This week I have had the very great pleasure of attending the International Meeting for Autism Research in San Sebastián / Donostia in northern Spain. Loads of things about the conference were great, not least the extraordinary venue and the beautiful city with its delicious local cuisine. But I’m also now suffering from a serious conference burnout which has got me thinking about the value of academic conferences. We all spend a lot of (taxpayer) money registering for them, travelling long distances by unecological means to get there, and I wonder whether the research, and especially the beneficiaries of the research, get enough from the experience to warrant the outlay of time, money and effort?
For any readers who’ve never attended a major academic conference, like IMFAR, the brief rundown is that you have two or three days of presentations on topics on a certain theme – in this case research with and for people with autism spectrum disorders. A smaller conference might have a more specific theme, like the meeting I attended last year on Innovative Technologies and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ITASD), or be principally attended by people from just one country, like the meetings organised by the British Psychological Society. Presentations take two main forms: talks with PowerPoint slides, which are followed by a brief interval for questions from the audience; and poster presentations when research is summarised on a large poster. IN the latter case, the poster is displayed in a specific location at a specific time, and the presenter stands next to it, while people come and “visit” her poster and can normally take away a handout or ask questions. Both talks and posters are organised so presenters on similar themes are grouped together. At any one time there may be a number of different sets of presentations occurring – three sets of talks and a simultaneous poster session at IMFAR this year – and so delegates have to choose what to see and may flit back and forth between sessions in an attempt to catch their topics of interest. In addition, there are occasional keynote speakers – when they’re on, there are no competing talks and these are by invitation only so they represent the most prestigious element. Keynotes will often review a whole field or describe a complex set of studies on a theme, while other talks tend to report only on the big findings from a single piece of research.
So where do I feel conference attendance is beneficial and where is it not so helpful?
First, although posters are often considered a lower tier of presentation (less prestigious than a talk as they may reach a smaller audience) this can be a really valuable opportunity to discuss your research in detail with interested experts. They may comment on your analysis and suggest new ways to explore your data, they may have insights to help you interpret observed patterns, and they might recommend relevant reading. If their work is in a similar field you can both benefit from sharing experiences and also help to make sure your work is complementary rather than competitive.
Poster sessions also provide a great opportunity for networking. Networking happens across the whole conference too of course, in coffee breaks and at evening meals. While it does help an individual’s career, there is more to it than that. Making links with academics in the field can support future research. For example, once you’ve met in person, you might then share your task designs across universities, so that researchers from another country can replicate your work and vice versa. This can help to create rigorous bodies of evidence and also to ensure that people aren’t reinventing the wheel with each new research project. It is nearly always better to use an existing task than to create a new one if you can possibly avoid it.
Conferences are also incredibly valuable for someone entering a new field of study. I’ve recently become engaged in a project looking at early brain and behavioural signs of autism (and other atypical development) in babies using brain scans, eye-tracking and other measures. And I’m also developing a grant application for a study which will explore job interview experiences, skills and training in adolescents and adults with autism. There was some great stuff on both of these topics at IMFAR this year and so I was able to get a sense of what is already being done and where our work can make a new and unique contribution. Because conference data often hasn’t been published yet, it is particularly valuable to have this chance as otherwise you might start your own study and only later discover that someone has already been doing much the same thing!
One of the weaknesses of the conference experience however, is the difficulty of really engaging with the material. It is a whirlwind of new information and catching up with old friends which leaves me quite exhausted. So there is a significant risk that much of what we see and hear isn’t retained well. Like many people, I used to take notes but finding the time to review those notes later and deciding what to do with them later is another matter! Now instead I only write down new reading and very occasionally the name of a person I would like to make a professional link with.
A fairly recent feature of the IMFAR conferences has been the introduction of Special Interest Groups, which may have some very short talks but also feature group discussions. While timetabled at the anti-social hour of 7.30am, these have been a wonderful opportunity to look in-depth at a specific issue, and in particular to start international networks of researchers with a common interest. This year I chaired a SIG on autism and technology and we hope in the coming months to set up mentoring and interdisciplinary links between members of the new community, share new developments via a joint blog or mailing list, and continue a discussion about how to create a better structure for research in this field.
One final thing about the conference experience is the opportunity to share your work with others. Even if you don’t get a chance to really discuss what you’ve done, and even if your audience don’t really remember the details later, it is essential that scientists and all academics communicate their findings to other academics as well as to the community and to relevant professionals such as teachers, therapists and clinicians. If we cannot adequately describe our work, expose ourselves to scrutiny, and welcome constructive criticism, then we should seriously question the value and integrity of our research. Conferences provide an excellent opportunity to put ourselves and our work to this test.