Search This Blog

Jun 12, 2022

A shoestring conference. Downshifting in the academia.

No deep thoughts here, just some practical tips on how to run an international conference with no budget and minimal support. There is an international network of scholars that has no legal status and no budget. We intend to keep it that way as long as possible, because setting up an organization is a headache regardless of jurisdiction. It is because once money start exchanging hands, tax authorities reasonably require some accountability. It is harder in some countries than in others, but still it is a burden.

We use Qualtrics, a common survey software to collect names of all people who are interested in being in the loop. Conference proposals are also accepted through the same survey software. Once proposals are in, we created one long file with all the anonymized proposals. Reviewers would all go to the same file and insert their reviews right there, after each proposal. The reviewers also use a code number, so we maintain the double-blind standard. This little trick cuts down on writing back and forth, matching reviews with proposals, and virtually eliminates manual data entry. The only small manual step – we mark rejected proposals on the list and mark the rest of them automatically mark accepted. A mail merge trick allows you to send 60 emails in a few seconds. It can send a thousand in a few minutes.

Now, the next trick is important; we discovered it this year, and it works. We created a google doc with empty time slots, and invited presenters to enter their name and paper title in any empty slot. It worked great, and we have a program no one spent any time putting together. It literally assembled itself, and people had a choice on time. The non-editable version of the program is automatically published on the conference website. Now, we got people a little confused because for the global conference, we had to use UTC, and it is surprisingly hard for many people to figure out the time difference. This is something to improve next time around.

Because the conference is virtual this year, we did not have to deal with hotels, contracts, food, receptions, and all that stuff. We sweet-talked the keynote speaker to give the talk for free, which eliminated the need for registration fees. The conference is open to all, so people come to the site, enter a zoom room, and participate. No worries, no zoom bombing took place. I believe it is a very rare event, and even if it happens, no one is physically hurt. Those who ran conference know, what a headache registration is, both in terms of money collection, and maintaining records.

One can, of course, pay someone 50K to run an online conference, and charge a few hundred dollars in fees. The treasurer has to worry that if not enough people register, the conference will be in the red. Well, we have no treasurer. However, the quality of conversation is not affected by that at all. I the end, it is the same 8-12 people in every room, listening to a presentation, and engaging in productive conversations. With available distributed information processing technologies, there is a way to downshift in many areas of life. Scholarly conferences is one of them.

If we ever decide to go f2f, there are ways of keeping the cost down. Any campus can give rooms and tech support for free. People can book their own hotels without conference discounts. The way those discounts work is – you must buy a lot of food in exchange for slightly discounted rooms, and free or discounted conference rooms. And if you do not make the quota – you are liable to pay the difference. It is a racket, really. Unless you run a conference in very expensive cities, the discounts are not worth the registration fees. The local host campus can always sponsor a reception, with a cash bar, of course.

Success of academic downshifting is not entirely dependent on the virtual modality. It is a matter of choice and skill. Simple is beautiful. Sorry, middlemen.

No comments:

Post a Comment