What is the real value of academic conferences today?

by on March 8, 2018 at 12:53 am in Economics, Education, Science | Permalink

RV puts in a query:

What do you see as the real value of academic conferences today, given that working papers and the internet have made it very easy to disseminate works in progress, get feedback, and collaborate? As a mid-career economist, certainly not a superstar by any metric, my impression is that conferences are largely social in nature, affording me the opportunity to spend time with my friends from grad school and from earlier stages of my career.

I would say there are a few kinds of conferences.  Let’s say you go to a top-level NBER event.  In part, you are going to receive some of the very best comments you ever might get – ever heard Bob Hall rip someone’s paper to bits?  Or maybe praise one or two parts of it? Alternatively, you might be there to signal that you are worthy of this circuit, which is of high value.

Or let’s say you are untenured junior faculty, presenting at the yearly AEA meetings.  You know you might meet some of the senior people in your field at your session, and you can get to know them a bit. You can show them you are not a jerk, and you can signal to them that you are willing to trade favors with them throughout your career.  That makes them more likely to write a positive tenure evaluation for you.

Yet another scenario is that you are a mid-career economist, say at a school ranked #60.  You’d like to move to another school ranked about #60, but maybe in a better area, or where you don’t hate your colleagues quite as much.  Someone has to end up having you in a mind for a slot, and this is more likely if they have met you at conferences and do not hate you.

So yes, many of the major purposes of conferences are “social.”  But the social functions are not so distinct from career-relevant functions either.

That all said, I believe these conferences could be improved significantly.  First, we could have fewer of them.  Second, we could ban long paper presentations, which bore everybody, and move to many more shorter presentations.  For many sessions, the commentator should have more time than the paper presenter, or perhaps equal time.  Third, we could have fewer of them.  Some of the currently existing big conferences are too unwieldy, but they could be rethought to give smaller in-groups more chances to interact with each other.

1 Thiago Ribeiro March 8, 2018 at 1:07 am

Such is life and work in Trump’s America…


2 Paul March 8, 2018 at 1:14 am

Academic conferences actually seem to be proliferating. Is that because the internet makes them easier to create and coordinate? Because it’s easier to create conferences for smaller and more specialized groups?


3 Kris March 8, 2018 at 1:18 am

There are more people in the science “business” these days. They need more venues to publish, whatever be the quality of their work, and of the conference in general. It’s Publish or Perish, Baby!


4 Kris March 8, 2018 at 1:19 am

It’s not just science, of course, but all areas of study. I mentioned science because that’s my line of work.


5 alz9794 March 8, 2018 at 9:07 am

Accreditation bodies need to set standards for faculty qualifications because that’s what they do. Deans, Associate Deans, and Chairs need observable measures to show faculty are meeting the standards set by the accreditation bodies and thus “qualified.” I suppose they don’t have to be observable, but it makes life easy to say “3 publications and 4 conference presentations in the past X years – yes you are qualified by our standards.” Or maybe that’s just an AACSB thing …

Hence, more journals and conferences. Which then of course leads to a list of journals and conferences that don’t count because they are pay for play …


6 Eric Rasmusen March 10, 2018 at 11:26 pm

Do conference presentations really count for anything at some colleges or universities? At mine, they have zero value for pay or promotion or anything credentialwise. Only publications count.


7 Ray Lopez March 8, 2018 at 1:39 am

“Academic conferences actually seem to be proliferating” — international chess tournaments are the same, even with more easy to play online chess. Players travel across the globe to play in a foreign venue, and end up often playing the same people from their home country. After years of observing this, I am firmly convinced these events are driven by the promoters and hotel operators, who often require players to stay in “official” hotels (at a discount, but often expensive) and pay an entrance fee. I’m not sure it’s that profitable (as a chess sponsor I myself have never made money off an event, I write it off as a tax loss for my business), but it’s profitable enough to ‘drive’ these events. And I’m sure some people at the top are making money off it.

Bonus trivia: chess organizer Bill Goichberg just made the US chess Hall of Fame! Tyler Cowen has met him! https://worldchesshof.org/hof-inductee/bill-goichberg It’s the first time I’ve seen a chess non-master make any such list.


