New year, new calendar, time to think about what conferences I might attend in 2014. As a newly-minted academic, the choice is dizzying. Of course, it would help to have some results to present and my research project is only just getting off the ground, but there are other reasons to go, to see and be seen.
When I was a mere PhD student, there was guidance available on how many conferences I was expected to attend and when to present; as a member of academic staff, there seems to be no guidance at all. Being invited to give a talk remains a far-off possibility.
This is an exciting time in microbiology and particularly antimicrobial resistance research, with more media coverage and funding streams in the past two years than the preceding 20, so there is a lot to talk about.
So far, events which have definite appeal are as diverse as Genomics 2014, the Oxford Bone Infection Conference and the SMBE satellite meeting on reticulated microbial evolution. This is without even mentioning the alphabet soup which signifies the big players in infection research meetings: ECCMID, ICAAC, ASM, FIS, SGM and more.
Key themes in this year's infection conferences
The problem is obvious; even if none of these events overlap with each other, I couldn't possibly attend them all, not while carrying on the "day job" in research, teaching and clinical microbiology. There's also the not-so-small matter of work-life balance.
Do I need to go to conferences? The world wide web draws talks and posters to my laptop; I have discovered that almost all the talks from the Federation of Infection Societies' (FIS) 2013 are available freely as videos (here) and many proceedings, including the excellent Beatles and Bioinformatics, are posted on YouTube (link); in that case, they were actually streamed live, so I could watch and listen from the comfort of my office in real time, with no train fares or hotel bills to pay and no difficult childcare juggling. A late-comer to the twittersphere, I have discovered its utility in alerting me to new papers and research projects, traditionally reasons for attending meetings.
Not quite ivory: the three towers of Coventry, home to the University of Warwick
If I can get all this without leaving my ivory tower, should I go at all? I find myself asking for a cost-benefit analysis of conference attendance. (I may have spent too much time reading clinical guidelines, where cost-benefit analysis is always implicit and usually explicit). Widely reproduced opinions in favour claim that conference attendance is good for the CV, that networking is beneficial and that attending talks outside one's specific subject area broadens knowledge.
What about the costs? Time, travel, accommodation, environmental impact, childcare, family impact... Beyond the personal implications, it has been suggested that conferences also promote presentation of posters containing poor-quality research, which may never make it to peer-reviewed publication, facilitate branding of particular scientific cadres and promote "group-think", whereby the same opinion leaders appear repeatedly on different platforms and the same ideas circulate (1). "Tribes" may form of researchers who meet repeatedly at conferences and become exclusive clubs, inviting each other to talk at yet more conferences and potentially sit on the same grant committees awarding further funding to scientists with more invited talks as a marker of success. Less mobile researchers, those with significant health issues or family commitments which preclude large quantities of travel, or simply those without the funding to subsidise this kind of activity are disadvantaged by their non-attendance.
Putting a price on each of these costs and benefits is impossible and will, of course, be different for every researcher. Which leads me no closer to a solution as to which and how many meetings I should attend and indeed begs the question of whether the whole model of large multi-national medical and scientific conferences is broken and a new way of facilitating scientific discourse should be developed.
1. Are Medical Conferences Useful? And for Whom?
John P. A. Ioannidis, MD, DSc
Follow me on Twitter @ilovechocagar
This post is also found on my blog "Microbiological Musings" at