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Who sits on a conference organizing committee?

Every successful conference needs an active conference organizing committee. But who’s responsible for doing what?

Establishing a conference organizing committee is one of the first tasks for every conference organizer. For a small, straightforward academic or research event, a conference organizing committee may be made up of just two or three people. Larger conferences, however, are often organized by a team of individuals with specific roles and responsibilities. But just who does what?

For a large research conference, the roles and responsibilities of a conference organizing committee will typically look something like this.

Steering committee

The steering committee is responsible for the overall organisation and financial planning of the conference. This committee will probably be responsible for appointing the conference’s general chair and may need to approve who’s appointed as programme chair. The committee advises these chairs and assists them in making decisions, especially around the conference venue and date, the budget and the overall technical content of the conference.  

General chair

The general chair makes all final decisions regarding the conference, including how roles and responsibilities are divided. They’re often responsible for selecting where the conferences is held. As most of the people in a conference organizing committee aren’t being paid, and have busy full-time jobs, it’s important the chair can inspire them from the very top. So, the chair should be able to clearly define goals, and be able to highlight that everyone has a stake in the success of a conference.

Programme chair

The programme chair ensures that a well-balanced, high-quality technical programme is organised and presented at the conference. Together with the general chair, they develop the conference’s call for papers (aka call for abstracts) and source suitable abstract management software. They also take responsibility for the peer review process and the conference schedule.

Programme committee

In conferences where there are 100 submissions or more, managing the entire peer review process can be too much for one person. Depending on the size of the conference, the programme chair may appoint people to a programme committee to help manage it. Programme committee members take responsibility for distinct parts of the peer review process or tracks within the conference.

Publicity chair

The publicity chair takes responsibility for promoting the conference to potential authors, delegates and wider media. They’re usually responsible for developing media releases and communicating key messages about the conference. They manage the conference’s social media accounts, and may work with the programme chair to develop the call for papers. They may also take ownership of conference branding, and may oversee the creation of the conference book of proceedings.

Local chair

The local chair looks after the practical side of conference arrangements. They find and suggest venues, often manage the delegate registration system, and make sure suppliers and logistics have been taken care of. They may also be responsible for the conference website.

Finance chair

The finance chair takes charge of creating a conference bank account, arranging conference insurance and deposits, creating a conference budget, managing expenses and creating financial reports.

Session chairs

Conference session chairs manage the Q&A session after each presentation and make sure sessions run on time. They’re usually recruited a few months before the event.

Other chairs

Some conferences appoint additional chairs to their conference organizing committee. These are given specific responsibilities such as looking after publications (e.g. timetables and the book of proceedings).

Professional conference organizer

Though not strictly speaking a member of the conference organizing committee, a professional conference organizer looks after the admin and logistics of planning a conference. They may also take on tasks like managing the abstract management software or the keynote speakers. Most professional conference organizers will charge a fixed fee, and some may also include a fee per delegate. (From what our customers tell us, they’re worth their weight in gold.)

Conference organizing committee roles and responsibilities

A note on the list above: Although these are the most common conference organizing committee roles we’ve seen, academics and researchers often do things differently. We’ve come across so many permutations of these roles over the years, that we’d never state with confidence “this is how a conference organizing committee should look”.

You’ll also find that different organizations often call these roles by different names. (We still get surprised sometimes.)

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Dee McCurry
Dee moved back from London to help Ex Ordo tell their story. Although she finds it tough to source turmeric lattes and other hipster nonsense in Galway, she enjoys writing about the weird and wonderful world of research conferences.
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