Coming back from the odd experience of going to a conference while simultaneously running another conference has helped reinforce some of the problems which led me to create this conference in the first place. I will talk about my misgivings about academic conferences I went to, why I will refuse to participate in these types of exploitative practices in the future, and why I decided to personally spend the cost of going to just 2-3 events to put on my own free conference for 130 people.
(Updated Wed June 20, 11:22, 2561 Thailand)
(hahaha not my fault this is a perfect anagram)
Many academic conferences have become a model of exploitation and exclusion. The things I will say here are not news to academics at all, but they bear repeating wide and broadly to help shed a light on how crazy the rituals of the academic conference process have become. It might also help to have people from outside this field view this to see the types of exploitation we are dealing with here.
In fact here is a slide I skipped at my recent talk at DIS 2018 in Hong Kong:
I had originally intended to dedicate half of my talk to discussing the problems with these conferences, but at the last minute I just switched to giving the regular speech about my paper. Perhaps I wimped out, but I felt that the audience wouldn’t even be affected by my words. Through all the talks before, they largely sat solemnly, working on their own powerpoints they would present and be ignored during. These talks had so little impact that the community didn’t even seem like they would be interested in themselves. Instead I tried to just give a nice positive talk about the fun you can have making stuff outdoors to help wake people up and imbue them with a little bit of life. Again, it seems weak to present these ideas here in a blog post rather than through directly confronting folks, but it didn’t feel appropriate then or that those words would have much impact. Instead, I would like to share my thoughts and try to spur other academics to cut out their own contributions to this exploitative system.
I became acutely aware of this problem during an ACM conference in 2017. I had a paper, an artwork, and a “pictorial” I was sharing. The organizers (who are really awesome nice people!) had a workshop created by another person that needed extra help. They wanted to know if I could add some physical computing / hacking components to help out this workshop. I originally was against it because I was crazily overloaded during that time, but agreed because the organizers were my friends and I wanted to help.
When the time of the workshop arrived, hardly anything had been planned. Originally I was under the impression that I was just going to be there do some electronics crafts in addition to all the activities for this day-long workshop. I ended up having to fill 6 hours with improvised activities I had to quickly borrow and adapt from previous projects i had led. In my opinion this was quite irritating and irresponsible. The participants had spent good money and more importantly offered their time to join this event, but thrown together, last minute workshops are quite common at conferences like these.
The kicker came though when the organizer pulled me to the side asking about my registration. “You haven’t registered,” -“oh sorry, I can go sign in” -“but you have to pay the fees too” – “but I am running the workshop” – “well you still have to pay the registration fees.”
Lucky for me this organizer was an extremely nice person who is actively fighting to against the types of absurd exploitation in these conferences. These chairs ended up comping my fee after acknowledging my contribution and help for the conference, but they wanted me to be aware of this BS rule (which they seemed to feel similarly about).
So I was a lucky one to not have to pay for the workshop I organized, but my eyes were pulled wide open to how backwards things were run at these academic conferences. Seriously, the people running these workshops were expected to pay large sums of money to attend their own educational seminar?
I had always had an inkling to try to make my own conference about my research, but this incident fired me up. The ways things currently work was so ridiculous, if anything, i wanted to start my own conference to demonstrate that things didn’t have to be this way.
The Problems with Many Current Academic Conferences
I come from a background in HCI (Human Computer Interaction) and thus many of the conferences I have attended follow these exploitative models, and are run by organizations like the Association for Computing Machines (ACM https://www.acm.org/about-acm/acm-history ). I want to note that the people organizing these conferences are amazing super nice helpful people, and I don’t blame them, rather I blame all of us for perpetuating this system that keeps exploiting us all.
Some may not be aware exactly how this whole weird system works (and why should you!). Here’s a quick run down of how this stuff seems to work from my limited experience:
The first problem – setting the stage to make people thirsty for metrics
- Universities are lazy and want quick and easy ways to grade their professors and determine if they should get bonuses or denied tenure.
- A basic metric that these academic institutions have adopted is seeing how many papers you publish.
- Of course, anyone can publish anything, so the Universities want some kind of lazy way to note what kinds of publications “count” and what do not (and it’s not like the institutions are going to actually read the papers you wrote).
- Thus the Universities will create a list of “prestigious” venues where you can publish papers and they will think you are a fancy person if you have these conferences and journals listed on your resume. They will go super deep into pseudo-science here and come up with bizarre algorithms to be able to easily calculate things like “impact factor” made up by people who will do anything possible to quickly rank humans rather than just take time to see the kinds of things they do (inventor of the “Impact factor” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugene_Garfield#Criticism)
- The result is that academics are faced with desperate pressure to publish in these selected journals or else get fired.
The second problem – conferences gaming this broken system
So now that you have a captive audience of people whose jobs are literally on the line unless their publish in your venue, what should you do? Exploit them! Here’s how it works! *Note: in HCI and Computer Science and some other disciplines researchers publish papers that they share in “conferences” which tend to be seen as the sort of equivalent of publishing in “journals” in science fields for instance. So this will describe a typical conference process and highlights the spots where people are being needlessly exploited.
- People submit their work to you, typically in the form of a paper.
- The entire conference is organized (logistics and everything) by volunteers. They get a budget to actually pay for things like booking venues and catering ahead of time, but they themselves are not paid at all. Instead it is seen as a prestigious position, and members of the community take note of the dedication and work they provide to their field (as they should, organizing these conferences is super hard work!)
- The conference organizers have to hunt down more volunteers to run different aspects of the conference (e.g. papers committee, and workshop committee). These folks then get stacks of submissions they then have to find even more volunteers to go review. This creates a full-on pyramid of unpaid labor running all aspects of the conference. Everyone involved is generally extremely busy and has a whole other full time job.
