Conference attendance boosts authorship opportunities

Scientists who travel to meetings are more likely to co-author papers than are those who stay at home.
Paul Smaglik is a freelance writer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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Conference attendees in discussion

Face-to-face interaction at conferences boosts chances of co-authorship.Credit: GCShutter/Getty

Academic researchers looking for data to justify their conference expenses might now have the hard evidence they need — and it’s all thanks to a hurricane.

A study in The Economic Journal suggests that scientists who attend conferences are more likely to co-author papers with colleagues or new collaborators whom they meet at those events than are researchers who do not attend conferences1.

Study authors examined the effects on co-authorship of an annual conference that had been scheduled for August 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana, but which was cancelled because of a hurricane. They compared the publication record of registrants to the cancelled event with that of researchers who attended similar annual conferences that year. Collectively, they studied the publication output of 17,467 researchers.

Registrants to the cancelled conference were almost 16% less likely to have co-authored a paper within 4 years after the non-event than were researchers who had attended a similar conference. “This is the first natural experiment that demonstrates the importance of conference participation on co-authorship,” says study co-author Raquel Campos, an economist at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Campos says that the results might seem intuitive, given that researchers attend conferences in part to seek collaboration. But, she says, the study quantifies what many academic researchers already believe to be true. Furthermore, it gives weight to the idea that even though scientists have many ways of meeting virtually and beginning professional relationships, in-person meetings trounce online ones. “Even in this connected world, personal communication — face-to-face interactions — still matter, to foster collaboration and launch productive scientific partnerships,” Campos says.

The study did not examine the effects of attending digital conferences on collaborations and publication rates.

The findings have important policy implications, Campos adds. Conference travel is expensive, so any resulting collaborations might be more likely to occur among researchers at larger institutions with more-generous travel budgets. Researchers at such institutions are already at an advantage in terms of collaboration, because they have a larger in-house network of colleagues to draw from, Campos says.

Sociologist Kathrin Zippel at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, says that the study results can apply to nearly all scientific disciplines, save for fields, such as physics, that depend on large teams of collaborators. Such teams tend to gather people from existing networks, she says. Still, she adds, the research provides quantitative evidence that conference participation can broaden networks and bring new collaborators together, and thus helps to justify attendance. “Conferences are opportunities to meet new and potentially better fitting collaborators than does merely relying on one’s existing networks,” says Zippel. “This can lead to publications in higher-ranked journals.”

Scientists from countries under travel restrictions, or those who have difficulties getting travel visas, might have a smaller chance of forming collaborations that lead to publication as those from nations where travel is less complicated. Even in a digital world, such partnerships are often formed in person, says Campos. “Attending conferences provides important resources to meet like-minded researchers,” she says, “and to help find others whose works in progress mesh with theirs”.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07772-5
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  1. 1.

    Campos, R. et al. Econ. J. 128, 995–1018 (2018).

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