Why Some Scientific Conferences Are Less Effective

5 min read

Recently a young colleague talked about her plans to attend the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) conference. She said, “I mostly just go to hang out with my friends because the program is usually sh*t.” This surprised me. I attended this conference for many years and recall many exciting presentations on the program, leading to lively discussions among listeners, sometimes extending to late night at the hotel bar. But I had to concede that my more recent visits to that conference have often been disappointing.

Is it possible that something has changed?

My thinking about this has been shaped by rather abruptly being thrust into chairing two (other) conference programs in the past year. As decisions need to be made by myself and associated committees, I’ve noticed a crucial tradeoff, and I think things are changing in a particular direction toward how conferences resolve the tradeoff.

Whom should the program chair care about? There are two very different and quite relevant groups. One comprises aspiring presenters. The other are the attendees, the potential audience. Their interests are somewhat at odds, and the program chair or committee has to decide which one is more important. Hence the tradeoffs.

The decisions about who gets on the program are made based on inadequate data, usually a brief summary or abstract. Reviewers may have that and nothing else. In these days of concern with improving the opportunities for various groups who are perceived as underprivileged and therefore deserving, the decisions are made based partly on what will make sure those people have the most equal chance (vis-à-vis established and leading researchers) to get a chance to present. This makes some sense to me. Good work should have a good chance to get on the program, even if it is presented by someone largely unknown. Reviewers might be biased in favor of famous people, so policies can be made to help the non-famous get on the program.

If successful, these policies will remove some famous people from the program and replace them with less well-known researchers, including students.

But what does the audience want? Consider the audience’s preferences.

Audiences are not so delighted that even mediocre students have a strong chance to present instead of more well-known mid-career stars. My impression is that audiences often seek out well-known names and attend their sessions. If program planners reject well-respected researchers to give program slots to unknown researchers, they could be prioritizing weak research, resulting in poorly attended and uninspiring sessions.

Remember, too, that the decision process is based on very limited information, so there is a substantial element of randomness in the reviews. To put it another way, there is a high rate of error variance in terms of the link between a quality presentation and getting accepted.

One can argue that graduate students have a right to be heard. I agree that this is fair. But one must also resist the mistaken view that the audience is a constant. My impression, at least, is that conference attendees hunt through the program to find the names of people they’d like to hear, and they selectively go to those sessions. The audience is doing what the reviewers could have done, namely give credit for reputation and accumulated success in deciding what is worth attending. For equality’s sake, you could insist that presenter names be left off the published program, and listeners have the same information the reviewers had (that is, no names, only the title and the abstract). But nobody does that—at least not yet.

To me, a disturbing coda was that when the program committee met to make final decisions, their discussions relied heavily on the names and reputations of aspiring presenters. Thus, the committee freely used information that they insisted should be denied to reviewers. This struck me as inconsistent.

Long ago I organized many symposia, which were often very well attended events. I think these did well because I identified with the audience and gave them top priority. Rather than focus on the desires or quotas among possible speakers, I tried to think about what I would want to hear if I were in the audience—and I’m easily bored.

Giving priority to unknown, aspiring presenters may well serve some goals, though probably less well than expected (because audiences vote with their feet). Still, giving priority to what the audience wants to hear is also a valid value. Instead of expecting attendees to submit to what we think they should be hearing, we can try to give the audience what they want.

Let’s also consider what’s best for the advancement of science. Insofar as the purpose of conferences is to advance the collective pursuit of truth, conferences serve the vital goal of communicating new findings and stimulating discussion about them. Putting on stimulating program events that attract large crowds of attending scientists seems the best way of going about this. But to do this, one has to think more about the audience than about the aspiring presenters.

Both priorities have good arguments. I sense that over time, the decision-making has shifted much in favor of the aspiring presenters rather than the audience. That may be why attendees complain about uninspiring programs.

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