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Cutting Back On Lousy Conferences

I’ve written before about the lowest tier of scientific conferences, the ones that are basically “presentation mills” for people to pad their CVs with. Now I see that South Korea is actively discouraging professors from attending such things. The Education Ministry is requiring a checklist form and vetting by each university to make sure that proposed overseas conference travel has some academic value. I suppose we should add another category as well, since a Korean professor is quoted in the piece as saying that some people with plenty of funding attend such conferences just to get in some nice travel without much pressure to actually do anything for the meeting – those people presumably aren’t trying to much to dress up their record so much as just getting someone else to pay for a vacation. Some of the Chinese conferences, I would say, can fall into that category for folks in North America and Europe.

Now, there’s no particular reason for worthwhile conferences to be held in Spartan conditions (the cauldron of black broth is now open!), or in locations that have no other possible attraction than the meeting. Consider two large and worthwhile sets of meetings: the majority of Gordon conferences are held in New England boarding schools, and the accommodations, while mostly decent, are not luxurious. Some of those old dorm buildings have such narrow winding halls and low ceilings that you feel like you’re on a WWII diesel submarine. I do recall dragging my mattress down to the basement of the building I was staying in one year during a heat wave (and boy, was that the right move – I had some otherwise-vacant language classroom to myself down there, and it was about thirty degrees cooler). Meanwhile, the Keystone meetings (which are generally larger than the Gordon ones) are mostly held in Colorado ski resorts in the middle of the winter. So the accommodations are pretty good, and the afternoons are free for people to hit the slopes (not that that matters to me; I don’t ski). But both of these meetings can be scientifically very worthwhile.

There are obvious junkets: obscure little conferences in the Caribbean over the Christmas holidays and that sort of thing. Some of these things can have decent speakers at times, but overall it’s clear that they’re designed as vacation opportunities, and people should probably just be honest about that and take their own holiday trips rather than trying to get their companies or granting agencies to pay for them. You need some real scientific rationale, which the Keystone meetings and some others certainly provide, but not everyone bothers.

So if you can’t necessarily judge by the venue: what can you judge by? Well, reputation always helps – the Keystone and Gordon conferences are well-known for their overall quality, and there are others in every field that have that going for them. But a first-time conference can be great, too: you have to look at who’s attending, for starters, and judge if they’re really good people in the field or not. You also need to look at who’s organizing the meeting as well. As veteran conference-goers will know, all sort of people set up meetings. Scientific societies, journal publishers, nonprofit organizations, and then there’s the category of for-profit meeting companies.

That is indeed a category, and it’s a pretty crowded and competitive one – just as journal publishing has been a profitable business over the years, so has conference organizing. Commercial conferences have a mixed reputation. Some of them push the vendors at the attendees a bit too aggressively, such as setting up the coffee breaks and/or lunch spread so that you have to run a gauntlet of salespeople to get to them, or packing the speaking agenda with advertising pitches that masquerade as actual presentations. But depending on what level the meeting is pitched at and how much you know about the field, a commercial meeting can still be useful. And just as in journal publishing, there are pretty respectable outfits at the top end and (at the other end of the scale) you have useless scam artists. So how do you recognize the latter?

I would say that a really gaudy title is a first giveaway. Something like the “World Tri-Summit Combined Congress of Modern Drug Design” is laying it on a bit thick. I just made that name up, but honestly I can’t be sure that I haven’t duplicated something real; a lot of them sound like that. Another warning sign is too broad a focus. Now, you expect that from known meetings that are known to be huge: the ACS national meetings cover a lot of ground, as does Neuroscience, AACR, etc. But when the conference web site touts cutting edge research talks in (say) all aspects of drug discovery, from synthesis to pharmacokinetics to toxicology to clinical trial design, that’s almost certainly a bunch of hoo-hah. This often coincides with schedules arranged into impressive-sounding bunches (Track 1! Track 2! Track 14!)

