5 minutes read

The Future of Research Conferences, According to The Experts

Academics often complain that research conferences haven’t evolved in years. And yet, many things have the potential to shake up how conferences are done. Internet is opening a new world of possibilities in terms of participation, networking, and collaboration; conferences are becoming more and more international; new technologies are changing how information is being shared and circulated.

So what does the future hold for research conferences?

We’ve asked nine expert bloggers, conference organisers, and regular conference participants:

In your opinion, what will change the face of research conferences over the next five years?

Here’s what they had to say.


Rethinking the format to restore interaction

Inger MewburnInger Mewburn, editor of the Thesis Whisperer

Inger is the editor of the Thesis Whisperer, a blog newspaper addressing the challenges of doing a thesis. She’s also Director of research training at the Australian National University.

“Conventional conferences organised by scholarly organisations will continue, but increasingly adjuncts and casuals are being ‘priced out’ of attending. In response to these cost pressures I think the conference scene will go in two new directions in my area of research education. One branch is increasingly expensive, corporatised events which are run for profit and aimed at the growing army of ‘para academics’ who get little or no professional development otherwise. These have highly paid keynotes and some expensive workshops clustered around the days of the speeches. I’m not very interested in this corporate style academic scene.

The second – and much more interesting development – is a growing ‘unconference’ scene. This is a part of the emergent ‘sharing economy’ where groups of academics simply gather together to share ideas in a semi structured way. I’m going to my first one at the end of this month – my friends from the Research Whisperer blog have organised the first ‘Whisperercon’ – the 4 organisers invited 4 people they thought were interesting. We are just going to gather on the 31st of August and see what happens. I am very excited!”
Zen FaulkesZen Faulkes, creator of Better Posters

Zen Faulkes is an invertebrate neuroethologist and associate professor at The University of Texas-Pan American. He created Better Posters, a blog about improving poster presentations.

“Since I’ve been going to conferences (which is a couple of decades now), the submission of abstracts and registration has changed: electronic submission has replaced paper and mail. But the experience at a meeting hasn’t. I can’t see anything likely to disrupt that in the near future.
However, I feel the best thing in any conference are the unstructured conversations in the hallways and over lunch tables. I hope organisers will put more and more effort into looking for ways to facilitate and maximize those serendipitous conversations. Failing that, conferences will end up being replaced by conference calls.”
Claire PotterClaire Potter, blogger as the Tenured Radical

Claire Potter is Professor of History at The New School, New York and author/editor of several books. She blogs as the Tenured Radical for the The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“Those of us who have involved in THATCamps, a conference where those who attend decide what they want to talk about on the day they meet, understand the energy that allowing attendees to drive the agenda can create. Emphasizing spontaneity and de-emphasizing the reading of prepared research papers, proposals for which were submitted months or even years prior to the meeting, restores the dynamism and interactive quality that good scholarship deserves.”
Maha-BaliMaha Bali, co-founder of Virtually connecting

Maha Bali, a MOOCaholic and writeaholic, is Associate Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo. She co-founded Virtually Connecting, a project aiming at enlivening virtual participation in academic conferences.

“Here is what I hope will change in conferences and what I hope I am helping happen: that conferences recognize that equity and diversity of participation will not happen without allowing for more virtual forms of presenting and interacting. That they create more space for people to interact and connect at conferences, replacing more didactic and traditional forms.”
Christy WampoleChristy Wampole, author of the Conference Manifesto
Christy is an assistant professor in the department of French and Italian at Princeton University. She has her own blog and has written several pieces for the New York Times.

“It will be necessary to radically reassess the exact purpose of the conference and to recraft the conference format in order to achieve these ends. I would be in favor of the elimination of paper presentations, replacing them with roundtables, working groups, discussions groups, and alternative formats that encourage multidirectional communication. In my opinion, the 19th-century model of talking at a captive audience has lost its relevance. ”


Delivering an engaging experience

0de2a02Julius Solaris, founder and editor of the Event Manager Blog

Julius is an international speaker and author on event technology trends and innovation. He founded the Event Manager Blog, a reference on all topics related to event management.

“I believe the challenge research as well as regular conferences face lies with staying relevant.
With the amount of content available out there, there needs to be other reasons to attend. While scientific conference still have the advantage of scarcity and exclusivity of information, this privilege will not last forever.

Accessing papers and academic content is getting increasingly easier. Event professionals are faced with the task to make research conferences not only a content driven event but also deliver on growing needs attendees have. The desire to interact, to engage with the content, to meet fellow researchers or serendipitously encounter colleagues they would have not met otherwise.

Technology is of great help to deliver on these growing requirements but the concepts also need refreshing. The modern event professional is delivering a live experience that needs to entertain, engage and connect. It is not an easy task but the number of tools available out there can make it possible.”


Coping with the depletion of funding

Rebecca_Hogue Rebecca Hogue, co-founder of Virtually connecting

Rebecca Hogue, an unaffiliated scholar, innovator, and educator is also a prolific blogger.She co-founded Virtually connecting, a project aiming at enlivening virtual participation in academic conferences.

“One challenge that conferences will face is the rise of the unaffiliated or multi-affiliated scholar. With more attention being paid to the plight of contingent teaching staff, and the reduction of tenure track jobs, conferences will need to find a way to draw in the unaffiliated/multi-affiliated scholars. Funding for contingent scholars is a significant barrier, and conferences will need to learn to price registration with an understanding that institutions are no longer funding attendance, rather, individuals are.”
Katie Shives Katie Shives, PhD candidate and blogger for GradHacker

Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. She writes about microbiology on her website, at her blog, Microbe matters and about the challenges faced by graduate students on GradHacker, a part of Inside Higher Ed.

“Over the next five years we will see fewer graduate students presenting at conferences as academic funding becomes more difficult to secure. This is a shame, as attending a professional conference in one of the best opportunities for career development available to graduate students.”

Changes in traditional host destinations

Ronan floodRonan Flood, Managing Director of Advantage PCO

Ronan has 20 years experience managing conferences. He works with a wide range of organisations from associations to big corporations. In 2015, Advantage PCO won Best Business Tourism Innovation at the Irish Tourism Industry Awards.

“Association conferences are planned well in advance, and generally must take place, so their future is pretty much guaranteed. Associations, as they have grown and matured, have become more organised with defined strategy in place for future events and growth.

Although there is concern for the environmental impact of conferences, and new technology offering remote access to conference delegates, trends show a healthy increase in average meeting attendance. Financial crises and high oil and commodity crises will affect delegate attendance and prosperity in some sectors and fear of recession in others will impact on delegate numbers from different areas.
We may see changes in traditional host destinations as demand for air travel and hotels is exceeding supply in Europe. Many international associations are keen to grow their membership in Asia, and the Asia-Pacific region is set to become the largest regional aviation market in the world over the next three years. The growing markets of India and China, supported by a resurgent Vietnam, are driving unprecedented levels of investment in aircraft, airports and hotels.
Technology will also change how conferences are run, resulting in paperless conferences, and conference applications and e books of abstracts replacing traditional brochures and pamphlets.”