Christmas Conference Season

A draft post from December 2011, never published but worth considering this year before the Christmas conference season is once again upon us.

From the look of my Twitter timeline, and the absence of a handful of colleagues, it is the time of year for Christmas meetings of this or that groups of Chemists.  I’m not a great fan of Christmas meetings for a variety of reasons but that’s not what has me thinking this lunchtime.  @S_J_Lancaster just asked (MASC11 is Macrocyclic and Supramolecular Chemistry):

Are any of the #MASC11 lectures captured?

And there it is.

How many talks at conferences are actually interesting/useful/insightful? For me there have always been a handful that are relevant or inspiring and then there is the rest.  There are the big names presenting that you feel obliged to go to and be seen at, there are the early career researchers presenting who deserve a good sized audience but who’s topic is not really of interest and there are the rest of the talks by fledged academics that are not in your area and not interesting to you.  If you break down the cost of a conference per hour of meaningful content, it’s a pretty expensive hourly rate!

Why aren’t conference talks screencast?  I’m not necessarily talking about the high tech solution of video recording of the room, edited to produce a glistening and wonderful piece of entertainment.  If you want that, go and watch the latest Brian Cox lecture on iPlayer.  I’m talking about slides and voice, what more do you need?  One PC running Camtasia or similar, and one dictaphone would be all that is required.  And how many more researchers could benefit from those talks?

At this point you’re probably shaking your head and thinking that I don’t understand that conferences are about the face-to-face interactions, the conversations, the network maintenance and connection building. No, seriously, I get it.  But I also understand what it is like to have a very very limited budget for conference attendance, to miss out on the cutting edge ideas and general sense of where a field is headed, and a general sense of not knowing who the new key players are in a field. Capturing the lectures at conferences would go some way to alieviating this. Look at the popularity of TED talks, would a chemistry version of that not be similarly useful?

There are also more practical reasons why this would generally be a good thing: every academic makes a value judgement when contemplating a conference trip.  We decide if the complex constellation of finance, teaching timetable, family committments, merit of speakers and opportunities to present are alligned well enough to pay up and head off to a meeting.  There are often ‘nearly but not quite’ conferences where we fancy going for a couple of sessions, but not the whole thing (and unless it is hyperlocal, day delegate rates are not worthwhile).  We could just as easily catchup later via YouTube or similar.

The delegate rates are probably one of the main reasons this can’t happen. Conferences are expensive to organise and run, and the fear would be that attendance would suffer if people could watch later from the comfort of their own desks.  But subtract catering, room hire, printed material and a few other things from that cost; compensate with technical support (recording, editing, uploading), webhosting etc and you could probably come up with a reasonably fair pay-per-view rate.