Sunday, 26 May 2019

The Do It Yourself (DIY) conference


This blogpost was inspired by a tweet from Natalie Jester, a PhD student at the School for Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol, raising this question:


I agreed with her, noting that the main costs were venue hire and speaker expenses, but that prices were often hiked by organisers using lavish venues and aiming to make a profit from the meeting. I linked to my earlier post about the eye-watering profits that the Society for Neuroscience makes from its meetings.  In contrast, the UK's Experimental Psychology Society uses its income membership fees and the journal to support meetings three times a year, and doesn't even charge a registration fee.

Pradeep Reddy Raamana, a Canadian Open Neuroscience scholar from Toronto responded, drawing my attention to a thread on this very topic from a couple of weeks ago.



There were useful suggestions in the thread, including reducing costs by spending less on luxurious accommodation for organisers, and encouraging PIs to earmark funds for their junior staff to cover their conference attendance costs.

That's all fine, but my suggestion is for a radically different approach, which is to find a small group of 2-3 like-minded people and organise your own conference. I'm sure that people will respond by saying that they have to go to the big society meetings in their field in order to network and promote their research.  There's nothing in my suggestions that would preclude you also doing this (though see climate emergency point below). But I suspect that if you go down the DIY route, you may get a lot more out of the experience than you would by attending a big, swish society conference: both in terms of personal benefits and career prospects.

I'm sure people will want to add to these ideas, but here's my experience, which is based on running various smallish meetings, including being local organiser for occasional EPS meetings over the years. I was also, with Katharine Perera, Gina Conti-Ramsden and Elena Lieven,  a co-organiser of the Child Language Seminar (CLS) in Manchester back in the 1980s.  That is perhaps the best example of a DIY conference, because we had no infrastructure and just worked it out as we went along.  The CLS was a very ad hoc thing: each year, the meeting organisers tried to find someone who was prepared to run the next CLS at their own institution the following year. Despite this informality, the CLS – now with the more appropriate name of Child Language Symposium – is still going strong in 2019. From memory, we had around 120 people from all over the world at the Manchester meeting. Numbers have grown over the years, but in general if you were doing a DIY meeting for the first time, I'd aim to keep it small; no more than 200 people.

The main costs you will incur in organising a meeting are:
  • Venue
  • Refreshments
  • Reception/Conference dinner
  • Expenses for speakers
  • Administrative costs
  • Publicity
Your income to cover these costs will come from:
  • Grants (optional)
  • Registration fees

So the main thing to do at the start is to sit down and do some sums to ensure you will break even. Here's my experiences on each of these categories:

Venue

You do not need to hold the meeting at a swanky hotel. Your university is likely to have conference facilities: check out their rates. Consider what you need in terms of lecture theatre capacity, break-out rooms, rooms for posters/refreshments.  You need to factor in cost of technical support. My advice is you should let people look after their own accommodation: at most just give them a list of places to stay. This massively cuts down on your workload.

Refreshments

The venue should be able to offer teas/coffees. You will probably be astounded at what institutions charge for a cup of instant coffee and a boring biscuit, but I recommend you go with the flow on that one. People do need their coffee breaks, however humble the refreshments.

Reception/Conference dinner

A welcome reception is a good way of breaking the ice on the first evening. It need not be expensive: a few bottles of wine plus water and soft drinks and some nibbles is adequate. You could just find a space to do this and provide the refreshments yourselves: most of the EPS meetings I've been to just have some bottles provided and people help themselves. This will be cheaper than rates from conference organisers.

You don't have to have a conference dinner. They can be rather stuffy affairs, and a torment for shy people who don't know anyone. On the other hand, when they work well, they provide an opportunity to get to know people and chat about work informally. My experience at EPS and CLS is that the easiest way to organise this is to book a local restaurant. They will probably suggest a set meal at a set price, with people selecting options in advance. This will involve some admin work – see below.

Expenses for speakers

For a meeting like CLS there are a small number of invited plenary speakers. This is your opportunity to invite the people you really want to hear from. It's usual to offer economy class travel and accommodation in a good hotel. This does not need to be lavish, but it should have quiet rooms with ensuite bathroom, large, comfortable bed, desk area, sufficient power supply, adequate aircon/heating, and free wifi. Someone who has flown around the world to come to your meeting is not going to remember you fondly if they are put up in a cramped bed and breakfast. I've had some dismal experiences over the years and now check TripAdvisor to make sure I've not been booked in somewhere awful.  I still remember attending a meeting where an eminent speaker had flown in from North America only to find herself put in student accommodation: she turned around and booked herself into a hotel, and left with dismal memories of the organisers.

Pradeep noted that conferences could save costs if speakers covered their own expenses. This is true and many do have funds that they could use for this purpose. But don't assume that is the case: if they do have funds, you'd have to consider why they'd rather spend that money on coming to your meeting, than on something else. A diplomatic way of discussing this is to say in the letter of invitation that you can cover economy class travel, accommodation, dinner and registration. However, if they have funds that could be used for their travel, then that will make it possible to offer some sponsored places to students.

Administration

It's easy to overlook this item, but fortunately it is now relatively simple to handle registrations with online tools such as EventBrite. They take a cut if you charge for registration, but that's well worth it in my experience, in terms of saving a lot of grief with spreadsheets. If you are going for a conference dinner, then booking for this can be bundled in with registration fee.

In the days of Manchester CLS, email barely existed and nobody expected a conference website, but nowadays that is mandatory, and so you will need someone willing to set it up and populate it with information about venue and programme. As with my other advice, no need to make it fancy; just ensure there is the basic information that people need, with a link to a place for registration.

