Academic conferences. Who pays?

August 6, 2015 - HE politics / Women in Computing

My friend Cate Huston has written a post about tech conferences, and the thorny question of who pays for speakers to attend. You can find it here: Uncomfortable Conversations About Money. I was going to write a comment on it, but then realised I had a bit more to say, so here’s a post instead.

I’ve only spoken at a couple of “mainstream” tech conferences, and they’ve either been local (so travel wasn’t an issue) or they’ve paid my travel. Which is nice. It is also a very unusual experience for me — very very rarely do academic computing conferences pay your travel, fee, or accommodation. Even if you’re presenting on the main stage you’ll have to pay the registration fee, and that’s usually hundreds of pounds/dollars/euros/whatevers. That’s not the only contrast though – here are the key differences as I see them:

Industry computing conferencesAcademic computing conferences
Speakers are invited, or submit abstractsSpeakers submit full papers (usually 4-15 pages). Conferences which are worth getting into (more on this later) will go to peer review
Often speakers are invited on their ability to give a good talkThe ability to give a good talk is irrelevant: whether you get in or not depends on the quality of your paper (and the robustness of the peer review process, of course)
There are lots of freebies: coffee, toys, t-shirts, etc.Most of the time, you’ll be lucky to get a usb stick and an unfashionable t-shirt (mens cut only)

What options are there for paying?

  1. Uni pays: Some unis have a central travel fund which can provide a contribution.
  2. Department pays: Some departments have a travel fund
  3. A grant pays: If you have been awarded a grant to do the work, you’ll have put some conference money in the grant proposal.
  4. You get an external travel grant: my professional body The British Machine Vision Association has travel bursaries for PhD students. Other societies might have the same.
  5. You pay with “slush money”: in a lot of unis, researchers will have their own personal research accounts, where little bits of money go. Grant overheads, consultancy money, prizes. In mine, I’ve had a teaching award (£1.2k), and some consultancy money (£1k) for schools outreach work that the project was going to pay to me personally, but which I put in the uni account just so I’d have some money for work-related travel and equipment. These funds can be used for any research-related expenditure; mine mostly goes on conference travel, camera kit (for computer vision work), and robots for schools outreach projects.
  6. Your PhD supervisor pays with their slush money: if you’re a student (and the department won’t pay), you can ask your supervisor. If you’re a supervisor, better build up some slush.
  7. You pay yourself: or partly pay, if you can only raise a bit from the department
  8. You put someone else on the paper: someone who’s likely to travel and can present the work, and who hopefully is related to the work. A few conferences will let non-named authors present which is another way of getting your work out there, if you can’t get out there yourself.
  9. You don’t go: this is a real pain in the arse, particularly if you’ve done the work, written a 12 page paper, got accepted, then find you have to withdraw due to lack of funds. It’s such a pain in the arse that I suspect most people don’t submit to conferences unless they’ve got a reasonable expectation of being able to afford to go.

The sources of funding have criteria attached, and I have seen all of the following (although not applied to the same funding stream, that would be silly).

  • Available to people at a particular career stage, e.g. early career researchers or PhD students
  • A limit on the number of applications per year: one conference a year; one national conference a year; one international conference a year
  • Geographical limits e.g. “National or European conferences only”
  • Conference quality related limits: either a named list of “ranking” conferences, or only conferences with acceptance rates below X% (x=33, in one place I worked)

I’ve only paid for my own conferences out of my salary once or twice, and those have been times when I have partial funding, or we’ve gotten extended versions of student project work published and I really want to support the student in going. There was a particularly memorable “getting to ITHET2003 in Morocco the cheap way” journey involving a cheap flight to Malaga, then coaches, ferries, trains and taxis, which meant that the travel costs were minimal and splitting the funding enabled both me and my project student to go. I think this cost me personally about 400 quid, but it was 400 quid well spent in my view.

Is there an equalities spin on this?

As ever there’s the question of equalities. The usual tech conference questions apply just as well to academic computing conferences. Speaker gender balance is harder to address, as you can’t just “invite more women”. Childcare is not often provided. In computer vision, at least, there’s a very real chance of being the only woman in the room (which is odd). But on the plus side, in computer vision, a lot of our peer review processes are double blind anonymous (where the reviewers don’t know who you are, and you don’t know who the reviewer is) which takes gender out of the equation during the decision process.

When we come to funding in particular there are two equalities issues I can think of.

Anything that is restricted to early career needs to have a well thought through definition of what “early career” means, so that the criteria do not disadvantage those who have taken career breaks.

A lot of the arrangements are informal and “can I have funding” boils down to asking a guy if you can go. One of the things Cate’s article touches upon is that transparency can be good for equality. If you have a policy, don’t make people ask to see it – make it clear. If you don’t have a policy, or you have one but it’s not well-known, you’re relying on people finding it out through informal chat, or asking for help. And in that case, you’re biasing the system against the reticent and the out-groups.

› tags: computing / conferences / politics / university / women /

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