What is the real value of academic conferences today?

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.


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