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Homo academicus, to use a term coined by Pierre Bourdieu, is a special species and for those of us embarking on our careers, we must be able to demonstrate our potential ability to not only survive but to excel in the academic jungle if we hope to secure our first post as an assistant professor or a junior researcher. The selection criteria include a lengthy list of publications in journals with the highest possible impact factor, an established research programme demonstrating the capacity to be an independent researcher, and extensive experience as communicators, both as invited speakers and as presenters at scientific conferences. Although there is much to be said on all of these aspects, our commentary focuses on this last point, as we should not forget the words of Max Weber:1 “of all of the pedagogical tasks, the most difficult is that of communicating scientific problems in such a way that an unprepared yet gifted individual will be able to understand and form her own opinion—this for us constitutes the single most sign of success”.
During our time as PhD scholars, we were frequently advised to participate in scientific conferences by professors, academic mentors and peers. Funding institutions also encourage new researchers to present at scientific conferences.2 Getting our voices heard, however, is not as simple as it sounds. For example, the Fond de la recherche en santé du Québec sends its new researchers (Junior 1) an American guide,3 which underscores the need for strategising:
I learned early on that if you want to be promoted, you need to get a national reputation. This means that you have to be invited to give talks at universities around the country and at national conferences. […] So how do you get these invitations when you’re just starting out? Well, you can’t be shy. You have friends all over the country who are also young faculty and carrying out work that would be of interest to your department colleagues. Call them up and make a deal: “I’ll invite you if you’ll invite me.”
And as Professor Favre recently pointed out, young researchers are exhausting themselves in order to make presentations.4 During the past 5 years, we have had the opportunity to participate in more than a dozen scientific conferences in Canada and across the globe. Although benefiting from these experiences, we have also observed some limitations of the international conference “circuit”.
Communicating research results in a very short period in front of an (often tired) audience, requires superior oratory and communication abilities—generally a skill that receives no attention in academic training, although there are some useful guides available. Delivering a good presentation requires a large investment in time, especially if the conference is in a language other than our maternal tongue. It is not, however, rare within large international conferences to make a presentation in front of an audience of fewer than 10 people—often the theme linking the panel presentations is not evident, leading to lack of interest among the audience for certain presentations. Parallel sessions are often very numerous and participants are dispersed. As financing for a conference is generally sanctioned only if a participant has had an abstract selected for presentation, there is a tendency to accept a large number of presentations—sometimes too many. At times, the selection criteria can be modest or even non-existent. For example, the organisers of a Canadian conference of about 400 participants selected 100% of the 140 communications that they received.
Building networks, particularly interacting with senior researchers and international experts, is not a simple task, unless one possesses a certain personality or senior colleagues who will liaise. Participating in international conferences is expensive both from an economic and an ecologic point of view. Inscriptions rates are often high and rarely equitable. Not all universities have programmes that provide conference grants. Researchers from the global south face particular challenges in securing financing and often face extreme barriers to participation owing to difficulties in obtaining a visa.5 6 Programmes are often provided in bounded books consisting of hundreds of papers along with unnecessary accessories (eg bags, water bottles, pens, etc). Travel, particularly air travel, leaves excessive carbon footprints. And the food that is offered is often not healthy or delivered in an environmentally friendly manner.7
In the hopes of sparking a dialogue on improving our conferences, here are a few initial suggestions:
modify the implicit rule in the scientific community that the quantity of communications is more important than the quality
authorise the financing of participants in conferences who are not presenting
organise conferences that are environmentally friendly, healthy and favourable to students and new researchers (e.g. supplementary activities, such as interactive sessions with keynote speakers)
offer equitable inscription fees (as a function of income of individuals or countries)
provide quality translation services
organise activities to facilitate the participation of the general public that goes beyond a plenary of experts.
Competing interests: None.