Big expensive academic conferences cost too much and offer too little return. I’ll give it to you. Conferences are fine for professional development, almost good for networking, OK for your CV, and decent for being exposed to new ideas. I think some are well worth attending. But just stop paying the extortion fees for big conference. Only go to fee free or all expenses paid conferences. Yes, you’ll go to less but you’ll be better for it. Conference as they are at present are a relic from the patronage pre-neoliberal academy where universities accepted responsibility for their staff, faculty, and students. In those halcyonic days, travel and lodging were less expensive, conference fees were smaller, and most importantly, the university would foot the bill. Today, the extortion conference system remain in place while the university has dropped its patronage responsibilities while the costs associated with conference attendance have skyrocketed. We must break the back of yet another exploitative system. Stop paying conference fees.
Conferences are of a very limited utility but a utility nonetheless. You should still go but only to select, useful, and economically fair events. Let’s break it down. There are three economic types of conferences:
1) The first is the “extortion conference” illustrated by research society wide events with hundreds or more participants. The fees are high and the locations are the most expensive in the world. Most graduate students and assistant professors cannot afford these conferences. With limited university support they can attend one of these a year, if that. My call is to cease participation in these types of conferences. They are of a very limited use on the CV, for networking, or experience.
2) The second is the “free conference” with no fee, where you can attend and participate but you are required to pay your travel and lodging. With limited university support you can almost pay for all of the travel and lodging. Attend these conferences only if they provide valuable networking and publishing experience. I only go to these if they are small, defined by less than 40 people and/or have a plan for post-conference publication of a book or special journal edition. Then it is useful for you and you don’t have to pay the extortion conference fee. These conference organizers have done their work finding university patronage to pay for space rental and didn’t pass the cost onto you.
3) Thirdly, there is the “all expenses conference.” Here the conference organizers will pay travel, lodging, and conference fees. These are rare but if you are patient and continue in academia you can find 1-2 of these a year—which is about all the conferences you need a year. They are small and rewarding and free. It may take them a month to pay you back based on receipts and therefore they leave you with £1000 less for a month, which can be difficult, but the money will return.
The extortion conference system is like publishing in the physical sciences—they will publish your personally subsidized work at a profit only after you pay us. In the social sciences, we rarely encounter a journal requiring payment (except see American Ethnologist) but the system is the same. The extortion conference system, like the proprietary closed door publishing system, thrives on personal economic subsidization and relies upon a now-absent university patronage. Both systems negate open sharing of information. Proprietary academic publishing puts our research behind gates and wirewalls and extortion conferences make it economically impossible to share our work in their closed and cold hotel basements. Both systems are economically classed: proprietary publishing and extortion conferences both reward those who can pay to play.
We must break the back of this free labor system. Stop paying conference fees.