Mr Darcy’s Guide to Conference Etiquette – Part 1

It is a truth universally acknowledged that conferences are a necessity for the professional growth of an academic. They are important occurrences for learning about the methods and results of peers in one’s field, cutting edge techniques and the latest information that could be incorporated into one’s own studies and papers. With the vast quantity of scientific publications now available that would fill library upon library in my family seat of Pemberley, conferences veritably serve up a buffet of the latest and most relevant research results, saving one weeks of searching and heaven forbid, reading. Conferences are also opportunities for informal colloquies where one can receive and give advice, share ideas and develop research and writing partnerships. Many of these latter activities occur, of course, outside of the lecture halls, over a bottle of claret or a glass of port – or, for the less refined, a dram of Scotch whisky. Rare is the conference where one does not come home with a leather-bound notebook full of contacts with whom to correspond, studies to cite and methods to apply to one’s own work. Occasionally conferences have even been known to foster romantic liaisons, and there has been more than one highly advantageous and amicable marriage that has resulted from an academic meeting.

Oh yes, conferences are also places where one may share one’s own work. They give one a chance to share data and ideas with academic peers, to receive support, or possibly criticism, so that one can strengthen and refine one’s analysis and one’s interpretation of data.

However, it is becoming all too common that, for many, the latter is the only reason to go to a conference. Moreover, an oral presentation is increasingly the only format of worth and if one’s abstract is not accepted, or if one is offered “merely” an alternative format, such as a poster, one will refuse to attend.

Quite frankly, I view any academics who would refuse to attend a conference on their own specialist topic because they are denied an oral presentation, as poor and narrow-minded. Nothing grows in a vacuum, and innovative science is no exception. To refuse to attend a meeting because one is not presenting a talk is to figuratively cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face. It is the academic who suffers who denies himself the latest research results from, and direct interaction with, the best scholars in his field.

I recognize that there are many academic institutions that will provide funding for conferences only when one has an oral presentation accepted, but if one belongs to such an institution, then work to change its policy! Such institutions are stifling academic growth, and moreover ultimately reducing their visibility, reputation and enrollment. Each academic that goes to a conference is potentially an opportunity to market and advertise a university, and potentially attract and recruit students. The tuition from just a single graduate student persuaded to come to a university or college by talking to a conference goer, pays back the expenses of sending that person to the conference tenfold. This also encompasses funding graduate students, as potential students would as likely, if not more so, listen to their peers about an institution. A single happy, enthusiastic graduate student at a conference could potentially attract dozens of other students to apply to a college or university, a fact that many academic administrators overlook to their financial disadvantage.

Moreover, do not look down upon alternative presentation formats. Posters give one a unique ability to talk directly to conference goers, often while they are well flown on a glass or two of wine, in a depth one cannot achieve with the audience at an oral presentation. A single good, well-designed poster is also very memorable, much more so than dozens of slides in an oral presentation. Speed presentations likewise are excellent conveyors of certain types of information, such as innovative ideas or hypotheses, and like the poster can often be more memorable. Moreover, if one can describe one’s research in a three minute window clearly and concisely, one can also present one’s information in a way that might be more palatable to the general public, the press or policy makers. If one has a project that needs to reach a wider audience – for example, research on the conservation of an endangered species, or highlighting a new threat to the environment – a speed presentation might indeed be the best format.

As for other aspects of participating in conferences, if one volunteers to review abstracts, please do so promptly. Many people are waiting to make travel plans and visa applications, or finalize grant applications based on these decisions. By dilly-dallying, one may not only frustrate the organizers (who very often are senior members of one’s field who will likely remember those who are reliable and efficient reviewers and those who are lazy wastrels who do not live up to their commitments – I certainly do!) but also deny colleagues the chance of attending the conference, ultimately impacting their careers. Also, when and if reviewing, be ethical. If one is given the abstract of a colleague in one’s department, a student or similar, or even a competitor, and one clearly has a conflict of interest, do the right thing and declare it.  The organizers will respect honesty and professional integrity, and one will earn their respect, whereas if one’s conflict is not declared and is later discovered, it could be extremely detrimental, even ruinous, to one’s professional reputation.

If one’s submitted abstract is not accepted, do not write to organizers an angry tirade. “Do you not know who I am!” emails will not work, as they can easily see who one is – an entitled ego-ridden oik! Threats that one will not attend, or that one will tell one’s colleagues not to attend either, unless one’s abstract is accepted, will also not work. The organizers will likely respond not to let the carriage door hit one on the nether regions on the way out. Their job is already difficult, and having a recognized childish and obnoxious attendee at their meeting will not make their job any easier, or more pleasant for the other attendees. Moreover, such behavior is an attempt to circumvent the peer-review process. Peer-review is one of the foundations of academic quality control. Peer-review may have its faults, but it is the best feedback process academia has. Trying to circumvent peer-review by bullying and threats will only make one appear unethical and unprofessional in the eyes of the organizers, who as noted above, are likely to be senior. Most certainly they will be well connected, and will likely tell others about one’s unethical and unprofessional behavior (this again I have seen all too frequently).

It has also become all too common for would-be presenters to berate the scientific program committee if their presentation was chosen as an alternate format, even though the presenter indicated said format was their preferred alternate. Often such admonishments are accompanied with polemics along the lines of “there is no way I can convey the magnificence of my work in a speed presentation” or “I can guarantee that everyone will want to see my talk because it is so important/innovative/will single-handedly save the world/will change our understanding of the universe as we know it, so how can it be relegated to a poster.” Oh the arrogance…

However, people often must cancel attendance at conferences, and presentation slots may become available at the eleventh hour. If one would really prefer a different format for one’s presentation or a chance to present if rejected, politely (and I emphasize politely) contact the organizers and ask if one might be placed in a queue of some sort to take advantage of such last minute cancellations. A polite, good natured request is remembered, whereas an angry tirade… well, it too will be remembered but not in an advantageous way.

Assuming that all goes well and one’s abstract is accepted (even if it is not one’s first choice of format), one should note that many conferences require presenters to register in advance of the meeting, often by the early registration deadline to provide time for the organizers to build the program, and to contact wait-listed presenters in a timely manner. It is simply one’s own fault if one ignores email notifications and does not read submission instructions, and arrives at a meeting to find that one does not have one’s presentation in the program, because one did not register as required; a mistake which might be financially costly.

If the meeting approaches and one realizes that one cannot attend, do tell the organizers as quickly as possible. Conferences typically have a limited number of presentation slots and a queue of hopeful attendees, as noted above. If one informs the organizers swiftly, it will mean that perhaps someone else can present a talk in one’s absence, and as funding is often (sadly) dependent on presenting, perhaps even attend the meeting. By procrastinating and not informing organizers that one cannot attend, one has basically denied colleagues the potential to progress their careers, and for conservation meetings, perhaps even to help protect the environment. Moreover, do not pass on one’s work for another to present in one’s stead (another troubling trend). They will not be able to present it as well and will not be able to answer any questions appropriately. Again this is more likely to reflect badly upon oneself, as well as irritate the organizers who could have gifted one’s presentation slot to someone else, as noted above.

In my next installment I will describe the proper etiquette once a conference is actually upon one. But for now I must be away as my butler tells me that members of the local gentry are calling and I must play the gracious host. I only hope that they do not have a half of unmarried daughters in tow, looking for a suitable husband of means. Sometimes it is truly wearisome to have such a large and sought-after endowment.