobby-horse mode.

One of them is open plan offices, another is conference dinners.

There may be some furrowed brows at this stage.

Conference dinners? Don’t people go to them to eat good food, have fun, and get to know one another better? Isn’t it just one of those blurred professional / social things you do as part of a conference? Who doesn’t want to dance? Why would anyone have such weirdly negative feelings about a conference dinner?

Well, I’m so glad you asked.

When I wrote It’s not you, it’s me, and included a conference quiz that Inger Mewburn (an avowed extroverted type) and I (a mostly introverted type) filled out, this was our answer to the conference dinner question:

conf dinner yes no

I’m not just a bit conference dinner averse; I avoid them where possible. Occasionally, when I’m convening an event, I have to attend the conference dinner. Or friends force me to go with them (after assuring me there will be an escape hatch – escape hatches are extremely important). Why am I this way? It has a lot to do with previous bad experiences at conference dinners (stuck with incompatible people for hours in uber-awkwardness, expensive bad food, awful meal-side entertainment…), and the ongoing forced socialisation aspect that has never sat well with me.

I love going out to dinner with certain conference people. To a place we choose. To do things we like.

So, as a biased non-participator of conference dinners, what’s with this post about them?

I think of it as a bit of an anthropological exercise. My spontaneous and only-open-for-a-day survey the other weekend brought lots of confirmation that my twitter echo-chamber is populated by many of the same persuasion as me – others who hate conference dinners, and never go.

I’m very interested in what people consider a great conference dinner, because I know they do happen. Many thanks to the 45 or so people who answered the survey, provided information via direct messages, or commented on my Facebook query.

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There’s this conference I want to go to…

Clouds, seen from an aeroplane window

I love cloud land by Jonathan O'Donnell on Flickr

One of the most difficult requests I get is for conference travel funding.

Many researchers think rustling up these funds will be easy because it is only “a few thousand dollars”. Unfortunately, a small amount of money can be almost as hard to secure as a large amount of money. In addition, people are usually hunting this money fewer than six months before the conference actually happens, and most funding works on a 12-month cycle.

Don’t get me wrong – I think that conferences are fantastic! They give you an opportunity to look up from your day-to-day work and get a glimpse of what everybody else is doing. They help to recharge your intellectual batteries and find your feet within your research network. Tseen and I like conferences so much that we have written about them several times before: why you should run a conference; how to be a great participant; and how to cope with question time.

But there’s a catch. Most of the time, the interesting conferences always seem to happen ‘over there’ – somewhere else in the world, somewhere that it costs money to get to.

This post provides five ideas for funding your conference travel. Not all of them will suit your circumstances and most of them involve a long lead time, so they may not be the solution that you are looking for.

With a bit of luck, though, them might give you some ideas for how to get where you want to go.

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Building Conference Karma 2: Question Time

In my previous post about building conference karma, I forgot to address the issue of question time, one of the most daunting arenas that many early career and postgraduate researchers face.

Given that question time is usually only about 10 minutes, it’s a wonder that one could get that exercised about it.

I’ll tell you what it is, though, that had me breaking out in cold sweat before a paper:

It was the potential ridicule, hostility, dismissal or displays of ignorance in question time.

Sure, delivering a paper brings with it a certain amount of nervousness, but I’ve hardly ever seen interjections during someone’s paper (unless they’ve gone way, WAY over time and their audience is rebelling).

If someone’s going to object to your paper and its ideas, it will happen in question time.

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Build your conference karma

Many years ago, when I had to give my first few academic papers and the conference dates loomed sickeningly close, I’d be almost paralysed with insecurity and brimming with angst about what could go wrong.

I’d run through my paper over and over about a fortnight before it was due to be given; no ad-libbing for me.

The whole thing would be planned to within an inch of its life AND chockers with theoretical stuffing because there was a desperate need to make sure that what I presented would be considered ‘serious’ (and we all know that nothing says ‘serious’ like incredibly dense, almost incoherent jargon).

Thankfully, I evolved, and this entry focuses on things I’ve learnt in the past decade or so’s conference-going and paper-giving. That said, I’m not setting myself up as a presentation guru.

Usual caveat: These are only suggestions, based on my personal experiences.


This is how to make conference convenors love you:

  1. Get your abstract and registration payment in on time.
  2. Keep your presentation to time.
  3. Be organised, and familiar, with the audio-visual that you’ll need.
  4. Remember that Google (or similar) is your friend. Don’t write to convenors and ask things like ‘So, what’s the weather like in X?’ or ‘What currency do you use?’. After all, you’re supposedly a researcher, right?
  5. TURN UP FOR YOUR SESSION. (Yes, it is tragic that I even have to include this, but there it is.)

Alright, now you’re at the conference.

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