Similarly, too much emphasis on how the speakers and attendees are all high-powered executive and thought leaders, etc., should be a warning sign. This is a classic selling technique, aspirational marketing – flattering the advertisement’s audience and acting as if they’re naturally and obviously more high-status than they really are. Think of those mailings for the new Black Anodized Metallic Megacard, which tells you about how you’ll get all the fawning attention from concierges that you’ve come to expect during your trips to the Riviera and Lake Como.

Take a look at the organization holding the meeting, if you haven’t heard of them. It should be obvious that if they’re affiliated with known predatory publishers that you should flee immediately. Do they run what looks like the same meeting several times a year? Bad sign – they’re milking registration fees, most likely. Do they want you to be a plenary speaker or something, and you can’t figure out why anyone would do that? Run. And I hate to mention this one, but bizarrely broken English is a warning sign, too. I would not organize a conference in another country and language without having native speakers look over my web site and mailings, and the same goes for English.

Why am I so down on these meetings? Scientia longa, vita brevis. I think that going to low-quality meetings is truly a waste of valuable time, money, and effort if you could be going somewhere better. At their worst, they’re terrible, cynical efforts in exploitation: “if you’re willing to pretend that this will advance your career, we’re willing to pretend that this is a useful conference”. The people and agencies putting up the money for travel to these things should be spending their money more wisely. So congratulations to the Koreans for addressing this problem. Let’s see if others follow along!

34 comments on “Cutting Back On Lousy Conferences”

  1. Dionysius Rex says:

    And on the other hand it is well known that making a nice sponsorship contribution to the GRC medchem meeting will secure you an attendee seat….despite all the (empty) assertions to the contrary. Last I heard the going rate was $1k per delegate.

    1. Been there says:

      I attended the last med chem GRC and was impressed by the diversity of organization types being represented – and the conscious effort to keep improving.
      Some participants not only do not pay to sponsor the conference, they get reimbursed for their expenses to attend (travel, registration, dorm).
      Apply early, bring a poster, and your chances of getting in are fair. Good luck!

  2. Mister B. says:

    I don’t know about yourself, but being sat during 10 – 12 hours straight in conferences doesn’t suit me.
    Speaking of ski, I had a conference last winter, during which we had a 4 hours break after lunch to enjoy the snow. (9 – 12 a.m. session followed by 4:30 – 7:00 p.m. evening session and informal workshop after diner). It was great ! Almost a year after, I can recall pretty much every talk, learned tons of things without effort. The atmosphere was relaxed and excellent Science was shared. It favored exchange between students and profs as we were living all at the same place !

    So, being in a nice environment with breaks to enjoy the place is great, both for Science and the scientists.

  3. SP123 says:

    What do you think about the Proventa meetings? They’re held in local hotel ballrooms, are nominally free for attendees (everyone’s a VIP!), and “if you’re not the customer, you’re the product” applies- they require you to have meetings with vendors, who are funding the conference and paying for these customer meetings. In the fine print it actually says that if you register and don’t show up that they have the right to charge you something like $500. OTOH it seems like respected people show up there and present and it’s a reasonable networking and discussion forum, at least the two I’ve been to.

    1. John Wayne says:

      These meetings are pretty worth going to, but I think it is an artifact of being in the Boston area. The talks are good, the attendees interesting, and the networking is also a good use of your time. You occasionally even find a CRO that can help you with something.

  4. Mad Chemist says:

    I have a hard time believing how many invitations to those sorts of conferences I get.

    Another warning sign (an obvious one) is when you get invited to speak because of your “expertise” in a field you have never worked in. That’s happened to me several times, and I always punch delete. I also got several in graduate school that addressed me as “Dr.” before I earned my PhD.

    As for broken English, I got several invitations that said: “Gentle reminder, honorable speaker.” No one with any level of English expertise would ever say that.

    1. achemist says:

      Ive been invited to speak at a dentistry conference last week…

      Im an organic chemist, the closest relationship I have to dentistry is brushing my teeth after every meal.

