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A frequent conference organizer

Here is another important difference between conferences and journals that ought to be noted: it is not uncommon for conference organizers to compensate at least some attendees for at least some of the cost of travel. Needless to say, conference organizers have a finite pool of resources to draw upon, and depending on one's location some potential attendees will cost (much) more to invite than others.

So, it is not uncommon that conference organizers simply can't invite some predetermined # of participants selected by anonymous review -- that is, without risking going wildly over budget, or being forced to substantially lower the # of invited participants. That seems to me a good reason why conference organizers (at least in these cases) should not be expected to do so.

[For some reason I cannot fathom, the post above was not approved by Justin at Daily Nous. So perhaps the reason there isn't more discussion over there has less to do with the interest/importance of the topic, and more to do with whatever's going on in Justin's head.]

Justin Weinberg

Hi Marcus. Thanks for your feedback on my view. I posted a response in the comments at DN but thought I should share them here, too.

Regarding point 1, above, you say: “Journal publications are surely intrinsically more important for a person’s career success than conference presentations. But here is the problem: networking at conferences may substantially increase one’s publishing prospects.” Yes, it is true that giving a paper at a conference sometimes makes it more likely that the paper will get published, for various reasons. The relevant question here is: what is the marginal difference that access to invite-only or cliquey conferences (as opposed to “fair” conferences) makes to one’s access to publication opportunities? I don’t have data on this, but my hunch is that the answer is “very little.” Getting evidence for this is complicated but here is one rough approach: find out what percentage of articles in good journals were first presented at invite-only or cliquey conferences. My guess would be that that percentage is quite small. That suggests that there are plenty of publishing opportunities access to which is not limited to papers previously presented at the types of conferences under discussion here. Now one might say that the relevant question is instead: what percentage of papers given at these types of conferences end up published in good journals, compared to papers given at “fair” conferences? Here, I would bet that the former percentage is noticeably higher. But we can’t infer from this the causal relationship between “presenting a paper at an invite-only or cliquey conference” and publishing the paper in a good journal because it could be that the people at these conferences, on average, write better papers than the people, on average, who only attend “fair” conferences.

Regarding point 2, you say that it isn’t enough that there are plenty of other conferences and that people can plan their own. “Favoritism is favoritism—and, I want to say, in a professional context we should aim to minimize it…. I want to suggest we have a duty to one another, and particularly those in vulnerable career positions, to aim to promote meritocratic practices where we can. And, I submit, we should do it everywhere: with journal practices, conference practices, etc.” I think that if we have a duty to minimize favoritism in professional contexts (which I think is a bit more tractable than the duty “to promote meritocratic practices” so let’s leave that aside), the strength of that duty would vary with the extent to which such favoritism contributes to importantly bad outcomes. The more an act of favoritism contributes to such outcomes, the stronger our duty to not engage in that act. If I’m right in the previous paragraph, holding a conference in which some or all of the attendees are selected by something other than anonymous review, in a context in which there are plenty of other conferences (fair, invite only, whatever), makes little difference to the relevant outcomes, and so the duty is weak and could be trumped by other considerations (such as the ones I mention in point 3 in the OP).

Let me add one more point. I would not be surprised if the organizers of invite-only or cliquey conferences have a quasi-libertarian defense in mind, even if they wouldn’t put it that way (perhaps putting it that way will get them to change their minds!). It goes something like this: if, through my hard work and successes, I am able to acquire funding that allows me to put on a small conference each year (say, I win a grant, or negotiate it as part of a job or retention offer), and I will be the one to go to the trouble of organizing it, isn’t there something to the thought that I should be allowed to invite whomever I want, provided that they are qualified? If I couldn’t do that, maybe I would be less inclined to put the conference on at all. It’s not as if I am required to put on conferences! I think that this line of thinking has some appeal, and in practice gets thrown into the mix along with other considerations, such as balance and fairness. Allowing such discretion might indeed result in a greater and more diverse set of conferences, and that could be good for the profession overall, even if some of the conferences are invite-only.

Elisa Freschi

Marcus and Justin, I can understand Justin's last comment and ---being myself involved in the organisation of many conferences--- also the concern expressed in the first comment.

Personally, what *I* do in order to balance both sides of the problem is that I try to contact personally a few people who might be interested in participating and who would really contribute to the topic and *then* publish a CfP (as I did on this blog some days back) which is specific enough to attract just interested people and not just anyone who wants to have one more conference in his or her cv. Moreover, I try to avoid "care-free" conferences (if one wants to participate to a conference I organise, he or she will be "forced" to engage in long skype discussions with me concerning the issues to be touched in her talk, send a draft well in advance and the like). This automatically turns away many potential appicants.

Scott Clifton

One of my worries about conferences is different, but this may be a good place to discuss it. Rather than conferences being cliquey (some of which undoubtedly are), my worry is that many conferences rely on the participation of junior people who may receive no job market benefits as a result. Here I am thinking of conferences strictly in terms of benefits that presenters may receive and not what benefits presenters may confer to others. I have multiple conference presentations, including three at the APA and several at specialty conferences. This has netted me virtually no job market success, in part, I suspect, because conference presentations have turned out to be valueless on a CV. (I also have multiple pubs, which have also not gotten me very far in the job hunt.) But if conference presentations have no intrinsic worth on a CV, then all of the value lies in the network possibilities and feedback from audiences, which is a crap shoot. Some conferences (especially specialty conferences, which are comprised of people working in the same area) do not present opportunities for networking, since the people who will be on hiring committees were not in attendance at the conference or are inaccessible, even if they are there. And audience feedback can be anything from helpful to worthless to harmful. Yet, many conferences rely on there being submissions from junior people. Add to this the considerable travel costs associated with going to conferences and it looks like focusing on conference activity is a bad gamble for those who need a job. So, on the one hand, presenting at a conference might be without practical value for junior presenters, while, on the other hand, these conferences rely heavily on junior people submitting and presenting. Conferences then become part of the adjunctification of the discipline--relying on those who are giving cheap labor without significant return on the labor. A simple solution would be to weight more heavily conference presentations when it comes to job searches--especially "prestigious" conferences, like the APA. Until this happens, junior people should think deeply about whether they want to perpetuate this phenomenon by submitting papers to conferences.

Marcus Arvan

Scott: Sorry to take so long to reply. I'm going to discuss your comment in a new post, if that's okay!

Scott Clifton

Of course, Marcus! I'm interested to hear your thoughts!

one worry

I worry about the notion of networking that is assumed here, especially by those getting a little cynical. I am further in my career, and some of the best networking experiences I had at conferences when I had contingent positions (not TT), were with my cohort peers. One person in particular who I met 15 years ago is still an enormous support for me, even though we see each other in person only every few years. We read each other's work, and we have profoundly influenced each others' thinking on the issues we write about.

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