Conference Participation

How and why should I best participate in conferences?

The main reasons for researchers to participate in scientific conferences are the following:

  • to get informed about the state-of-the-art
  • to present their own research, and get reactions from peers
  • to have their paper published in the conference proceedings
  • to meet others working in the same domain

While the first two reasons may seem most obvious, in practice the last two are more important. The reason is that there are other methods to get informed or to present your research, e.g. using preprints on the web, that demand less time and money than travelling to conferences. Moreover, the typical time slot in a conference for presenting a paper (about 20 minutes) is too short to effectively convey complex, technical and novel ideas. At best, the presentation will create sufficient interest so that listeners get motivated to investigate the work further, by contacting the speakers, or reading their papers.

On the other hand, publication typically happens more quickly and easily via proceedings, where there is a tight deadline, than via journals. Moreover, acceptance of papers for publication is the most common demand of funding agencies, both to sponsor conference participation and to fund research in general. Finally, nothing can as yet replace face-to-face conversation in a pleasant, informal setting, such as a conference dinner or coffee break, as a way to quickly exchange a variety of experiences, establish personal relationships and thus perhaps lay the foundation for future collaboration.

This implies some tips for effective conference-participation that will not be obvious to beginning researchers:

  • the best conferences are not the biggest or those with the most famous speakers, but those with the best opportunities for informal contact. Small, intimate workshops are usually more effective than huge conferences with hundreds or thousands of participants
  • almost no researchers travel to conferences abroad without presenting a paper, since otherwise they would not get any travel allowance or publication
  • conference presentations should not aim at completeness or thoroughness, but at raising interest; details can always be given in reply to questions later or in the paper for the proceedings
  • don't feel obliged to participate in all the sessions of what is typically a gruelling breakfast-to-dinner schedule; rather use the occasion to start talking to others, who may also be hanging out around the coffee place or dinner hall

Typical Conference Organization

For the prospective participant, a scientific conference starts with a First announcement and Call for Papers (CFP). The CFP is a text, typically circulated via electronic mailing lists, and stored on the conference's website, that announces the general objectives of the planned conferences and lists basic information such as time, place, organizers and scientific committee. Its most important function is to invite scientists world-wide to submit papers for possible presentation at the conference. Therefore, it lists general requirements for submissions such as length (from a half page abstract to a 20 page full paper), address and deadline for submission.

Selection of papers

If you are interested to participate in the conference, you will submit a paper/abstract to the organizers. They will pass it on the members of the scientific/progam committee for refereeing. On the basis of the referee report and the number of available slots in the program, the conference chair will decide whether your paper can be accepted or not. You should get an acceptance/rejection message before a fixed deadline, typically not later than a month or two after the submission deadline and 3-4 months before the start of the conference. With your letter of acceptance, you can ask for funding for travel, accommodation, and conference registration, all of which can be pretty expensive.

Sometimes papers can be accepted either for oral presentation, or as posters. In the latter case, you are expected to turn the paper into a large format text with illustrations, good for visual inspection, that will be hung on walls or panels in the conference center. At a designated time, you will be expected to stand near your poster in order to be able to answer eventual questions about it. Posters are typically used to give less good contributions still the chance to be presented, without taking time in the conference schedule.

If your paper/poster is accepted, you may be asked to prepare a final document version of it, before or after the conference, for publication in the conference proceedings. Proceedings are typically published as stand-alone volumes, though sometimes they are turned into special issues of journals, or published only electronically on the web. Final versions are typically more polished, extended and corrected compared to initial submissions, and may need to fulfill detailed formatting requirements.

The conference program

Once all contributions have been selected, the conference organizers will be able to produce a detailed conference program. This will typically include the following sections:

  • registration: where you pay or confirm payment of the registration fee, and in return receive a badge identifying you as participant, plus documentation such as the latest program, invitations to social events, etc.
  • plenary sessions: general opening and closing of the conference, panel discussions, and talks by "invited" speakers, i.e. renowned experts in the domain, whose costs are paid by the organizers, presenting the "state-of-the-art"
  • parallel sessions: more specialized sessions with "contributing" speakers (selected on the basis of submissions, and having to pay to participate), that take place simultaneously in different rooms. Often such sessions or "symposia" are organized by their chairperson independently of the main conference committee, who is responsible for the focus and the selection of contributors. Smaller conferences (workshops) may not have parallel sessions.
  • social events: coffee breaks, lunches, receptions, conference dinner, excursions, etc.

Typical international conferences last 3-5 days, starting around noon on the first day to give participants the time to register, and ending on the afternoon of the last day, with sometimes a half-day break in the middle for a touristic excursion.

In spite of this seemingly short duration, conferences are typically exhausting, not only because of all of the stress accompanying travel and presentation, but because participants tend to be engaged in listening to/participating in highly intellectual conversation from morning till evening. Participants generally return home tired but stimulated and exhilarated by all the new ideas, informations, contacts, and plans they got. Unfortunately, most of those never get realized, as the participants comes back home to everyday routine with all its more pressing and practical problems...