Tag Archives: conference organization

On Scientific Conferences

Should we ban scientific conferences and save the money for better science? What a terrible thought you would say if you were 25 years old, what a great idea you might say if you were 60 years old and have just come back from a conference with 9000 attendees and 30 concurrent sessions. So, there is no simple answer. Let us try to think of some rules of thumb if you are organizing a scientific conference. Since I am an ecologist I will talk largely about ecological meetings. There is already much interesting literature on this broad question (Zierath 2016, Blome et al. 2017, Hicke et al. 2017). For all I know conferences with 9000 registrants are ideal in neurobiology but in my opinion probably not useful in ecology.

Why have a conference? Simple, to transmit information among delegates. But you can do this more efficiently by reading current papers in the literature. So a conference is useful only if you get new insights that are not yet published, the cutting edge of science. Such insights are more likely to come from conferences that are spaced at 3-5 year intervals, a time frame in which some proper ecological research can be done. And insights are more likely to come from meetings that are narrow in scope to one’s immediate area of interest.

A second good reason for a conference is to meet people in your area of research. This is likely to be more successful if the meeting is small, perhaps a maximum of 150 attendees. This is the general approach of the Gordon Conferences. Meeting people is more difficult with larger conferences because, if there are multiple concurrent sessions, much time is spent moving among sessions and fewer people get the same view of scientific advances in an area. As one eminent ecologist pointed out to me, really important people do not go to any of the talks at conferences but rather socialize and conduct their own mini meetings near the coffee bar.

Organizing a conference is an exercise in utter frustration requiring the dictatorial behaviour of an army general. The general rule is the more talks the better, and never have a talk longer than 15 minutes lest someone get bored. In fact, speed talks are now the rage and you can have 3 minutes to tell the audience about what you are doing or have done. Perhaps if we are moving in this direction we should just have the conference via youtube so we could sit at home and see what parts of it we wanted to watch. If we add ‘tweets’ to conferences (Orizaola and Valdes 2015), we would certainly be following some of our world leaders for better or worse.

I have not been able to find anyone who would dare to calculate the financial cost of any conference and to try to construct a cost benefit ratio for a meeting. The argument would be that the costs can be calculated but the benefits are intangible, somewhat reminiscent of the arguments of our military leaders who demand more financial resources to achieve vague benefits. These concerns disappear if we consider a conference as a scientific tea party rather than an intellectual event. Perhaps we need a social science survey at the end of each conference with the attendees required to list the 5 major advances they obtained from the conference.

All these concerns convince me that we should restrict scientific conferences to small meetings on particular topics at relatively long intervals. Large conferences, should they seem desirable, should consist largely of longer plenary talks that synthesize the status of a specific area of ecology and provide a critique of current knowledge and suggestions of what to do next. These kinds of plenary talks are equivalent to synthesis papers in scientific journals, the kinds of papers that are all too rare in current journals.

One important consequence of scientific meetings can be to reach out to the public with evening lectures on topics of global concern (Hicke et al. 2017). Where it is feasible this recommendation can be an important way of extending information to the public on topics of concern like climate change or conservation management.

Whatever is decided by ecological societies about the structure of scientific conferences, some general rules about presentations ought to be written in large letters. If you are talking at a conservation ecology meeting, you should not spend half of your talk trying to convince the audience that there is a biodiversity crisis, or that climate change is happening. And for the details of a successful conference, read my earlier Blog (https://www.zoology.ubc.ca/~krebs/ecological_rants/how-to-run-a-successful-scientific-conference/) or Blome et al. (2017). This is not rocket science.

Blome, C., Sondermann, H., and Augustin, M. 2017. Accepted standards on how to give a Medical Research Presentation: a systematic review of expert opinion papers. GMS Journal for Medical Education 34(1): Doc11. doi: 10.3205/zma001088.

Hicke, J.A., Abatzoglou, J.T., Daley-Laursen, S., Esler, J., and Parker, L.E. 2017. Using scientific conferences to engage the public on climate change. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 98(2): 225-230. doi: 10.1175/BAMS-D-15-00304.1.

Orizaola, G., and Valdes, A.E. 2015. Free the tweet at scientific conferences. Science 350(6257): 170-171. doi: 10.1126/science.350.6257.170-c.

Zierath, J.R. 2016. Building bridges through scientific conferences. Cell 167(5): 1155-1158. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2016.11.006.

On the Need for Ecological Meetings

Perhaps I am the only ecologist in the world who is overwhelmed by the number of conferences that go on every year. I think we need to consider why we have so many meetings and consider some of the problems of the current model for ecological scientific communication. The problems that bring this to the fore for me are five:

  • Travel in its many forms increases greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change. Ecologists in particular are not supposed to be happy about that.
  • The number and frequency of meetings operate on a time scale completely inconsistent with having any new experimental data to report.
  • Large meetings operate with 6 or more concurrent sessions that cannot all be attended and there are so many people you cannot possibly talk to many you wish to meet.
  • Many of the talks at some meetings are poorly presented and a complete waste of one’s time.
  • Modern forms of electronic communication produce much more rapid and efficient transfer of scientific information than attending conferences.

I have of course left out the somewhat frivolous but true observation that really important people at meetings never go to any of the talks except their own.

The advantages of scientific meetings are many, and I am a believer in communication in person rather than via electronic media. So we must be careful here – I do not propose getting rid of all meetings. And I recognize that they are very important for young ecologists to help their careers develop.

