Conferencing as a scientist

This text was written in 2000, during a sequence of two conferences in Italy, and arose from several discussions with several other participants, in particular with Jose Crespo López-Urrutia.

Abstract

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Conferences are an important aspect of scientific interchange, giving scientists opportunities to share the development and results of more and more refined experimental and theoretical techniques. The productivity of conferencing has not seen the same drastic development. Bad habits are tolerated and often passed on from old to young. The introduction of stronger feedback systems for speakers, chairmen and organisers would be one way to enhance performance, and various possibilities are discussed. Another important aspect is the opportunity to meet colleagues from other laboratories. This paper analyses the design of the scientific and social program with respect to optimal knowledge formation and mingling qualities, keeping the perspectives of both young and more experienced scientists in mind.

Introduction

The scientists have arrived, checked in at their hotels and after registration they all carry their nametags and enjoy a long evening at the welcome party, balancing their food from the buffet table, as they meet old friends and are introduced to others. What should they expect of the meeting?

Conferences give scientists the opportunity to learn about new developments, share results, introduce and discuss new and controversial ideas, inspire new projects, and for young scientits to hear the giants in the field talk about its development. Conference discussions also enable informal assessment of quality.

The importance of different aspects vary, of course, with the size and format of the meeting; workshop, school, symposium, conference. The productivity of the discussions are affected by various boundary conditions provided by the organisers. Whereas scientists present drastically improved theoretical, experimental and computing techniques, the methods for knowledge exchange are essentially unmodified, in spite of many short-comings. Fundamental human psychological and physiological limitations cannot be changed, and must be taken into account in the design of the meeting.

The suggestions in this paper are based on experiences from many scientific meetings. Many points are so obvious that is is embarrassing to have to make them, whereas others are suggestions for solutions to commonly encountered problems, and might be seen as invitations for further discussions.

After discussions about possible stronger feedback system, quality aspects of scheduling, talks, the role of chairmen and poster sessions are considered, followed by suggestions for the enhancement of the productivity of the informal part of meetings.

Feedback systems

Feedback systems are essential for the tuning of performance, and should be applied also to scientific meetings. In order to bring quality into focus, a diploma ceremony can be introduced at the conference dinner for the best and worst of the talks and posters. In addition, special awards could be given for original presentations, creative approaches, aesthetical appearance and maybe for the most interesting question.

In the registration packet, participants should be given a computer readable evaluation form to be handed in at the end of the meeting, grading individual talks, facilities, social events etc. much as teachers are exposed to course evaluations. (Suggestions for questions can be found at the web-site / in appendix.) The conference secretary can mark on the list of participants who has handed in the form, and during the last session, one name is drawn, who will e.g. not have to pay the fee for the next conference in the series.

In order to improve the session quality, however, a more direct feedback system is essential. Giving a good talk is a serious challenge and speakers need better information about how to improve their performance than just seeing people leave their talks, or getting a not-so-good grade at the end. Chairmen need more feedback than not being asked again. A quality committee of a few PhD students, supervised by a more senior scientist could be given checklist to be filled in and handed over to speakers and chairmen after the session. Suggestions for points to consider in these “grading forms” are given in the sections below.

Scheduling

The scheduling provides the first, obvious boundary conditions for a meeting and does have influence on its success. The rules should be obvious, but are often violated, so we give here a brief summary of our preferences. The brain needs variation, the body needs to move. Organisers caring for their participants thus provide a balance between sessions and breaks, talks of different length and character; reviews, hot topics, new ideas and discussions. However, even the most attractively mixed session is unlikely to be a complete success it it lasts for more than two hours. From our personal experience, we also conclude that a total session time of around six hours per day seems optimal.

Breaks may be the most productive part of a meeting. Half-hour coffee breaks (with limited seating and napkins available for writing) allow for a number of shorter conversations or for a more serious discussion. Poster sessions combined with extended coffee breaks can give the desired variation without loosing valuable conference time. A 10-minute coffee break on the other hand, hardly gives sufficient time for everyone to move out of the room, get coffee, drink it and return. Short breaks are also relentless in exposing shortcomings in previous speakers timekeeping.

Talks

The break is over. The seats are confortable and the temperature right. The projector screen is sufficiently large, and can be seen from all seats. Everyone is eager to hear the next talk. The chairman introduces the speaker with a couple of sentences. The speaker starts, but after a while attention drops, more often for some speakers than for others. Why?

Following elementary rules, such as “speak audibly”, “use readable transparencies” and “keep within the allotted time” will not alone make an inspiring talk, but violation often causes attention to drift off. Transparencies with tables or equations copied directly from a publication rarely gives joy to the audience. A transparency half obscured by the speaker is another common cause of frustration, but is more easily forgiven for a speaker who has contact with the audience, whereas a speaker mumbling into the screen is unlikely to be a success, even with good transparencies. Sometimes, only part of the screen is visible from the back of the room. A “Meyerhofer line” can then be helpful. This line was drawn by M at the German Physical Society Meeting (in ???) directly on the projector to mark the allowed space, and the has been cultivated on subsequent meetings.

