Symposium vs. conference – what’s the difference?

4 minute read

What’s the difference between a symposium and a conference? And how does it affect organising or submitting to one?

Symposia (symposiums is also an acceptable plural) and conferences are both formal gatherings of scholars and researchers, where attendees present their work, hear others speak, and discuss the latest developments within their field.

In some disciplines, there’s a distinct difference between a symposium and a conference. In other disciplines, the words are used interchangeably. Same same, but different — as they say in Tinglish (Thai-English).

To some, a symposium could mean a small, one-off, focused affair, or it could mean an annual flagship event. Sometimes, several symposia could be contained within a larger conference as part of the proceedings, and be treated as just another session type. Some conferences may opt to peer review submissions in groups, and some symposia may choose to review submissions in isolation. 

Confused? Hah! Don’t be too hard on yourself.

After many years of helping organisers to run technical events of all shapes and sizes, the one thing that we can say with absolute certainty is that there is no universal definition of a symposium or a conference. Definitions are discipline-dependent.

Scholarly events: Invitations for later conversations

Chad Orzel, Associate Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Union College, believes that the main goal of a scholarly event is not to try and turn attendees into experts. Rather, it’s for speakers to present some new developments in their field, and frame the problem well enough to let attendees decide if they want to know more.

Chad argues that there’s really very little difference between an academic conference presentation and a TED Talk. “Both are primarily advertising,” he says. Their intent is to encourage “some fraction of the audience to seek out the more active engagement that leads to real education, at a later time in a less formal context.”

And we tend to agree.

Regardless of how you choose to define your gathering — as a symposium or a conference (or even a convention, seminar, congress, or meeting, for that matter) — in essence they are really just advertisements for later conversations.

Defining features of a (typical) conference

  • Size – More attendees, longer duration than a symposium
  • Scope – Broad focus, multiple topics and session types
  • Submissions – Individual submission, peer-reviewed in isolation
Symposium session

Photo by Antonio Jamal Roberson 

Conferences are usually much broader in focus than symposia. They often cover multiple themes or topics within a field, and may bring together inter-disciplinary scholars and practitioners. Sometimes, because their subjects are so broad, conferences will have distinct tracks (like mini-conferences) within them. 

Some international conferences run for a week and have thousands of presenters, who can range from students and early-career researchers, through to invited speakers like academic or industry celebrities.

Typical medium-to-large conferences have a programme packed with short presentations organised into sessions. These are often arranged into parallel ‘streams’ that have sessions which run simultaneously.  

Conferences generally feature multiple session types. They usually take the form of oral or poster presentations, panels, or workshops. Conferences almost always have a plenary session, like a keynote presentation, which all attendees are encouraged to join.

💬  Papers for a research conference are usually submitted by an individual, and each submission undergoes peer review in isolation, being accepted or rejected based on their own merit. If you’re organising a symposium or panels make sure to find a platform like Ex Ordo who supports those types of submissions

Defining features of a (typical) symposium

  • Size – Fewer attendees and shorter duration than a conference
  • Scope – Narrow focus, one topic, panel format
  • Submissions – Submitted as a collective (panel), peer-reviewed by a group
Symposium speaker

Photo by Henri Mathieu-Saint-Laurent

Symposia (not to be confused with drinking parties in ancient Greece), are scholarly events that usually just cover one topic. Because of their narrow focus, they tend to be smaller and shorter than average research or academic conferences.

As sharing a name with a drinking party would suggest, symposia usually have a less formal structure than typical conferences, with the intention of sparking more conversation.

Symposia presenters are usually experts in their field, and papers are submitted as a collective, under a common submission theme. Often the papers are presented in a panel discussion format, which helps elicit recommendations from the other speakers, or the audience, on the issues at hand. It’s recommended that the panellists, including the discussant, be spread across institutions, with a good gender mix.

💬  Research papers for a symposium are usually submitted as a group (panel). These submissions are peer-reviewed together, and accepted or rejected based on their collective merit, i.e. if one paper in a group is rejected, the whole group gets rejected. Curious about a leading provider of abstract management of symposia and conferences? Sign up for our upcoming open demo.

Shopping for software: Be sure to do your homework 

Pulling off a seamless technical event with multiple submissions is no mean feat. It requires significant strategic foresight and tactical planning. But investing in great abstract management software to streamline the collection and reviewing of papers can make your job oh-so much easier, saving you loads of valuable time and energy. However, as with any software that’s designed to carry out complex tasks, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. So, you’ll need to do your homework before you purchase.

First, you should have a clear picture of how you’ll be handling submissions — from the time you collect the papers, to the time you start building your conference programme. And then, you’ll need to look for a supplier that’s open to helping you find the best solution for your unique needs. Be sure to ask any potential suppliers exactly how their software deals with linked submissions.

The big picture: Avoid getting side-tracked by semantics

At Ex Ordo, we’re a pragmatic bunch. We accept there’ll never be consensus on the definition of a symposium or a conference. And we understand that the needs of our customers are ‘same same, but different’. Instead of getting bogged down in semantics, we choose to roll up our sleeves and focus on what we do best — building an easy-to-use, end-to-end conference management system. And, when we offer top-notch technical solutions, our customers can focus on what they do best — delivering extraordinary events.

Gemma Elliott