  5. Fiona says:

    All the conferences I’ve been to on grants have required at least a poster invitation to be awarded the money. While I have taken advantage of getting to travel to Athens and Ghent (and back home via Glasgow) as part of my work, I like to think I was being mindful of the main reason why I was getting to travel to that place.

  6. cynical1 says:

    I really feel that there are very few to none real non-profit in the sciences whether that be the American Chemical Society or the American Cancer Society, etc. All of those non-profits surrounding science and diseases are set up to launder money. They are just set up as non-profits to avoid taxes. No one is setting up a scientific conference if they don’t make money on it. They aren’t doing it out of the goodness in their heart, their love of science or the desire to end human suffering. Someone is even making money on the Thursday night Lobster dinner at the GRC. (Keep in mind that Blue Cross has not-for-profit status in many states in the U.S.)

    One other aside, if you’re attending a conference with a lot of presenters from industry who are directors and above, you can pretty much assume that they’ve had very little direct input into what they are presenting on. I remember how our VP of MedChem at Megalopharm used to make his minions make slides for him to present on at a conference where he was padding his resume at getting them to pay for his trip to a nice place. Anytime I see a conference with lots of CEOs and CSOs of startups making presentations, I pretty much know it’s a sales pitch and not about “the science”.

    Or maybe I’m just cynical………..

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      “Megalopharm” is an ideal name!

    2. Anonymous says:

      After reading some Harry Potter, I claimed the name “Snape Pharmaceuticals.” I later found out that Snape was a good guy, of sorts.

      So I switched to Voldemort Pharm.

  7. dearieme says:

    One of the more instructive conferences I ever went to was held in Swansea, South Wales. It taught me why Captain Cook gave the name New South Wales to that bit of Oz.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Kingsley Amis noted that “New South Wales” is indeed an oddly specific name, and pointed out the longtime relations between North Wales and South Wales as another likely reason. . .

  8. Isidore says:

    This past summer I won (after completing a ridiculously easy on-line “quiz”) a free registration to a two-day “summit” in Boston, on an interesting topic albeit only tangentially related to what I do, but since my only expense was the commuter train ticket I attended. Registration fees ranged from $500, if one had registered six months in advance, to $1500 for registration a few weeks in advance, to $1900 for on-site registration. I noticed that at the registration table there were dozens of unclaimed name tags even late in the morning of the second day, which suggests that quite a few free registrations had been handed out. I mean, if I had paid money to go but at the last minute I found out I couldn’t I would have passed the registration to a colleague, which the organizers explicitly allowed. I assume that the organizers made most of their money from vendors and must have felt that they needed to have as many warm bodies as possible attending so the vendors wouldn’t complain, hence all the free registrations.

  9. RBWs Ghost says:

    I concur with Derek on the value that the Keystone conference on phenotypic screening in Breckenridge added to the embodiment of the field of organic chemistry as it leads to paramount discoveries of great medical importance, albeit sometimes by biology. The loquaciousness of the attendees was measurable and contrasted at times by deep thoughtfulness and reservation, especially when Chris Lipinski and Derek uttered to all their topics, and even when tempted otherwise during a presentation on bioactive rhodanines.

    And while mere winter gravity sports may thrill the common insider, no one can doubt the thrill and exhilaration of hearing Pellechia describe his breathtaking NMR techniques and ligand design theory in the same venue as Cravatt, FAAH and ABPP electrophilic species! Bravo!

  10. anonymous coward says:

    My work had a conference benefit, but they stopped due to a combination of “because they could and it cost money” and employees saying “Oh, look, a free vacation once every three years”. I miss seeing the talks and meeting people, particularly now that I had children and can’t go easily (and would be expensive – it ran at least 1K – $600 for three nights/hotel (in a not expensive city) + conference fee ($500?) + food and transport), but I can sort of see why the company stopped paying for it.