8 Andrea Matranga March 8, 2018 at 1:18 am

Cliometrics has a fantastic format. They have inly 12 papers or so over two days, you have to submit a short version of the paper, and everybody has to read all papers. You present for onky 5 minutes and everybody comments the paper for 55 minutes. I went twice, and both times walked out with a completely different idea about what my paper was about.


9 Charlie March 8, 2018 at 1:25 am

There’s a boutique conference in Finance, the FRA, where the discussants present the papers.


10 Matthew Young March 8, 2018 at 1:53 am

And the lunch and beer meetings.


11 So Much For Subtlety March 8, 2018 at 2:51 am

I am old enough that I can remember many 68ers in academia. They seemed to use conferences as an excuse to sleep with their colleagues and post-grads. I guess in these MeToo days that is out.

The little I have seen of more modern ones, they seem to involve a great deal of brown nosing, clique building and snubbing of unimportant people.

I suspect the only good conferences are small, informal ones. However this is unrealistic I would guess. Careers demand networking. Hence the brown nosing.


12 yo March 8, 2018 at 5:48 am

I ran across the obvious infidelity part at conferences several times too. But every time, both parties were middle aged well settled scientists with presumably no further concern for career advancement. Sure enough they seemed to positively enjoy these encounters (of course we can never know). That said it seems to be a fringe occurrence and people mostly seemed to go to enjoy the venue city, the conference dinner, the time away from the office and the presentations, in that order.


13 Eric Rasmusen March 10, 2018 at 11:27 pm

Were those economics conferences? I didn’t know economics had 68-er types.


14 Axa March 8, 2018 at 4:01 am

The objective has not changed: meeting other people.

As a young grad student I preferred large conferences where you meet people out of random encounters. Smaller groups is an option preferred by people that already has a career and/or peer group. Both, large and small groups, are good and necessary.


15 Dan March 8, 2018 at 10:07 am

Meeting other people to see if they pass the professional bar of “do not hate”


16 rayward March 8, 2018 at 6:20 am

The future of economics is in the present. Forget boring academic conferences that offer little reward. What economists aspire to today is the advocacy conference where like-minded economists are wined and dined and paid a bundle to provide academic support for views already held. Now it’s true that in the past invitations to such conferences required credentials earned by attending academic conferences, but that’s neither the present nor the future. Age, experience, and credentials are the past, youth, enthusiasm, and purity of thought are both the present and the future. And as a bonus for their efforts, the economist travels to and from the conference in first class!


17 Dick the Butcher March 8, 2018 at 7:15 am

Two or three times a year, I attended professional conferences (had to for CPE). For me the main benefits were the free happy hours, coffee breaks, and opportunity to dine and drink with old friends.

I imagine academic conferences would provide opportunities for the above, and . . . zzzzz


18 harpersnotes March 8, 2018 at 7:38 am

Conferences are too dull. I’d like to see some panel discussions reconfigured as debates between teams with audience polls afterward to help shape the debates the following year. (See also Delphi Poll method.)


19 ant1900 March 8, 2018 at 7:46 am

I.e., signalling is still far easier in person


20 John de Rivaz March 8, 2018 at 7:53 am

PCM pioneer Alec Reeves predicted in the 1960s that by 2000 most sensible people would not put up with the delays and uncertainties of moving their bodies, but instead move just their minds by telecommunication.

He was a bit early, but now there are emerging technologies of augmented virtual reality and telepresence. However a businessman (in finance) told me that delegates “personally in person” at meetings usually got their way against remote attenders, even if the latter had ideas of greater merit.

So maybe the planet will got on filling with particulate pollution and will go on overheating until there is no one left to spend appreciable portions of their working lives travelling to concentrate in conferences around the world.


21 albigensian March 8, 2018 at 10:39 am

Or, perhaps telepresence really doesn’t work all that well (yet)?

(Although with so many staring at their phones all the time, perhaps physical presence doesn’t work so well either., as being physically present no longer implies that one is also mentally present.)


22 John de Rivaz March 8, 2018 at 10:53 am

Yes, we have observed couples going to posh restaurants for an expensive lunch to spend most of the time staring at their mobile telephones, presumably twittering or facing to people all over the planet, or at least on its day side.


