Brain power

Are conferences still worth it?

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

The pandemic period saw most physical conferences shift online, and while 2022 has seen more events happen in person again, we are still some way below the peak. Research1 from Northwestern University explores whether it is still worthwhile for scientists to attend conferences, and finds that the general answer remains yes.

The researchers found that when scientists interact with their peers during sessions, they’re more likely to then form productive collaborations with those people than those scientists who don’t have such interactions. What’s more, it doesn’t seem to matter if the events are virtual or in person.

“Scientific conferences are a very expensive industry,” the authors explain. “People often talk about whether or not we should rethink conferences. Our results suggest that the way organizers design conferences can have a direct effect on which scientific collaborations are formed and, by extension, on the direction of scientific inquiry.”

Worth the effort

The researchers developed a model that aimed to both understand and then predict how scientists form vital collaborations at events, regardless of whether virtual or in-person. They then tested the model using data from Scialogs, which is a conference series held by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

The researchers found that interactions in the conference sessions were a significant predictor of future collaborations between scientists, regardless of whether the interactions took place virtually or in person.

The results show that when scientists were able to form a fruitful collaboration, they were interacting 63% more at in-person conferences than their peers who didn’t enjoy such collaborations. These interactions were especially fruitful when they were in small groups of between two and four people. Such interactions made it eight times more likely that new collaborations would be formed.

“Today, science is conducted by teams, so the formation of new teams is especially important,” the researchers say. “Science isn’t done by individuals anymore. It’s more interdisciplinary and multi-institutional. We need these conferences because scientists can meet other researchers who they might never have met otherwise.”

Tracking interactions

The interactions of scientists were tracked over the 12 day, in-person conferences over a five-year timeframe. The data included participation data on the room level. The shift to virtual conferences during the Covid pandemic allowed the researchers to see if any meaningful differences occurred as a result of the shift.

“From a scientific perspective, this provided us with a rare natural experiment and the ability to make a direct comparison between virtual and in-person conferences,” they explain. “Before doing this study, we hypothesized that virtual conferences would be less effective at forming new collaborations among scientists. Instead, what we found was surprising.”

The model was applied to six of these virtual conferences, and the results revealed that they were just as effective, and indeed often more so, than their in-person peers at encouraging interactions and collaborations. Indeed, while those who eventually formed collaborations were 1.6 times more likely to interact at an in-person conference, they were two times more likely at a virtual conference.

“We interpret these results as coming from the fact that scientists did not have the same opportunities for informal interaction (during breaks or meals) in the virtual conferences as they did in the in-person conferences,” the authors conclude. “Therefore, the sessions they were assigned to were the only place that they could meet people to form teams with; hence the greater importance of interaction in these sessions for team formation.”

Article source: Are Conferences Still Worth It?

Header image source: Jeremy Vohwinkle on Flickr, CC BY 2.0.


  1. Zajdela, E. R., Huynh, K., Wen, A. T., Feig, A. L., Wiener, R. J., & Abrams, D. M. (2021). Catalyzing collaborations: Prescribed interactions at conferences determine team formation. arXiv preprint arXiv:2112.08468.
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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