Respect for the audience should also make the speaker consider its composition. Addressing the 5-10 people who are very familiar with the subject is better done in other fora, although 1-2 transparencies aimed at the specialist could be acceptable (a “Bird-of-a-feather” session, e.g., annonced with a list at the conference desk and meeting in a smaller room can allow for more detailed discussion among specialists). The speakers are also wise to remember that experimentalists have limited tolerance for loop diagrams and complex equations, whereas theorists often tire at the sight of excessive apparatus descriptions, although an occasional admixture of a photo of group members with a piece of apparatus can extend the attention span.

In spite of preparations, there are, however, times when the audience starts to think of drastic schemes. One such scheme would be an electronic voting system: if more than 50% press a knob, the speaker would be asked to stop. For talks at bad times, or about particularly difficult subjects, an allowance of 60% might be considered. Sometimes the need is felt for a transparency inspection committee, which would put illegible transparencies directly in the document shredder. (The best check for the quality of a transparency is to inspect it from the back of the intended lecture room.) When the schedule is overcrowded, the audience might wish there had been an anonymous voting system at the start of the conference for three talks to be removed to make room for breaks in the schedule

A less disruptive quality system would be the “quality committee” of a supervisor and a few young scientists with different backgrounds spead out in different parts of the lecture room making notes of the various basic quality issues. They should, however, also make notes about the overall speaker performance, e.g. according to the scale presented in Table 1. The observations of the quality committee should be discussed with the speaker at a suitable time after the talk in a positive, constructive way.

Table 1: Overall speaker performance index

A* Standing ovations
A Enthusiastic speaker with new, important results, keeping an attentive audience and inspiring interesting discussions
B Essential message getting across, well presented. At least 80% of the audience still looks interested after 15 minutes.
C A few people leave the room. A large part of the audience starts to look around. More than 20% of the audience gets out schedule or starts to read the abstract book.
D Speaker fails to bring the message across. More than 30% read the abstract book or other literature, or more than 10% leave the room.
E Speaker fails to make contact with audience. At least 30% leave the room.
F More than 50% of the audience leaves the room

The role of the session chairman

Even the best talk must come to an end. Even well-prepared speakers may be uncertain about the precise timing of their talks. Enthusiastic speakers sometimes forget timing altogether. A large clock visible to the speaker, showing the remaining time is would be helpful, but does not relieve the chairman of the duty to warn the speaker about “five minutes left” allowing sufficient time to roundoff. The warning should be given with whatever means us needed to get the attention of the speaker. Table 2 gives a scale of speaker resistance and actions needed.

Table 2: Speaker time-keeping grades, based on actions needed

A Discrete nod
B “5” displayed on a paper or lamp lit
C Stand up
D fanfare or ringing bell
E Overhead projector turned off or dimmed slowly. Audience applause.
F Call the carabiners to remove speaker and transparencies

If getting a speaker to finish on time can sometimes be a challenge, the professional skills are in stronger demands for leading an inspiring discussion, being attentive to questions from the audience, preferrably telling the audience who is asking, repeating the question if necessary, being ready to cut short irrelevant questions or discussions – but also to ask a questions if noone else does, without abusing the privileges of the role.

The well-prepared chairman has, of course, contacted the speakers before the talks, checked for the correct pronounication of their names and agreed on method and time for the warning, maybe even checking for unnecessary overlap between the material of the speakers. Providing “speakers breakfast” (or coffee or whatever is convenient, given the local circumstances) for the speakers and chairmen of the day facilitates these preparations, and should improve the coherence of the sessions, with marginal effort compared to that already spent by everyone involved.

Poster sessions

  • Have you ever heard a colleague tell about the struggles to produce a poster? Tales about not-quite-compatible computer systems, print-outs of pictures without colour, of texts with missing characters or wrong fonts, about poster rolls delivered through the window of the taxi to the airport, or delivered by express mail.
  • Have you ever discovered that the poster board dimensions were not the same as indicated in the conference program?
  • Have you ever found that your poster could only be mounted in a way that would make it unsuitable for future use, or that the supply of thumb tacks or other mounting devises had run out?
  • Have you ever been squeezed into an inaccessible corner of an unpleasant room or found yourself in a poster session squeezed into a short time between talks running over? Have you ever wished there would be more time to watch the other posters?

In view the potential of poster sessions for very productive scientific interchange, the care of responsible conference organizers should match the care with which scientists prepare their poster presentations. In table P, we list a number of quality factors to be considered in designing the poster session. In general, poster viewing time should be extended as far as possible. Whenever feasible, they should be available for viewing at the coffee breaks. Allotting half the time all odd-numbered posters and the other half time for the even numbered ones may be one way to avoid crowding of neighbouring posters if space is limited. Extending coffee breaks to form partial poster sessions should also be considered – a three hour poster session requires considerable stamina both of the presenter and the visitor.The design of a poster leaves plenty of room for creativity. Colored paper, glue and scissors can give quite effective low-tech displays. Many other possibilities, such as three-dimensional displays or “advent calendar” invitations to further reading are rarely explored.

A bad poster, on the other hand, is much less intrusive, than a bad talk, since it can just be passed by. Design factors for a good posters are thus left as an exercise to the reader.

