Am I done with conferencing?

This is no reflection on Open Ed, I’ve been moving away from conferences for a while. I enjoyed giving my presentation at Open Ed, and I managed to make it interactive to an extent. But I’m coming to the conclusion that I’m done with the traditional conference format. I had a couple of discussions with Brian and Scott around this and talked about how difficult it was to break away from the traditional format. The reason comes down to money essentially, although it’s tied up with a host of other issues.

There is a circular logic in organising a conference that is difficult to escape, let’s call it the Conference Conservatism Circle, which goes something like this: In order to make a conference viable you need people to attend and pay fees. To attend most people need to get funds from their university or a research project. To justify this they need to give a presentation. A presentation needs to be peer-reviewed so they can include it on their CV. People only attend conferences that offer this. You are organising a conference and need to make it viable…


This is another example of where academic practice is continuing despite the alternatives now available. Before we had a digital, open, network then getting people together so they could present to each other was a reasonably pragmatic solution to knowledge sharing. We have largely continued with this practice despite it no longer being the best use of the time.

I’m not arguing for all online conferences here, I think getting together with people is valuable. Indeed it’s precisely because I think it’s valuable that I think we should stop wasting it giving presentations.

The barcamp and unconference models have experimented with this, but this more fluid, practical or discussion based approach has not been widely taken up in academic circles, largely because of the economics I outlined above (and a rather innate sense of conservatism amongst academics). Here are some questions I’ve been asking of myself:

  • If peer-review is still important then how about a more open model, where your proposal for a suggestion is voted on by all delegates prior to the conference?
  • Why don’t we use the net for the information dissemination function (eg make our presentations live beforehand, as video or slidecasts) and then use the face to face segment for discussion?
  • Can we have more practical sessions that aim to develop something? This could be a site, a learning resource, some code, a set of guidelines, etc. But actually have functioning outputs from conferences, instead of just suntans and hangovers.
  • Some people are worth seeing as presenters, so is there a proportion of the conference (but a minority) that is given over to these?
  • Would more open presentation formats work, eg having to speak on a random subject for two minutes?
  • If conferences are really about forming networks can we facilitate people forming groups (based on prior discussions and interests) around developing research projects?

All of these seem to me good uses of the conference time and having people co-located, yet all would struggle to get acceptance and funding as proper academic activity. We do have, for instance, research proposal sessions, or writing workshops, but these are both rare and distinct from the normal conference activity. I know some conferences have been experimental in their use of the format, but the majority of conferences across disciplines are still quite traditional and are locked into the Conference Conservatism Cycle.

So my modest proposal is one of direct action. As with my stance on only reviewing for open access journals, if we all insisted on moving away from the traditional presentation format, would conference organisers, and more importantly, funders shift practice also?

I know I’ll probably renege on this, but I’ll try it out: If you want me to come to your conference, then I will only do so if I can try something akin to the formats above, and not a standard presentation.



  1. I agree. Snag is, I also think face to face interaction is valuable. So how do we get academic recognition for the unconference/small invited group type sessions we’re headed towards here?

  2. Matt Jukes says:

    Drumbeat was an interesting mix of invited speakers and unconference/hackday type activity with some decent outputs at the end of the 2 days – but it wasn’t always easy and there was alot of circular conversations.
    SXSWi lets its community vote for most of the sessions – it is obviously open to a bit of gaming but is an interesting model – they then add a few marquee names as invited speakers..

  3. Martin says:

    @AJ – I absolutely agree f2f is important, which is why I don’t think we should waste it on broadcasting (unless you’re a really good speaker).
    @Jukesie – yes, I think the culture amongst developers is a bit different so they can get funding to go to these types of event, whereas amongst academics the peer-review contribution is still seen as the ticket to participation. We have a lot to learn from drumbeat, sxsw etc

  4. Briankelly says:

    I agree on the need to experiment with different approaches.
    Note that on 30 November I’m giving a talk at the Online Information 2010 conference in London on “Moving From Personal to Organisational Use of the Social Web” (which mentions this blog) – see
    On the same day I’m giving a talk at the Scholarly Communication Landscape: Opportunities and challenges symposium – this talk, on the same subject, will be given as a pre-recorded video.
    With both of these I’ll be posting my slides in advance and inviting feedback prior to the presentation.
    It will be interesting to see how these two approaches compare. I’m a bit hesitant about pre-recording a talk (I prefer giving live talks) – but I do agree with you that we need to experiment with different approaches.

  5. Surely the trick is to embed online presentations into an environment with is rich enough to (partially) compensate for f2f. Elluminate is the best I’ve come across in terms of this, but objects are not socially persistent – the discussion stops soon after the talk is over.

  6. I’ve never seen any specification that to get academic/institutional credit for attending a conference that you have to stand up and deliver a 45 minute lecture over slides.
    I can envision something where instead of filling the agendas with lecture slots, a presenter is given a 5 minute slot to do a promo for their session, done at the beginning of the day; people can than pick the room they want to be in (plus have some open rooms for unconference discussions). The sessions would not be them doing voerviews of their projects/ideas (this can all be done better with posted blogs posts, videos, slideshares) but a format where the audience is not an audience, but a participant in solving a problem offering ideas, suggesting resources.
    What might bring back the value is if there is some structured or vehicle so that presenters in such a conference could bring back a documentable collection of the ideas taken from the sessions, feedback on their papers/projects, or collaborations established.
    I also believe in elves.