23 SB March 8, 2018 at 8:43 am

I attended a very low-quality conference not long ago. The value was that it was a commitment device for me – I had to write a reasonably complete draft so that I could send it to a discussant and organize my work for showing others. That does not mean it necessarily passed a cost/benefit test or isn’t dominated by moderate-quality conferences.


24 Ted Craig March 8, 2018 at 9:21 am

Is it just me or is Tyler getting more cynical?


25 euphoniumparasenorkenney March 8, 2018 at 9:45 am

1 ? tal vez las conferencias proliferan para acomodar el dinero
presupuestado para asistir a ellos?
2 son las conferencias un buen lugar para la búsqueda de empleo
Y ver nuevos restaurants
Es más fácil comer helado antes del almuerzo si el cónyuge no está alrededor
3 Hay incentivos fiscales para asistir a conferencias
4 Converstions con el Dr. Cowen es Conferencia del proxy de clases.
Una Musa es más musical en persona que en pape


26 euphoniumparasenorkenney March 8, 2018 at 9:46 am

papel not pape


27 Axa March 8, 2018 at 10:28 am

Automated translation still struggles with “them”. I’d guess it’s hard to differentiate between “ellas/ellos”.


28 Ricardo March 8, 2018 at 11:33 am
29 alz9794 March 8, 2018 at 9:53 am

Tyler is living in the world of the AEA and NBER conferences – as they are top conferences, people make a lot of effort to be there. If an individual organizes a session and knows all the presenters and discussants, then having discussants present papers could work. However, if it is a large general conference and discussants are assigned at random by conference organizers that would be a disaster – no, stronger, DISASTER. Even for the subset of sessions (about 12) I organize for a conference having discussants can be nightmarish because people sometimes don’t show up. Sometimes they have good reasons, like they didn’t know they (or their significant others) were pregnant when they submitted the paper 8 months ago. Or the university didn’t have funds to cover the travel. Or someone can only attend the conference on certain days because they need to be teaching class. Or sometimes the author doesn’t have a completed paper (because the paper submitted 8 months ago hasn’t progressed as expected), or the author sends it very late to the discussant. So we stopped doing discussants, and just have questions from the audience. It usually works well because someone in the audience tends to be more of an expert than whoever would be assigned as a discussant. That approach only works if there is a critical mass of researchers at the conference who will ask questions.

To RVs original statement about easily disseminating working papers online, sure the web makes that part easy. I also use conferences to get some brief exposure (90-120 minutes) of some work in an area that might spark my interest, but I know I am unlikely to read that literature because I have other things to do when I am at home. It’s fairly low cost (once I’m at the conference) to spend two hours in a session. I might meet someone working in that area, realize I have an idea for a project, and then start working in an area in which I would never have worked because I would not have taken the time to read that literature. How many times does someone read a paper and then contact the author (without knowing that person in some capacity) and then begin working on a paper with the author? Maybe it happens more than I think it does, but it seems easier to start a joint project if people have met in person. Emails are cheap signals; showing up at conferences is a little more expensive.

Also, a good bit of our job as academics involves speaking. Someone might write an incredibly polished paper but be a terrible presenter. That person may have no ability to respond to questions or criticisms in the moment. Those are important skills to have given that the person is going to need to be in the classroom in some capacity (if you’re considering hiring that person for some current or future position). When we have reviewed applications I have used my prior observations of individual’s presentation skills to assist in making a decision on who to interview. And it’s more than just speaking style – did this person truly grasp the research problem he or she was attempting to address? I can get a lot more out of seeing someone present for 20 minutes than reading a paper that person has spent 16 months polishing.


30 mkt42 March 10, 2018 at 5:31 am

Yes, these reasons and more are why teleconferencing is not as good as face to face conferences. (And online education is not going to replace bricks-and-mortar schooling, and why people will continue to live in cities: online communication is an imperfect substitute for physical proximity.)


31 John March 10, 2018 at 6:21 am

> people make a lot of effort to be there.

As to this being a virtue, this is a bit like the “Widow’s Mite” story of some religions. It is also like the phenomenon of cryptocurrency mining, where artificial difficulty is added to a process in order to add scarcity value to success. The latter is considered by some to be an ecological disaster on account of the energy used.

