Conferences have been held since the early days of academia. But their size has changed dramatically. The intimate gatherings of academics from a specific field have now been replaced with mega conferences, frequently featuring 1,000 participants or more. The ongoing Stockholm World Water Week, which brings together scholars and practitioners, counts more than 3,000 participants.
These gatherings are fancier than ever. Academic conferences used to be in universities. Yet the last annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers, the world’s largest geography conference, was in the Sheraton Boston, a four-star venue. Many now also feature elaborate social programmes. Those who attend World Water Week must choose whether the cocktail reception on Monday night, the royal banquet on Wednesday night or the “mingle and dance” on Thursday night is the conference’s main see-and-be-seen event.
The cost of putting on these conferences is rarely published, but must surely be astronomical. We estimate that the 4th World Water Forum in Mexico, with its 20,000 attendants, cost £150 million. While the ongoing water week costs at least £10 million, according to our analysis.
Some of these events are financed via conference fees. Scholars from the United Kingdom had to pay a registration fee of £530 to attend the most recent International Sustainable Development Research Society Conference, a large conference on sustainable development. Add £850 for flights (the conference was held in Colombia), £300 for the Airbnb and £100 for miscellaneous items such as in-transit Wi-Fi. The costs are roughly equal to the monthly net salary of a post-doc in the UK.
Conference grants are difficult to obtain and can be miniscule. Many early-career scholars struggle to attend academic conferences. Financing the visit of an academic conference can be a challenge even for tenured academics. An associate professor from Frostburg University, United States, reported that her institution only equips her with £150 annually for conference travel – not even enough to pay 20% of this year’s registration fee for world water week.
Those who manage to attend academic conferences expect many benefits. They hope to find their next collaborators. They hope to broaden their horizons to develop new research ideas. Conferences which mix practitioners with academics frequently also aspire to impact policies. This year’s world water week hopes to find novel hands-on solutions to waste water reduction and reuse.
However, our experience suggests that conferences usually do not deliver on these promises. There are always the same old faces, with a few more wrinkles every year, using obfuscating jargon to present the same old stuff. We’ve seen papers featured at conferences in recent years that could have easily come from the 1960s or 1970s. This not the research we think will deliver clean and safe water and improve sanitation for the millions who need it.
Many seem to share our impressions. One survey, carried out with participants of conferences in the water sector, surfaced that only 2% of its 2,326 respondents find these to be “useful and cost-effective”. Some 44% said that these conferences had “no perceptible impacts” on their research projects, programme or policies, while 26% found these conferences had been impactful, but not cost-effective. The conclusion from this data: many academic conferences are a waste of time and money.
Fixing academic conferences is no rocket science. Most early-career scholars would likely welcome it if future conferences were hosted in universities instead of four-star hotels. The next generation would probably also not mind if parts of conferences went virtual. We suspect that very few would protest if cocktail receptions, banquets and dance nights were dropped to invest more in conference grants.
Unknown faces would come to these conferences, not just the academic bourgeoisie. Meanwhile, more rigorous peer-review of conference abstracts may decrease the number of participants, but could help to ensure that the work presented is thought-provoking. These types of conferences may even impact policies.
Slowly, academicians have started experimenting with the current conference format. Seminar leaders at World Water Week now feedback presentations prior to the conference to enhance their understandability. Meanwhile, the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association of the UK and Ireland will hold a conference that is entirely virtual this early September. Many more of these initiatives are needed, though.
Most academic conferences are oversized. Even the privileged few that can attend them rarely find at them what they hoped for. The academy frequently claims that it is a champion of social justice and diversity. But the academic conference business underscores the hypocrisy of this claim.
Julian Kirchherr is assistant professor at Utrecht University and Asit Biswas is a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore.
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