    I imagine where it is still paid for, people use it as their equivalent of executive benefits and don’t have much sympathy for its cost (because other people are spending lots more money on not-so-worthwhile things). Most of the parts of meetings that are useful are useful for employees (networking, making friends) are not helpful for employers, and there isn’t much that I could hear at conferences that I hadn’t had the chance to read before. I think I had a couple of interactions with customers that were positive, but not enough for how much it cost work, I think. I would guess that the gravy train will stop when someone else stops paying for it.

  11. Passerby says:

    The worst conferences I have attended are those Cambridge Healthtech Institute and World Congress types in Boston – exorbitant prices, no lunch or meals and most importantly, no real science – only the finest hype and buzzwords delivered by senior vice presidents and BD guys without a single scientist in sight.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Although the main topic is “Cutting Back On Lousy Conferences,” I want to remind readers of previous posts about sleeping and snoring through seminars:
    https://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2018/08/07/a-restful-seminar-indeed
    https://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2010/10/25/if_youre_not_excited_sit_down (That’s the one about the SciFoo Unconference and the Chicken Talk.)

    (Hay! How about if a local-to-Cambridge Big Pharma or AAAS – Science sponsored a SciFoD or SciFoITP Unconference? … as long as I get an invite.)

    But my second off-topic topic is about the trend to avoid the environmental damage from excessive air travel to conferences. Just don’t fly!
    https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2019/04/18/12-scholars-share-ideas-reducing-carbon-emissions-academic-travel-opinion “Scholars at the University of California, Santa Barbara, estimate that air travel for academic conferences, meetings and talks accounts for about a third of the campus’s carbon footprint,”

    Use virtual conferencing or e-conferencing. A lot of “greenies” are embracing this. Another benefit is that if you find yourself at a Lousy Conference (back on topic!), you can just shut down your browser and get back to whatever you’d be doing otherwise, like reading In The Pipeline.

  13. oldster says:

    In a year with tight travel funds, a direct report told me he needed to go to a big national meeting, one which he had attended several years in a row in previous years. I told him that unless he had a legitimate business need that the slot would go to someone else to share the travel opportunities among those who would benefit the most. His response was that he had an important need…to go out to dinner to meet old friends. Really? He didn’t go to that meeting.

    1. another oldster says:

      the correct response would have been “to maintain my network” 🙂

  14. Andrew Molitor says:

    I went to a really high caliber math conference in Curacao once, 20 years ago. It was very small.

    It was, however, arranged by a guy who had been born in Curacao and was a pretty serious mathematician in the USA. He maintained connections to his home country, and wanted to give something back. Plus, it was a surprisingly cheap venue to put on small conference.

    Win, win.

  15. Master student Electronics says:

    Our professor for design of analog circuits told us there was a simple figure of merit for conferences:

    Usefulness of conference = number of paying attendees divided by papers presented

  16. Anonymous Merck Researcher says:

    Yo D-Dog mayne, y u got beef wit dem conferencez huh?

  17. Daniel Jones says:

    If your prospective conference can be thought of while hearing the travel portions of _Chess_ (particularly _One Night In Bangkok_) then don’t go.

  18. jim says:

    I’m a retired software engineer. It was common for companies to use conferences as incentive to meet tough deadlines. Work a month of 60 hour weeks and get it done? Have fun in Vegas at CES, etc.

    In ’04 I was heavily involved in Wifi, there was a CTIA conference in New Orleans. I told my boss “Um, CTIA is cell phones which have nothing to do with 802.11x”. She said “it’s wireless, you got it done, have fun”. Ironically 6 months later I was working for Qualcomm working on LTE, an early cell phone equivalent to WiFi.

  19. DrOcto says:

    Getting my European university to pay for a conference in The Great Barrier Reef in Australia, as a lowly post-doc is definitely the best I’ve ever managed in this regard.
    Still I did learn some chemistry, but even then I have to admit it was nothing I couldn’t have learnt just by keeping up with literature.

