Conference attendance opportunity cost

You may know that I'm no great fan of conferences. Part of this is a matter of taste: I don't like travelling, whereas others do, so while to them conference travel is a perk, to me it's a chore. But most of my dislike of conferences, I'm prepared to assert, is due to a rational cost/benefit analysis. To take the upcoming SIGIR conference as an example, I estimate my cost of attendance (in Australian dollars, $AU1 = $US0.75) as follows:

Airplane tickets $2,000
Registration $1,000
Accommodation $1,000
Miscellaneous expenses $500
One week of my time $1,500
Total: $6,000

The benefits are frankly rather slight. It is difficult to properly understand a paper from a 20-minute presentation, unless the presentation is very well prepared and made (and they frequently are not). In any case, after two or three papers in a day, your brain is full and you can no longer take in any more information. You are better off simply reading the papers themselves. The discussion of each paper after it is presented is perfunctory, and is not recorded anywhere: far better would be an online presentation with online, archived discussion. I've rarely made collaborative contacts at conferences, and none that could not have been made as well by phone or email. The social events are generally enjoyable, but that's hardly a research benefit.

Another way to measure the cost of a conference is as an opportunity cost. What else could $6,000 dollars buy? Here are some things that spring to mind:

  • Four months' scholarship for a research student.
  • Five weeks of Tim Armstrong's time improving EvaluatIR.
  • An additional tutor for five semester-long courses.
  • A new research server.
  • Paid relevance assessment for 5,000 documents.
  • Paid, professional peer-reviewing of 3 research papers (assuming three reviewers for each paper, paid $40 per hour for 16 hours' work).

And all of that is just for one conference attendee. SIGIR averages around 600 conference attendees. Assuming the mean cost to each attendee is the same as it is to me, that's over $3.5 million dollars. That's a lot of other research and education investment opportunities foregone.

You might ask, if I dislike conferences so much, and regard them as so wasteful, why do I continue to submit papers to them, thus forcing myself to go on attending? Well, partly it is because my practice doesn't match my judgment. But mostly it is because publication at leading conferences is the established standard in my field. If I choose to exclude myself from the process, I am placing myself and my research contributions at a disadvantage. I do intend to concentrate more on journal publication, and as little as reasonably possible on conferences. But there is little I can do to influence the practices of the research community as a whole.

3 Responses to “Conference attendance opportunity cost”

  1. I think I can help you.

    Every time you write a conference paper,
    you should include me in your co-author list.
    This will solve your co-author inadequacy problem.

    Then, if your paper gets accepted, I will attend the conference
    to give the talk, while you sit in your office and write the next paper.
    This will greatly reduce your opportunity cost
    (assuming MSRA will fund me for the conference trip).

    With the money thus saved,
    we could arrange trips between Melbourne and Beijing
    to have drinks together.

  2. William says:

    Can you do a good Laurence Park impersonation?

  3. [...] are drip fed through three or four different conference publications. And this is not to mention all the other problems with the conference system as it currently [...]

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