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Why do researchers donate their time and money to help private conference organisers make big bucks?

Professor Simon Chapman writes:

Research conferences are part of every academic’s calendar. They provide opportunities to interact with global and national stars in your field, and present early opportunities for new research to be released to an audience of peers.

The typical conference is run by learned societies or research associations, who contract professional conference organizers to handle the grunt work and take their cut. Plenary program speakers are selected by scientific program committees of experienced researchers and the speakers often given free registration and travel support in recognition that their names will be magnets to those attending, boosting attendance.

Another model is the entirely commercial conference business where conference companies select topics that they judge will attract interest and run conferences independent of any scientific body.

IIR Conferences (aka Informa)  is Australia and New Zealand’s leading commercial provider  of conferences, seminars and portentous sounding “summits”.

In December the 7th Australian Wind Energy Conference will be held in Melbourne. I was invited to speak on the claims of anti-wind farm groups who claim that wind turbines can make people sick. Except for two other Melbourne locals, most of the other listed speakers are senior wind energy company people, government officials and politicians.

Registration is $2995 plus GST — $3294.50 all up. And if you really want to spray your money around, you can purchase the Powerpoints for the two days of plenaries  — a snip at $764.50. I’m used to giving my Powerpoints away at conferences.

When I was invited, I asked for my expenses to be paid and they offered to reimburse airfares and taxis and graciously to waive the registration fee. Terrific. I wouldn’t have to pay to hear myself speak!

But they would not pay for two nights in a hotel (I live in Sydney) – maybe $400-600 – because they had “a limited budget”. I said I would not charge a speaker’s fee.

The idea here apparently, is that I and other speakers should effectively put our hands in our pockets to assist the company in their efforts to make lots of money. If they were to get just 100 payers through the door, they would pull $299,000 before selling a single Powerpoint set.

So when they refused to pay my hotel, I withdrew.

As I wrote last year, I’ve received IIR brochures over the years and routinely binned them, wondering about how connected and important an audience would be who would shell out such sums to hear from people you can readily hear at many public sector conferences at a fraction of the price. I’m going to a four day international conference in Singapore in March where the registration is $620 and the Powerpoints are free.

Last year when invited to speak at one of their meetings,  I called three other participants asking the terms on which they are participating. One, when asking for travel was told “As a speaker, you will receive full complimentary access to both days of the conference including all speaker papers, luncheons and networking functions. Speakers are normally asked to cover their own travel expenses” but that they would make an exception with him. However, none I spoke with were getting fees. Some but not all public sector workers are unable to accept fees, making this a nice little honey pot to exploit.

So why do public sector experts give up their valuable time to effectively donate their time and expertise to for-profit companies like IIR?

And why do they give away their Powerpoints to be sold at such an extravagant cost, seeing that such companies play no role in their content?

• Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney

Comments 4

  1. Rosemary Stanton says:

    I can back Simon Chapman’s experiences with for-profit conference organisers. I too have been invited to speak at these outrageously expensive gatherings and have sometimes been tempted by the choice line-up of invited (and influential) speakers. Unfortunately, when it comes to the big day, it turns out that most of the invited big wigs were ‘unavailable’.

    I’ve also spent ages preparing a presentation, only to find the audience consists of a few dozen marketing executives who give the appearance of having a day out.

    Knowing that the organisers must be raking in considerable amounts, and also aware that preparing a paper will take a lot of evening and weekend time, I recently asked for a speaker’s fee plus travel costs The organisers replied that their “funding was allocated for international speakers”, although they later relented and thought they might be able to pay for my travel (300km in my very economical car plus parking) if I could first give them a ‘quote’.

    I declined the invitation and later was told that earlier sessions had run late, cutting short discussion time for those that followed.

    As might be expected from the high costs of registration, the attendees – and the flavour – was dominated by marketing types from the big end of town.

    For those of us used to conferences organised by universities or not-for-profit groups, these privately organised meetings are a bit hard to take.

  2. Socrates says:

    Here here! I generally avoid these events now either as a speaker or an attendee. In fact the whole large conference circuit I find of diminishing value. They are a slow and cumbersome way to disseminate ideas in an electronic age. Government departments usually want them held in some large government built conference centre that nobody wants to be a white elephant. This alone tends to put the cost up quite high.

    I find that regular technical meetings of professional societies, either over breakfast, lunch or dinner, are a much better way of discussing ideas. You can then quickly email presentations to people afterwards.

    I could add that I find the behaviour of some journal publishers, notoriously Elsevier, not much better. They charge a lot to people to get access to copies of other people’s work. Surely we can do better than that now we have the internet?

  3. William says:

    So…don’t go…

    I’m not sure where the story is here??

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