5 minutes read

How a research conference works

So, you’re a PCO with a research client? Here’s what you need to know about how a research conference works (from an ex-PCO).

Research conferences (also called academic conferences) are for their academic organisers like babies are for their parents: they are their pride and reputation. And when you’re a professional conference organiser (PCO) who’s got the “life” of an academic’s baby in your hands, your client can sometimes be hard to handle.

When I worked in a professional congress organiser agency in Zagreb in Croatia, I learned that advising and steering my clients towards making the right decisions was one of the most important aspects of my role as a PCO. In order for any research conference to run on track and to budget, you need to be able to handle your research client.

But what if you’re a professional conference organiser with no experience of how a research conference works?

You may have already managed lots of non-research events, but research conferences live in their own world. If you don’t have the knowledge to properly advise your client from the start, you’ll end up trying to fix things when they go wrong. Or your client’s poor decisions may raise your stress levels or reduce your fee. (If important deadlines get missed, for example, the conference might get fewer delegates – which maybe means a lower fee for you.)  

Read on to learn about how a research conference works, so you can advise and support your client. (And, like any good PCO, be able to say “no” to them when you need to.)

How a research conference works

Research conferences are an opportunity for academics and researchers to present and discuss their work. How a research conference works is that there are two sides: the logistics side and the academic or research side.

The logistics side contains all the things that super-organised event professionals are great at: finding venues and contacting keynote speakers, arranging sponsorship and negotiating prices. But as a PCO, you already know that side.  

The research side contains all the things academics and researchers are familiar with: abstracts and papers, peer review and conference presentation formats. I’m going to talk about the research side of conferences here.

How research conference submissions work

Researchers submit their work in the hope they’ll be asked to present it at the conference. A submission can take the form of an abstract (a summary of their research – usually around 500 words), an extended abstract (usually around 1,000 – 2,000 words) or a paper (i.e. their full research findings).

A submission will usually be assigned to a certain topic (or topics) so it can be allocated to the correct reviewer later on.

Submissions can be handled manually (usually with a combination of spreadsheet and email) or through an abstract management system. If your client is expecting to get more than 50 submissions, I recommend you use an online system. Yes, I’m biased, but an abstract management system can save you up to 80% of admin time when it comes to handling conference submissions and peer review.

How peer review works

To be accepted for your client’s conference, each submission needs to be assessed by a panel of reviewers.  Reviewers give their time voluntarily, work to a marking scheme and provide written, unbiased feedback on submissions. They’ll also suggest how each successful submission should be presented at the conference. If needed, reviewers will also ask for corrections from the researcher.

Submissions are usually allocated to reviewers by topic. Each submission may need to receive a certain amount of reviews, and it’s a good idea to set a limit on the number of submissions each reviewer is allocated so they’re not overloaded with work.

Your client may want submissions to be reviewed under single-blind conditions (reviewer knows who the researcher is) or double-blind conditions (the reviewer doesn’t know who the researcher is).

And submissions may go through a single or two-stage review process.

Again, if you have an abstract management system, you can set limits for reviewers, and auto-assign submissions to them based on their topics. You can also see what stage reviewers are at – so you can send them gentle reminders about deadlines if you need to.

How conference presentations work

If their submission is accepted, the researcher will (hopefully) register to attend and present their work at the research conference.

They may give an oral presentation, where they’re grouped in speaking sessions with other researchers who are presenting on similar topics. Or they may be asked to give a poster presentation, where their work is presented on a poster (printed or electronic and displayed at the conference) and they discuss it with passersby. Other forms of presentation include workshops, and panels and symposia (where several speakers discuss a topic before an audience).

What type of conference presentation a researcher gives may be influenced by how high their work is scored (the reviewers may suggest how they should present), but your client will usually have the final say on this.

How announcing a research conference works

Marketing a research or academic conference is a little different from marketing other events. Research conferences are announced by a Call for Abstracts (also called a Call for Papers or conference announcement email). You may need to send the Call for Abstracts more than once. Most of the conferences I work with send theirs 4 or 5 times.

Research conferences are also usually listed on a conference announcement site like PaperCrowd. And you may need to set up Twitter or LinkedIn accounts for the conference, and announce it on ResearchGate and Academia.edu too.

How conference acceptance and registration work

When a researcher’s submission is successful and is allotted a presentation type, they’ll be sent a notice of acceptance for the conference which invites them to register and present their work. Registration for a research conference is usually opened as early as possible – you may want to open yours before you send notices of acceptance to researchers. (But make sure you notify researchers that their submission has been accepted before your early-bird prices end.)

While your client may assume that every researcher whose submission they accept will register to attend their conference, this usually doesn’t happen. Though other researchers (like students or early-career researchers) who didn’t submit their work to the conference may also register to attend.

How a timetable for a research conference works

The conference timetable (aka the conference programme or conference schedule) is usually the responsibility of the conference’s chair, but you’ll probably help them build it. Research conferences usually release a draft timetable with details of keynote sessions as early as possible and then fill in the details as they accept submissions.

You’ll need to use your client’s draft timetable to source the correct number of meeting rooms and AV equipment when you’re selecting a venue. And once the venue’s booked, you may need to remind your client about room capacity etc, as this will influence how the sessions are organised.

Your client may build their timetable offline (e.g. in a spreadsheet) or through your abstract management system. If it’s built offline, you’ll need to manually check timings and make sure that no speaker is scheduled to be in two places at once. If the timetable is built through your abstract management system, the system will calculate this for you.

How a conference book of proceedings works

The submissions presented at a research conference are usually published in a book of proceedings (also called a book of abstracts or book of papers). This is the official record of your client’s conference. This can be hard copy or digital, and if your client wants a book, include it in your budget from the beginning.

Your client may want to have this book ready before the conference so it’s available in delegate packs or through a conference app. Or they may want to wait till after the conference to publish it. (If they wait, they may want to publish a shorter programme book to include in delegate packs. This usually includes a welcome letter, sponsors’ details and the conference timetable.)

If you’ve collected submissions manually, the camera-ready submissions (corrected and ready for publication) will need to be formatted into a book or compiled as a PDF to host online. Printing a hard copy book can be a big expense, so be clear on what your client wants.

Learning how a research conference works

As a PCO, you’re always trying to fix an issue without your client ever knowing the mistake even happened. Getting familiar with how a research conference works – and the language academics use when they talk about them – can help you guide your client into making the right decisions. And save you from mistakes down the line.


Jelena Đerić
Jelena’s third-favourite job was working as a PCO in Zagreb. Her second-favourite job is supporting Ex Ordo’s customers to have happier conferences. But her absolute favourite job is feeding people mouth-wateringly good food. (Live your dream, Jelena.)
Ex Ordo
Abstract Management
Collect abstracts and papers, allocate reviews, accept and register participants.