  7. Martin says:

    @AJ – no that’s not quite what I’m after – rather let’s move away from doing presentations at f2f events and find more innovative formats.
    @Alan – lots of universities will only give you funding to attend if you are presenting. And for a presentation they want a paper usually. Now of course we could be better and more innovative in giving these presentations but the set up lends itself to the traditional format. The format you suggest is exactly the kind of thing I have in mind. And the thing is it would be a better way of sharing knowledge and doing research which is the overall aim of an academic conference in the first place. I think your suggestion about what they bring back is one way of attacking the problem. I fear though that the issue of peer-review and pre-selection is the only practice that is understood.
    I believe in demons.

  8. James Clay says:

    The thing is, even with the peer review etc, that doesn’t stop a conference been useful, allow for discussion or enable networking. The reason it doesn’t is that the presenters don’t think about doing anything different than a bullet pointed Powerpoint presentation.
    I do think presenters sometimes forget that the idea of a short paper presentation is to either inspire people to read the short paper in more detail or to undertake further reading, or as an opportunity to allow questions to be asked of the short paper. The presentation is not there to provide your audience with lots of bullet points, explanatory notes on methodology or the inside leg measurement of the lead researcher.

  9. Martin says:

    @James – maybe I meant I was done with presenting and I take your point, but I also think that the paper, followed by 20 minute presentation doesn’t suggest trying anything new. And often because conference organisers want lots of people to attend (to get more money), they cram in as many papers as possible, rather than having longer sessions when we might produce something. So I agree, we can make more interesting use of the time, but the format doesn’t lend itself to that easily.

  10. James Clay says:

    Have a look at my blog post
    In which I cover some of the issues you mention in yours.
    I believe a good starting point would be an unconference stream for traditional conferences. This would allow for attendees to present papers but also take part in discussions, ad hoc talks, etc…
    What I would say though, experience has shown me that these unconference sessions don’t necessarily always appeal or work for everyone.

  11. @Martin. No-one detests talking head video more than me, but synchronous events focus attention and rise above the online noise. The alternative is to say that Like is the New Search, but then all conference presentations will be given by Blair-Clinton. To be fair, I was pointing at Elluminate as the starting point for the tools we need, not the end point.

  12. Tony Hirst says:

    Most of the events I go to now I present at but generally without having submitted anything in advance, at least, rarely anything more than a title.
    I guess this means I’m speaking more at semi-commercial or community events, such as ILI, or UKSG, or workshop events, liked Mashed Libraries, of DEV8D events. I generally get my expenses covered for these, and a hotel if required; the event fee is assumed to be covered in exchange for presenting.
    Of course, it means I have no refereed publications to my name, and no need to go for 200 quid conference grants from whoever in order to cover travel/accommodation costs (grants that also generate academic brownie points.) It also means I have to give up a day in preparation in 1-3 days of attendance time, which are not costs that I typically get covered.
    The payoff for me is largely twofold:
    a) being given a chance to ramble at an audience;
    b) the opportunity to chat to folk.
    Note that I often don’t go in to conference sessions any more, in favour of chatting with people in the concourse (why stop an intersting conversation if a not so interesting session is about to start).
    I also tend to use the law of two feet myself, dipping out of sessions I do go into if I’m not learning anything form them, or can’t contribute to them via questions or amplification.

  13. In pure mathematics research, papers are what counts not conference presentations. I don’t think anybody unless they are just starting out puts conference presentations on their CV and there’s almost no (or only extremely light) peer-reviewing of conference submissions as far as I recall. People still get funding to go to conferences and it’s not a problem.
    However, in comparison, in cryptography, there are a couple of specific conferences a year that are particularly prestigious, and getting papers accepted by those is major kudos, probably more so than getting journal papers accepted. Getting funding to go to a couple of those conferences was never too big an issue though as far as I remember even if you didn’t have anything accepted – they were too important not to go to.
    So I think this is somewhat discipline-dependent rather than applicable to academia more generally. What you can do about this though, I do not know!

  14. The problem with the online pre-conference stuff is the same (if not worse) than with online-only. It’s hard to find the time to do it. You have a tough enough time getting people to sign up for parallel sessions.
    I like the idea of prerecorded presentations but given that the time before I travel to a conference is filled with lots of last minute jobs, I doubt I’d watch many if any of them.
    For me, the solution is an unconference or a mixed format. But don’t completely discount the traditional paper. In linguistics, I still find out information more quickly in a nice compressed time spam than if I read everything. Sure many are boring and not that useful but that’s the same with published materials.

  15. Scott Leslie says:

    I’m with you on this one – I will not attend any more conferences that insist on adhering to moribund models. My life is too short. And if I do find myself at one (it could still happen) I will do my utmost to organize an occupation of that event that shows how we might do things differently (hear that? didn’t think so. that’s the sound of keynote invitations pouring in! 😉
    Plus, I will do my damnedest to organize some more happenings that defy the conventional model.

  16. Martin says:

    @Scott – Amen brother! I have visions of us sitting, arms locked on stage singing ‘we shall not be moved’.
    It doesn’t have to be a lot, but at least give the opportunity (and suggestion/motivation) to try something different at a conference.

  17. I am down in New Zealand so it costs a huge amount of money to go to conferences these days so I am looking long and hard at the justification for going:

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