  20. drsnowboard says:

    I can recommend the biennial Winter Conference on Medicinal and BioOrganic Chemistry in Steamboat Springs. It usually has sufficient quality speakers to make it billable.
    My major success at the Stevenage mothership was going to 3 in a row, even if it did cost me an a/c joint on the third.

  21. In Vivo Veritas says:

    Any thoughts on those Hanson-Wade conferences? There seem to be 4-8 a year, and they call me 8 times (always nice young-sounding English folks on the calls) for each one. They are crazy expensive, and yet they manage to get decent speakers for each one. Still trying to figure out the business model……

    1. cynic says:

      I have been bombarded with invites to all sorts of Hanson-Wade conferences, got tired of it, asked them to stop, when that did not appear to have any effect I added them to my blacklist. Some of them looked reasonable, but clearly it is a business that arranges conferences, not a science organization.

  22. c.diff says:

    I went to an organic chemistry conference hosted at UC Santa Barbara, which was the perfect mix of notable guests, with plenty of free time to enjoy the beautiful city and surrounding beaches, and of course sample the local brews and wines. Great times! Much better than the ACS conference which had no thread to it at all.

  23. Joe Psycho says:

    I’m joe psycho,Remember me from “stopping early” UPDATE:

    On 5mg prednisone (just enough to keep the skin on my face) and 480μg ciclesonide (inhaled steroid) twice daily and 5μg tiotropium (maximum dose of each) and my neighbors burn wet leaves and brush, creating massive clouds of smoke that can be smelled in the house even with 2 military grade air purifiers with their fans set to maximum, so I still have up to 6 asthma attacks per day. The albuterol side effects are so bad me and my parents call it “satan in a can”. Side effects include violent and/or aggressive thoughts, anger, hyperactivity, panic attacks, urinary retention, psychosis and rarely auditory hallucinations on top of the usual side effects. So you can see why I would rather control my asthma with 20-40mg prednisone and have the munchies and hot flashes and gain some weight than be batshit crazy 24/7. I have developed a benzodiazepine addiction due to the psychosis and need to control it plus the fact I am an insomniac. And today I woke up at 1:15AM to an asthma attack. Please help me get some prednisone so I don’t have to be a psycho everyday. My life sucks ass more than a vacuum cleaner in a donkey’s rectum!

  24. Joe Kelleher says:

    Has there ever been a serious attempt to find a gaming-resistant metric for the quality of conferences? Master student Electronics’ suggestion is a start if it could be determined reliably. Could they calculate a meta-h-index M, where at least M of the attendees or presenters have an h-index of at least M?

    Alternatively, to judge the value of the conference in forming new ideas or collaborations, we could look at the average ‘connectedness’ of the attendees using something like an Erdős number. Too far apart and it’s probably one of those overly broad conferences. Too close and it means there’s probably an in-group and the same ideas get regurgitated every year. Perhaps some kind of differential Erdős number that looks at how the pool of connected attendees grows as progressively looser connections are considered for that purpose – the warning sigs would be that it fails to grow quick enough, or that it maxes out at low number of degrees of separation.

    1. Thoryke says:

      Given that the goal of “gaming-resistance” in publishing and conferences seems to be as elusive as finding antibiotics that pathogens can’t become resistant to, I’m not especially hopeful on this front.

      There are, though, ongoing conversations among medical writers, scholarly authors, and librarians about how to best avoid becoming prey for all the predatory journals and conferences out there….

      1. Joe Kelleher says:

        Given the willingness of people to game the relevant metrics, perhaps the best we can do is design a metric such that those who game it are tricked into actually providing a useful service. So the predatory journals, in their efforts to improve their scores, would end up publishing useful content that’s legitimately cited by others, and they’d still be making money in the process. At this point they will have reached the ethical level of ordinary journals.

        I’m reminded of https://xkcd.com/810/ .

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