Table P: Quality Factors for poster sessions

  • Pleasant environment
  • Refreshments available
  • Some seating available
  • Posters available for viewing at all breaks
  • Poster dimensions agree with instructions
  • Poster mounting methods specified in program
  • Sufficient time
  • Sufficient space for discussions
  • Rotating schedule for viewing odd/even-numbered

Informal discussion

After the talks and between them, scientists get to do what they love most – to discuss work with their colleagues: physics, of course, but also related aspects, such as equipment, recruiting, funding and science policy, teaching, outreach and public understanding of science, promotion criteria, gender aspects or refereeing procedures in various journals.

Discussions get more interesting and rewarding when the participants can contribute varied perspectives, resulting from different stages of career, gender, national back-ground etc. For a well-mixed conference participation to make a difference, the different groups must also meet. The organisers can help by providing as many mingling opportunities as possible; sufficient coffee breaks, good poster sessions, welcome parties and other joint meals – where a beach or garden party may be more efficient than a formal sit-down meal. All social events should be considered with respect to their mixing potential. Every participant can help by trying to break up from the safe environment of a well-known group. This break-up is easiest when all participants are trapped in a pleasant environment. We would, however, like to point out several possibilities of active measures to enhance stirring.

For non-trapped meetings in large cities, sign-up lists at the conference desk for one more dinner groups meeting at a given time and place may be helpful. For trapped meetings, sitting next to someone from your own group or country could be banned. When distinguished senior scientists participate, young (and no-so-young) scientists can get lifetime memories from a lunch or dinner at their table, and organisers could provide a rotating seating schedule for distinguished scientist tables. Such seating arrangements could also be used for conference dinners. A more self-organising dinner seating is obtained by insisting than each table should have a certain fraction of old and young scientists.

A special aspect of the mixing of different group is the possible recruitment for post-doctoral and other positions. Providing a small notice board to announce positions will facilitate this communication.

Community building

Whereas the informal discussions are essential to establish personal links between members of a community, plenary talks are one important factor for ensuring some coherence, by providing a joint reference frame, and are often introductory subjects of coffee-break conversations. The community building aspect is particularly strong for a keynote talk in the opening session and a summary talk at the end of the meeting. Carefully selected after-dinner speakers provide a personal, often historical, prespective, and a prize-award ceremony can be an additional focal point of the conference dinner. A well-prepared panel discussion exhibit different perspectives and an outlook to the future.

Are there unexplored possibilities? We would like to inspire the creativity of the readers and further discussions by offering a few untried ideas.

  • Joint talks featuring dialogues, e.g. between an experimentalist and a theoretician exploring the same field, or between representatives of different experimental or theoretical groups, using related but different techniques, highlighting differences, as well as similarities. Such an arrangement would, of course, require additional preparation and communication between the speakers, but could also bring more life to the session, and reduce the relatively common duplication of introductory material.
  • A letter-box for questions at the conference desk, where especially young scientists can ask what they like. A panel can select a few of these for a special question-and-answer session . The ambitious organiser can post unanswered questions on a special WWW-page linked from the conference page.
  • An introduction during the welcome party of various groups and members present (feasible only for moderate-size meetings) or an invitation of group members to stand up briefly during a talk about work where they are involved.

Conclusion

Focusing on quality of the different aspects of a conference should lead to significant increase of conference productivity with only minor modifications of conference habits. Scientists with different backgrounds have different needs, and the preferences of a newcomer in the field may be quite different from those of their older colleagues. A better understanding of these variations could result from analysis of the conference feedback forms. We hope that this paper will stimulate discussion about various quality aspects, and encourage creativity in design of talks, posters, sessions, and social events. Nevertheless, even a conference with the most adverse boundary conditions provides opportunity to enjoy or even be part of the “social construction” of science. The wings of history are present as older colleagues tell about important developments or share personal memories of legendary physicists. The “gossip” gives updates on the present situation and interest of absent colleagues, but also speculations about future developments and upcoming Nobel laureates.

In these days of ever-improved electronic communication, real-time conferencing continues, in spite of cost and obvious environmental consequences. Ideas sometimes arise from rambling dinner discussions, that would not have taken place electronically. Contacts are established as colleagues discover similar interests and bring together scientists unaware of each other. An electronic conference would never give you the chance to queue for a well-needed cold drink, trapped next to a Nobel laureate. Real-time meetings give added value in many more ways – let us all work together to make the most of these meetings!

This paper is dedicated to all the wonderful scientists we have met at conferences, and we always look forward to the next chance to meet.

About this text

This text was written in 2000, during two conferences in Italy, and arose from several discussions, in particular with Jose Crespo López-Urrutia. The first of the conferences had four Nobel laureates participating – but none of them can be seen on the conference photo. They were using the only possible time to go to the beach during the daytime – signs of an overcrowded conference schedule! I should also add that during the conference the week after, I found one of the laureates, Norman Ramsey, taking a cold drink three hours into the poster session, where he had tried to see all posters.

The discussions have inspired the design of many later conferences where I have been involved with the organization. I recently rediscovered the text and decided to share it on this blog.

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