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The STM Frankfurt Conference 2019. In case you’ve forgotten what real (non-virtual) conferences were like: small screens, big heads in front of you.

Simon Inger, in an interesting post on Scholarly Kitchen (July 7, 2020), makes a tantalising suggestion: an online conference could in some ways be better than a live event. This is an intriguing idea, and got me thinking. All those interminable presentations where you wished for a fast forward button!

It is a good idea to use the present circumstances to think about what conferences are for. For Simon Inger, a scientific conference task is to share early research and to get feedback from the audience. I’m sure that is correct, but publishing conferences have a rather different focus. What are they for?

There is of course a slight variation based on the profile of the administrating organisation, but here are some common ideas:

  • Networking between the delegates (of course)
  • Covering Industry-wide initiatives that would not get coverage otherwise, such as Plan S, Research4Life, Crossref, ORCID, COPE, and so on
  • Case studies – finding out what others do (whether a success or a disaster)
  • Pitching new products and services
  • Looking at issues within the industry, such as the increasing attention paid at conferences on ethnic and sexual discrimination.

Less widely seen are:

  • Panel discussions and debates
  • Looking at new technology (conferences are surprisingly poor at presenting new ideas in a dispassionate, neutral way)

Any conference will be a permutation of the above components, in varying proportions. Of course, conferences vary widely in their official approach and in what actually goes on. It is fine at the Frankfurt Book Fair to pitch a new product, but the practice is frowned on if it takes place at a publishing conference. Nonetheless, it still takes place, just more obliquely.  

These goals are not all of equal importance, and vary widely in their success. At the  Frankfurt Book Fair, it is sufficient to provide a few bottles of wine and some beer to gain a reputation as a good publisher, or distributor, or whatever.

But let’s not forget some of the drawbacks of conferences:

  • Most conference presentations are monologues, often read from a script rather than unscripted, and might as well be recorded, for all the difference it makes (as Simon Inger points out). So perhaps the important thing is to allow room for the discussion rather than the presentation.
  • Questions from the floor are usually monopolized by the more assertive delegates, and there is rarely enough time to discuss all the questions raised, and yet often the most valuable part of a conference presentation is the question and answer session at the end.
  • Exhibitions of products at conferences tend to be dreary and provide little opportunity for interaction. Frequently the exhibition is in a separate space to the main conference area, and has a very different atmosphere.

Are there better ways of running a conference? Certainly, and some of them work well in online format. It’s worth reflecting, before the major conference circuit slowly gets back into action, which events, or which sessions, have proved valuable, and why. But that’s for another post.