I am writing this in response to kjhaxton’s blog post on conferences (Conference Concern, ), which raises a number of concerns about conferences, and (amongst other things) suggests that networking online might be an effective replacement for the kind of networking that happens at conferences. Not for me it wouldn’t!
As a Chemistry lecturer and researcher, I depend on conferences to (i) communicate my latest work to others in my field, (ii) hear about latest developments in my field, directly, from those that are doing the work, and (iii) to get ideas for new projects for myself, my research group and collaborators. I come away from a typical conference with pages of new ideas for projects, and with my enthusiasm fired up and renewed (important after long periods of concentrated teaching!).
Like kjhaxton, the nature of my research field leads to me having interests in more than one major area covered by conferences, and because of limitations of time and resources, I cannot attend all the conferences that I would like to. So I have to be selective, but usually attend about 3 conferences a year, at least one of which is outside the UK.
For me, there really is no substitute for being there and hearing about work in person! It is then possible to catch speaker(s) later and talk to them informally, exchange contact details, and maybe even start planning a collaboration (as I have done several times). OK, some of this might be possible online, but many of the key players in my field hardly respond to e-mail, and probably think Twitter is something that birds do, so it’s not a realistic option!
I deliberately don’t usually attend the very large conferences for all kinds of reasons, but mainly because they are not so productive (for me). The conferences I attend typically have between 50-300 delegates, and I find those sorts of numbers enough to locate the interesting work without being overwhelmed by the amount of material presented. Apart from hearing interesting talks, attending posters sessions and informal networking in coffee breaks and in the bar are absolutely key to discussing work and getting new ideas, and the latter is definitely not just ‘a boozy night out courtesy of the boss’  .
Turning to expense, to say that most conferences are expensive is not true. OK, conferences organised by professional bodies, that need to cover the salaries of their conference staff, may be. But not conferences organised by academics, which constitute the majority that I attend. Here, the registration fee needs to just cover the cost of room hire and invited speakers. I am speaking from first hand experience here as someone who regularly organises this type of conference. And the number of new ideas plus the renewed enthusiasm I get from attending them is worth every penny of the fee! I am even willing to pay my own way to attend a conference if I’m low on grant income at the time, and I don’t think I’m alone in this.
In conclusion, conferences will continue to be very important for me. Online networking tools like Twitter and Facebook can offer useful ways of publicising conferences and reporting on them, but I don’t see them beginning to be a real substitute for conference attendance and face-to-face networking in the foreseeable future.
(The issue of barriers to participation in conferences, (Conferences Part 11, ), will be covered in my next post.