There are further items like setting up the Eventbrite page, making conference badges, and ensuring smooth communications with venue, speakers and restaurant. Here the main thing is to delegate responsibility so everyone knows what they have to do. I've quite often experienced the situation where I've agreed to speak at a meeting only to find that nobody has contacted me about the programme or venue and it's only a week to go.

On the day, you'll be glad of assistants who can do things like shepherding people into sessions, taking messages, etc. You can offer free registration to local students in return for them acting in this role.

Publicity

I've listed this under costs, but I've never spent on this for meetings I've organised, and given social media, I don't think you'll need to.

Grants

I've put optional for grants, as you can cover costs without a grant. But every bit of money helps and it's possible that one of the organisers will have funding that can be used. However, my advice is to check out options for grant funding from a society or other funder. National funding bodies such as UK research councils or NIH may have pots of money you can apply for: the sums are typically small and applying for the money is not onerous. Even if a society doesn't have a grants stream for meetings, they may be willing to sponsor places for specific categories of attendees: early-career people or those from resource-poor countries.

Local businesses or publishers are often willing to sponsor things like conference bags, in return for showing their logo. You can often charge publishers for a stand.

Registration

Once you have thought through the items under Expenditure, and have an idea of whether you'll have grant income, you will be in a good position to work out what you need to charge those attending to cover your costs. The ideal is to break even, but it's important not to overspend and so you should estimate how many people are likely to register in each category, and work out a registration fee that will cover this, even if numbers are disappointing.

What can go wrong?

  • Acts of God. I still remember a meeting at the Royal Society years ago where a hurricane swept across Britain overnight and around 50% of those attending couldn't make it. Other things like strikes, riots, etc. can happen, but I recommend you just accept these are risks not under your control.
  • Clash of dates. This is under your control to some extent. Before you settle on a date, ask around to check there isn't a clash with other meetings or with religious holidays.
  • Speaker pulls out. I have organised meetings where a speaker pulled out at the last minute – there will usually be a good reason for this such as illness. So long as it is one person, this can be managed, and may indeed provide an opportunity to do something useful with the time, such as holding a mini-Hackathon to brainstorm ideas about a specific problem..
  • You make a loss. This is a scary prospect but should not happen with adequate planning, as noted above. Main thing is to make sure you confirm what your speaker expenses will be so you don't get any nasty surprises at the last minute.
  • Difficult people. This is a minor one, but I remember wise words of Betty Byers Brown, a collaborator from those old Manchester days, who told me that 95% of the work of a conference organiser is caused by 5% of those attending. Just knowing that is the case makes it easier to deal with.
  • Unhappy people. People coming from far away who know nobody can have a miserable time at a conference, but with planning, you can help them integrate in a group. Rather than formal entertainment, consider having social activities that ensure everyone is included. Also, have an explicit anti-harassment policy – there are plenty of examples on the web.
  • Criticism. Whatever you do there will be people who complain – why didn't you do X rather than Y?  This can be demoralising if you have put a lot of work into organising something.  Nevertheless, make sure you do ask people for feedback after the meeting: if there are things that could be done better next time, you need to know about them. For what it's worth, the most common complaints I hear after meetings are that speakers go on too long and there is not enough time for questions and discussion. It's important to have firm chairing, and to set up the schedule to encourage interaction.

What can go right?

  • Running a conference carries an element of risk and stress, but it's an opportunity to develop organisational skills, and this can be a great thing to put on your CV. The skills you need to plan a conference are not so different from those to budget for a grant: you have to work out how to optimise the use of funds, anticipating expenses and risks.
  • Bonding with co-organisers. If you pick your co-organisers wisely, you may find that the experience of working together to solve problems is enjoyable and you learn a lot.
  • You can choose the topics for your meeting and get to invite the speakers you most want to hear. As a young researcher organising a small meeting, I got to know people I'd invited as speakers in a way that would not be possible if I was just attending a big meeting organised by a major society.
  • You can do it your way. You can decide if you want to lower costs for specific groups. You can make sure that the speakers are diverse, and can experiment with different approaches to get away from the traditional format of speakers delivering a lecture to an audience. For examples see this post and comments below it.
  • The main thing is that if you are in control, you can devise your meeting to ensure it achieves what scientific meetings are supposed to achieve: scholarly communication and interaction to spark ideas and collaborations. My memories of meetings I have organised as an early-career academic have been high points in my career, which is why I am so keen to encourage others to do this.

But! .... Climate emergency

The elephant in this particular room is air travel. Academics are used to zipping around the world to go to conferences, at a time when we are increasingly recognising the harm this is doing to our planet. My only justification for writing this post at the current time is that it may encourage people to go to smaller, more-focused meetings. But I'm trying to cut down on air travel substantially and in the longer term, suspect that we will need to move to virtual meetings.

Groups of younger researchers, and those from outside Europe and the UK, have a role to play in working out how to do this. I hope to encourage this by urging people to be bold and to venture outside the big conference arenas where junior people and those from marginalised groups can feel they are invisible. Organising a small meeting teaches you a lot of necessary skills that may be used in devising more radical formats. The future of conferences is going to change and you need to be shaping it.

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1 comment:

  1. Totally agree with this post. As an early career researcher you are unlikely to do any meaningful networking at a huge conference. Better to go to a small meeting where everyone gets to listen to and socialise with everyone else. The most enjoyable meetings I've been to are the Working Memory meetings at Parceval Hall, a small and informal group including postdocs and postgrads. Still going after over two decades (not that I've been able to go for years).

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