The analogous problem that I see with the effort that is being used to move bodies to conferences is that this causes some of the most intelligent people in the world to spend a lot of their time sitting in airport waiting rooms and also some of their time sitting in planes and other transport.


32 Susan Woodward March 8, 2018 at 10:07 am

Sherwin Rosen, may he rest in peace, was at a workshop where the conversation had wandered away from the main topic of the paper. Someone said, ‘oh, this is just bullshit, let’s get back to the paper”. Sherwin said oh no, it is essential, that is why you come here. You can read the paper anywhere, but only here can you get the bullshit!”


33 jack pq March 8, 2018 at 1:42 pm

Nobody mentioned: it’s useful as a time & place to work with coauthors at different universities. Skype is good, but these short meetings can really move things forward. I know someone people for whom this is really the main reason to go. It’s a focal point of sorts.

And, Tyler hit the main points: (possibly) useful comments to improve the paper, signalling to the profession and future P&T letter-writers, putting a face to a name for future job mobility, and someone added the very good comment “commitment device” to make sure you write the darn paper.


34 Robert Reichardt March 8, 2018 at 1:59 pm

I think you conflate social with networking. Networking is actually work. And if the value of conferences is networking, that value can be measured.


35 lowly adjunct March 8, 2018 at 2:31 pm

Getting to spend other people’s (tax advantaged) money for travel and entertainment?


36 Millian March 8, 2018 at 3:55 pm

I am going to guess that conferences prosper due to behaviours that MR blog readers will disproportionately lack or find puzzlingly irrational. First, the ease of prioritising the physical and quotidian over online interaction. Second, the simple pleasures of travel, meeting new and old friends, when blog readers may well be happier at home thinking about things.


37 tt31 March 8, 2018 at 4:57 pm

I think alz9794 gets it right. Conferences shake you out of your normal, everyday way of doing things and allow you to get exposed to things that you don’t get exposed to in your everyday work habits, even if you hypothetically could online. I normally come back from a conference reminded of the bigger picture of my (nonacademic) field and it often triggers for me ideas of things to work on that I wouldn’t have otherwise thought of.


38 Richard penny March 8, 2018 at 5:12 pm

I like to go to conferences not necessarily for the presentations but for the follow up in the breaks. When I present at conferences the paper has to be passed by my organisation and they understandably want me to focus in what the end result was. However in the breaks I can tell my overseas colleagues “well, that’s how it ended up but there was a bit of stuff to beware of I didn’t put in the presentation”. In the breaks you find what didn’t work so you don’t think “I wonder if I tried that”, try it and replicate that failure. Or find that it is going to take way longer than the presentation implies.

I also support the comment above about how it’s a great opportunity when starting out to find topics and colleagues to work with.


39 sebastien March 8, 2018 at 7:14 pm

Oh my god ! Meet each other ! Just sitting and listen to. Having a talk and share with words and speech and nice formula. Social ! Have a drink. Talking about our everyday research. Last thoughts.
Mister Tyler, I cannot imagine science without academic conference !


40 liberalarts March 8, 2018 at 8:35 pm

At Liberty Fund conferences where you read hundred year-old texts and convene to discuss them. Without the conference, people would never get around to reading and discussing many of these texts. The same with paper-generating conferences: the deadline of them makes things happen.


41 ubietubieube March 9, 2018 at 3:25 am

We need country clubs for affluent children – our colleges – and we need daycare workers for the colleges – professors – and the professors group themselves via brown nosing and ass sucking into permanent gigs (tenure) which then split up the kitty (extra money from the affluent and from government loans) and that split kitty also pays for the conferences where the professor daycare workers and fuck, eat shit, and general take their paid vacations.
That’s clear enough, yes?


42 Eric Rasmusen March 10, 2018 at 11:34 pm

A lot of the use of conferences, as with locating physically close to each other in cities, buildings, or campuses, is serendipitous interactions. You hear something useful, or tell something useful to someone else, in a session or during a meal or a break or even in a shared cab or waiting at the airport. I expect it’s the same in business. Calling it networking is misleading,because it isn’t about forming alliances mostly, it’s about information sharing, quite possibly a one-time interaction.
This cannot possibly be done in an online conference. It requires propinquity.


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