So I think we have a problem and we need to think of possible solutions. One solution is to space meetings every 4 years instead of annually. Many societies do this already and do not seem to suffer. Even if we had an ESA meeting every second year we would have less stress. Another solution has been to divide up meetings into smaller groups, so the small mammal population ecologists meet as a unit, and the stream ecologists meet separately, and the carbon cycle ecologists meet on their own. This works to cut the size of meetings down and again they do not always need to hold meetings annually. Further reductions can occur by regional meetings, so the East Coast stream ecologists get together readily with minimal travel and so on. Much of this is already happening.

We have not yet used electronic forms of communication very effectively. Plenary lectures could be streamed on video and thus be available around the world for little cost and less CO2 emissions. I am hardly the one to tell you about modern communication but even I use Skype and other platforms to keep in touch with colleagues and ask questions.

There is a slightly frantic nature about ecological meeting e mails that reminds me of the Church in the good old days when every Saturday or Sunday you were supposed to attend for some reason never quite clear. If we are to continue to have large meetings often, we might at least have them in less developed countries that could use the economic stimulus that is clearly a large part of large scientific meetings. Which raises the issue of how much money should we spend on going to meetings versus doing some scientific work.

And my final complaint, having just witnessed the G20 Meeting in Australia, is that we should not adopt their model of meeting every year in very expensive places like Sydney and not having accomplished a single thing in recent memory except to say that they are a very important group.

How to Run a Successful Scientific Conference

Over the last 50 years I have attended about 200 ecological conferences. The best meetings have followed a series of practices that I present here. This list can be viewed as a practical example of adaptive management, since conferences that score low on the scale of suggestions here have in my opinion been less successful. Two major items drive a conference – papers and posters. Three other items are critical – good food, a spacious venue, and well organized symposia, but I will not discuss these three here.

Papers are presented at conferences largely as powerpoint talks. Most of these talks are 15 or 20 minutes but the rules for good powerpoint talks are quite simple.

  • A good slide in Powerpoint makes no more than 2 or 3 points, and these points should augment, emphasize, and explain the speaker’s words.
  • For complicated subject matter, use 2 or 3 simple figures rather than one complex, cluttered and unclear figure.  A series of slides that build on each other is very effective.
  • Effective labels for slides are briefer and larger than those for publication.  Titles should be 40-44 point font (14 mm) and text 32 point (11 mm).  Bold and italic labelling should be saved for special emphasis. 
  • Slide titles should be relatively short – 1 line only.
  • If using colour, stick to primary, bright, and clear colours.  
  • Do not use a photo as a background for the slide. It may be good artistically but it distracts from the points you are making.
  • Word slides should contain no more than 5 short statements.  The information on the slide should be simplified to the point of being skeletal.  It is up to the presenter to fill in gaps.  You should never have more than 30 words on a slide. 20 would be better.
  • Presenters should not read word slides to the audience.  The audience can read the slide faster than the presenter can speak it.
  • If all the information on a slide is not valuable to the audience, leave it out.  Take the time to adapt figures or tables for your presentation.
  • A good average is one slide per minute of talk.  If you have more, you are going too fast for the audience.
  • If people remember your presentation, they will remember only one or two key points. Summarize these at the end of your talk.
  • Never never never put 2 or 3 graphs or photos on a powerpoint slide since no one will be able to read the labels.
  • Look at your powerpoints in a bright room and in a dark room and see if you can still read them. You will not know how the conference lighting will be arranged.
  • Go to the back of the room and look at your Powerpoint presentation. If you need binoculars to read the slides, go back to step 1.

So if you are giving a 15 minute talk at the next conference you attend, prepare 15 slides in powerpoint. If you are giving a 3 minute speed talk, never have more than 3 slides. Simple arithmetic.

Posters are the next most important communication device used in scientific conferences, and unfortunately posters are typically awful as they are usually constructed with far too much detail. Here are a few rules for posters.

  • Focus on 3 points or less. If you can get across even 1 point clearly and quickly to your viewer, your poster is successful. Remember that you will be there to answer questions and fill in details.
  • Lengthy poster titles discourage viewers! Titles should be brief, informative, and interesting.
  • Text should be readable without strain from 1 m. Height of TITLE text should be about 100 point (3 cm) and height of BODY TEXT should be about 30 point (0.8 cm). Figure labels should be a minimum of 24 point (8 mm). See if you can read it from 1 m distance.
  • Use simple fonts such as Arial, Helvetica, or Univers. These are proportionately spaced and conventionally shaped so will not distract from the information they describe.
  • Avoid abbreviations and jargon. Avoid all but the simplest tables. No one will read a table with 10 columns and 25 rows.
  • Because all graphs should be large, information on graphs should be limited, and labels should be short. Specify measurement units. Provide scales on maps.
  • Plan the poster to be read in sections from left to right and top to bottom. Each section should be easily read while standing in one spot.
  • Colour keys used consistently throughout the poster make information easier to follow.
  • Avoid using photographs as a background for text or figures.
  • If your poster has more than 300-400 words, you have too much detail.
  • Give an executive summary or abstract of 50 words or less at the start of the poster. What is the question or problem, and what have you achieved in answering it?
  • Put a small, clear photo of yourself on the top right of the poster so people will recognize you.
  • Provide copies of a one-page printed summary of your poster for viewers who are interested in more detailed information or do not have time to read it, and give your contact information on this page.
  • Images should ideally be scanned at the size that they are to be used on the poster (not scanned and then dragged to the appropriate size). Most poster printers can’t process higher than 300dpi, so there’s no point scanning at a resolution higher than this.
  • Look at your poster in a bright room and see if it is readable under bright light conditions.