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!