- If your paper gets accepted (yay!), you have to prepare it yourself for the publisher. This includes all styling, basic editing, and even the nitty gritty like loading in the copyright notice and making sure your fonts are embedded.
- You then have to pay the fees to go to the conference, or else they will cancel the acceptance of your paper. These fees typically range between $400-$1400 USD.
- You typically have to also get yourself to the conference to stand up in front of others and give a little presentation about your paper. For an average international conference, I have calculated this to be between $1500-$2500 USD for housing, flights, transport, and food.
- On top of all of this, most of these conferences then lock away your work that you gave them for free (and paid to attend) behind a paywall. This means if you or others want access to this article (e.g. https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=3059486) you generally have to pay to get a copy, pay to make it “open access,” or have your institution pay a subscription to the publisher (or use the wonderful, yet generally illegal https://sci-hub.tw/ )
- So an average international conference runs an academic about $2000-$3500 USD, but they often shrug off these costs because they can use grants or institutional funds to cover these fees. This of course shuts off people without grants or institutional support.
I’m not saying that all unpaid work is exploitative or that people should never volunteer their time or money to help out their field. My problem with this system is when the large amounts of money become involved on top of the free labor already provided. Conferences are difficult to run and participants should be expected to chip in money or time to help get the conference going. The exploitation comes in, however, when both of the participants time and money are being demanded in large quantities. If the participants all volunteered and put on a great free conference together that would be great! If participants paid $1000
Where does all this money go? Example Conference Fees
Originally I was upset at these crazy fees charged on top of all the labor everyone in the community did for these conferences because I was thinking, “What is ACM doing with all this money?” If people are paying 1000$ a head and 4000 people show up like at CHI (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conference_on_Human_Factors_in_Computing_Systems), that’s at least 4 million dollars they are working with.
Are these millions needed just to rent out some rooms people can talk in and some snacks to eat between talks. I figured the organizations were just pocketing it, but academic friends who are much more experienced in all this, like Jofish Kaye, explained to me that one of the real people winning out monetarily is the Hotel industry. According to them, the ACM isn’t growing fat off people’s registration fees, but rather the fancy hotels and venues these events are held at are raking in the dough.
The other people pulling in the money from the ACM are the publishers themselves! This was another thing I didn’t realize. The conference has to PAY money to the publishers themselves. For instance ACM Creativity and Cognition 2017 had a budget of ~$45,000, and $6,000 of that went straight to the publisher Sheridan. This is on top of whatever money the publisher makes in the future off charging for this data they made the people pay for.
The Ill Effects of this Exploitation
When a system becomes exploitative like this, the damage it does does not stop with the individuals, but rather it degrades all aspects of the field. Persons feeling exploited are not able to properly reflect on the work of them and their peers, but rather have to focus on recouping as much lost costs in the publishing Rat race.
- The “peer review” done by whatever uncompensated people could be coerced into reviewing a paper becomes unreliable.
- Expensive fees cut off interested parties with lower incomes
- The pyramid- like structure encourages future leaders in the field to continue similarly exploiting newcomers out of tradition and spite.
- Monetary resources go from academics and their grants (potentially from public money) to pay for big fancy hotels instead of research materials, communities, or people.
- People are so resource limited and stressed they often miss most of the conference. The conference is full of people ignoring each other until it is their time to stand up and be ignored.
- The paywalls and hierarchies limit any kind of true “impact” from a paper.
- People are motivated almost entirely out of fear of their institutions rather than love of their research.
Exploring Alternative Ways
Instead of complaining, or passing the blame onto these conferences, I decided the best way to investigate this problem would be to try to run my own conference and see if I can understand more why academic conferences are the way they are, and perhaps find ways they can be better.
A full description of this, and the budget it available here:
But to quickly recap, I took $6800 USD of my own money and rented out a space for people to live and work together for 8 weeks. As interest grew, people donated about $2500 USD directly and another $8000 USD to my collaborator, Tasneem Khan, to help expand the activities of the conference.
From there. we:
- charge no registration
- Freely share all materials developed by it
- have a collaborative peer review system
- provide free or heavily subsidized housing
- provide multiple small travel grants.
- provide tools and physical resources for experimentation, design, research, and documentation.
- Provide free professional documentation and editing services
It is halfway through now, but already it seems to be working quite well.
Conclusion: Let’s Stop Perpetuating this Nonsense
Again, many academics are aware of this, but what I am trying to say is, let’s stop this. Let’s break this cycle. It’s more important to stop passing down this broken, exploitative system onto future generations of academics than to worry about your own tenure possibilities.
Here are some take-aways I am making as a personal pledge to myself
- I will no longer help recruit “reviewers” for papers if they are not compensated in some way.
- I will avoid reviewing papers for exploitative systems, and will transfer my reviewing time to help conferences and journals with open policies.
- I will work to set up sustainable events accessible by wide varieties of people to participate.
- I will remind myself that the goals of any event should be to help people, explore new things, share ideas, and have fun. The goal should not be to increase an arbitrary metric for self-promotion.
One of the participants in our conference, Kathy Macleod, wrote a lovely comic about her experience at our conference. She describes coming away from the conference with a glow of “self-acceptance” about the work she is doing.
This was one of the proudest moments I have ever had, and I feel this should be the true goal to any conference, gathering, colloquium, or meeting of the minds: People should come together to show each other that their their work is valued, that their time is valued, and how they can use their work and time to explore new interesting or helpful things. If, instead, the priorities of a conference aren’t set to help people, but rather just to increase prestige, then it is utter bullshit.