Why you shouldn’t go to conferences anymore

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Why you shouldn’t go to conferences anymore

A few weeks ago, some colleagues and I were talking about which conferences we’d be attending this season. I was startled by one of their comments: “I don’t go to conferences anymore if I can help it, I just don’t think they’re worth it these days”. After a few seconds, I replied rather unoriginally “Why not?” searching for the rationale behind this seemingly controversial statement. He went on to explain that before the internet became as popular as it is now, conferences were one of the major ways that one could hear new work and ideas, exchange tips or see new approaches that people had been developing. However, since the rise of the internet, digital publishing, online pre-prints and sites such as LinkedIn www.linkedin.com , Research Gate www.researchgate.net or Google Scholar, all you have to do is search and click and a researcher’s most recent activity and papers are delivered to your computer, tablet or phone.

My colleague went on to say that nowadays people usually only present data that has already been published for fear that unpublished ideas will be plagiarised (a problem if the review process takes 4-6 months in a high impact journal).  I reflected that as a naive PhD student I had presented posters and given talks showing preliminary data, but never thought it could be replicated or ripped off. 

“And posters are a waste of time too; no-one really bothers to read them - people only pay attention if you have an oral presentation,” the colleague added. Now, this may be a fair comment, but what would most people contribute if they didn’t bring posters? Or would we all present oral data?  I’d add that, for students, posters are a big way of re-focusing on what the important parts of their data are and that they should all (at least once) endure the pain of creating a poster draft and having it checked and critiqued, resubmitting it and then actually getting it printed. Oh, and don’t forget having to carry it to where your conference is, and putting it up!

In all seriousness, is it time to do away with the poster? A sheet of AO paper has for a long time been as much as the world could manage, but this is the 21st Century guys, come on!  At the CMG (www.cryomicroscopygroup.org.uk) conference there is a short presentation competition called ‘freeze- frames’ in which researchers present two slides of their most eye-catching images in two minutes, thus giving the audience a taster of their work.

Niels Bohr (left) and Albert Einstein, c. 1925 (Courtesy Wikipedia, creative commons)

The final comment in this discussion was about how there is rarely much debate at conferences, like the Einstein versus Bohr debates in the 1920s, where I have heard it said that at conferences,  throughout the week the attendees took sides on matters of the atom and quantum mechanics, and the debate raged on. Quite to the contrary, we go with our research groups and go around with them for safety, or we go to see old friends whom we perhaps haven’t seen in a while, instead of using the opportunity to meet new people, forge new contacts and engage in intellectual debate or even argument.

Why conferences aren’t dead yet

Above I told you why you shouldn’t go to conferences any more. So why bother to go to conferences these days? Why not simply have a virtual conference? Just think, you save on the travel, hotel, food and hassle and just submit some already accepted paper by clicking upload on the conference website and webcast your presentation, right?  Well, no, not exactly.  Despite these perceived plus points we are still human and we need the odd change of environment and most importantly we need people!! The networking with trade delegates that goes on at conferences is especially important and could not possibly happen over the web.

My former PhD supervisor once told me “the best ideas happen over a beer” (it could be a coffee). “It’s when you have a crazy idea one evening and agree you’re going try it out and if the next morning it still seems like a good idea then you do it!” From my own personal experience, his words proved to be true on several occasions.

The chance to renew relationships with suppliers and make new contacts is possibly the major attraction for conference goers (along with the chance to grab some freebies).  With the opportunity to see the newest developments in hardware up close and try them out in a veritable ‘microscopy hypermarket’ under one roof, there should be enough to interest delegates at all points in their careers.  Look at it this way: for a change you have the chance to grill sales and application specialists as the ‘expert’ on what their ‘kit’ can do for YOU. This is also a perfect opportunity to forge development partnerships for next generation hardware and applications.

So, what does this mean for you if you’re reading this on your way to a conference or at meeting right now? Well, here are my top tips to make the most of your registration fee:

  • Be enthusiastic! Whether you are giving an oral or poster presentation, act like you care! (even if you published it last year). There is nothing worse than listening to someone who clearly is uninterested in what they are presenting.
  • Ask questions. We can all learn something new every day, so ask questions if you’re unsure. If you’re shy of asking in front of an audience, wait until the end - you never know where it might go!
  • Plan your session attendance to get to as many talks as you can that interest you, and if you can, some that might surprise you.
  • Be sociable, the brain often works better in a more relaxed setting such as a bar, pub or coffee house, but the most important thing is to reach out and interact with people.
  • Network to the max – use the opportunity to meet new people in oral presentation sessions or poster sessions, where you clearly both have an interest.

So where does this blog post leave you on conference attendance? Are you attending a conference soon? Are you more or less likely to go? Leave a comment and let us know!

Top picture: Regensburg, Germany, venue of the recent MC2013 microscopy conference at which the author presented a platform talk and a poster

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