Sir — The day has finally arrived when I receive more scientific meeting announcements than junk mail. I read all the programmes with interest, but wonder about the rationale for such a deluge, when information flows freely over the Internet. Notices of meetings and workshops, scientific discussions, the contents of forthcoming journal issues and many other matters can all be found on the Web. So why travel to a meeting when, in most cases, the information is not even new?
As I open the envelopes, my interest fades rapidly when I see the same speakers and topics regularly repeated. I am not criticizing scientists who circle the globe sharing their discoveries and knowledge with the rest of us, but to me they are on a scientific carousel. Each colourful horse is ridden by a speaker with a lecture in his or her right hand. As the merry-go-round rotates, the topic and speaker will cross your path no matter where you are standing.
So what can justify the existence of scientific meetings? They ought to allow us to communicate and share new advances; to discuss new applications for a technique; to hear the latest evidence supporting a discovery; to develop new projects, and so on.
But the whole principle of a scientific meeting — innovation — is ignored in most of these scientific events. The number of meetings inversely correlates with the amount of interesting data to be communicated. On the scientific carousel, a meeting is held for commercial reasons and people attend out of opportunism (local rivalries, for example) or to visit fancy places. In meetings held by scientific societies, however, the spirit of science is maintained, as participants share and discuss advances and challenge each other verbally.
An individual can communicate exciting results on the Web, but the work cannot be generally accepted until it has been challenged and recognized by fellow researchers at meetings. The recognition and respect of one's peers is what constitutes scientific kinship and justifies society meetings. As for the scientific carousel — like any other fairground attraction, time and market forces will determine its lifespan.