Collaboration and Canceled Conferences

Do conferences really help you network?

After a two-week hiatus, I’m back with a coronavirus-adjacent post.

As academic conferences were being cancelled (along with everything else) in the last few weeks, a common question on twitter was whether in-person conferences are really needed at all in the era of zoom and skype. People say there is more to conferences than simply the presentation of information; but is there? Let’s look at some recent studies on whether conferences facilitate academic collaboration.

Freeman, Ganguli, and Murciano-Goroff (2015) survey scientists in particle and field physics, nanoscience and nanotechnology, and biotechnology and applied microbiology, and ask how they met their collaborators. Among collaborators who do not live in the same city, about 15% say they met at conferences; the rest met as colleagues (most common answer), as advisor/advisees, or as visitors (or not at all, in some cases!).

Alternatively, Chai and Freeman (2019) study 1,254 participants in Gordon Research conferences in the early 1990s. Participants in the conferences are matched to a set of “control” scientists who do not attend the conference. Attendees with no prior collaboration produce about 9% more joint publications after participating in such a conference than the controls. These biology conferences are ideally designed to foster new relationships: they consist of small groups (80-150) working on the same topic, who spend a week together at a remote location engaging in both research and informal social activities. However, studies of more recent conferences have found a larger impact for more transient meetings.

Campos, Leon, and McQuillen (2018) look at the impact of the abrupt cancellation of the 2012 American Political Science Association annual meeting due to Hurricane Isaac. By comparing the extent of new collaboration among those scheduled but unable to attend to actual attendees of the conference in previous years and un-cancelled political science conventions in the same year, they can estimate the effect of cancellation on new collaboration. They estimate cancelling the conference reduced the probability potential attendees collaborate by 16%, with the effect strongest for potential collaborators who are not colocated.

Finally, Boudreau et al. (2017) conduct a field experiment with attendees of a research symposium to study the impact of very short in-person interactions on collaboration. To access a grant opportunity, Harvard Medical School researchers were required to attend a research symposium, where they learned about relevant research and participated in a 90-minute brainstorming session with other participants. These sessions occurred in physically separated rooms, and attendees were randomized into different rooms. Being in the same (randomly assigned) room increased the probability any two attendees submitted a joint grant proposal by 75% (from a very low base-rate). The intervention suggests very short in-person meetings can have a big impact on collaboration.

So it seems conferences do perform a useful networking role. As Campos, Leon, and McQuillen point out, they are particularly important for forming relationships with scientists who are not geographically close. The current wave of cancellations might mean fewer new collaborative partnerships over the next year or two.

Or maybe not. Several conferences are attempting to transition to being entirely online. If a short 90 minute brainstorming session suffices to get people collaborating, maybe it’s also possible to get the same thing with online networking. I guess we’ll see.