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I am a research scientist, and as part of my role I am expected to perform some form of public outreach and engagement. I enjoy outreach activities and giving public lectures.

I have a suspicion that free public lectures are usually poorly attended. I suspect that the attitude is one of "Well, it's free and you get what you pay for". Certainly the quality of artistic performances that I've seen is strongly correlated with entrance fee.

While it is a reasonable expectation that my Faculty would pay for the costs of lecture room hire, advertising, possibly even tea and biscuits, I wonder if there is an advantage of charging a nominal fee to attend, to overcome the low-quality perception of a free lecture.

What are the views of the community on this?

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I suspect that the answers will be more or less opinionated to this one. I personally feel that charging an attendance fee is unethical (especially in this context) and unpleasant. I personally would not be very psyched to go listen to a scientist who charges people who want to come listen to him/her. –  posdef Feb 12 at 8:25
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Bring free pizza if you want more people to attend. :-) –  Peter K. Feb 12 at 13:48
    
Not really an answer, but good for a comment: the public lectures about research I know of are quite successful (mainly in mathematics) and the key is advertisement and, prominently, working with high schools. As far as I understand, high school teachers are enrolled to discuss related content beforehand in their classrooms, and the trip to the lecture is organized for a number of classes from a variety of high schools. Of course this needs quite an organization and good connections. –  Benoît Kloeckner Feb 12 at 19:15
    
There should also be cultural differences ... the "you get what you pay for" mentality is mostly an American thing in my experience, and does not apply everywhere. I got my undergraduate degree in an Eastern European city. I remember that there public lectures by scientist would always be free, while some of the more successful charlatans spreading pseudoscience would charge fees or try to make money out of it another way. –  Szabolcs Feb 13 at 23:39
    
'the quality of artistic performances that I've seen is strongly correlated with entrance fee' There might be another cause for that. Maybe artists take paying venues more seriously (people will be upset if they paid for something bad). –  Jigg May 8 at 17:38
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5 Answers 5

I doubt exclusivity as represented by an entrance fee would attract people to a lecture. After al, it is the subject that is of importance. thus the advertisement is key and the way you set your topic in a wider perspective. If the topic concern people such as climate change, environmental issues, medicine to mention a few, people will come. It will be more difficult to attract people to topics they either do not know anything about or are not interested in (or in the worst case, is not widely reported in media). Thus, my negative perspective is that the success of attracting an audience is to a large extent a question of how the topic is known by and an interest of the public.

So, I would advice against charging for the lecture and put all efforts into making the lecture as interesting as possible for the intended audience. And, to do this by coupling the topic to a larger picture that is relevant to the public. And finally, if you do not get a huge audience, it does not mean there is anything wrong with your research or lecture, public interest varies over time and research can have huge relevance for important aspects of society and life without attracting a wide audience.

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I remember this issue from my econ 101 class (far too long ago). The teacher said "As the price of something goes up, demand goes down, all else remaining equal." A student responded "But if you increase the price, you increase the 'perceived value' of your offering thus more people will want it then your demand will increase."

One saw things from a marketing perspective and one saw from an economics perspective.

The teacher, however, responded that the student's statement is generally only true for luxury items which demand higher than normal market prices for their category of product.

I believe your thinking is in line with the student in this story. I would not consider a talk from an academic to be a luxury item (even for a 'rockstar academic'). I would go along with Peter in his answer and posdef in the comment: The cheaper (best=free) the lecture, the more likely I am to go and the more likely I am to encourage my friends to go, since they cannot complain about it being too expensive.

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Wouldn't the rockstar academic have a full lecure hall by definition? And thus not the problem this question is about? –  cbeleites Feb 12 at 16:58
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@cbeleites well it's all relative. A "rockstar academic" is much different from an actual rock star. –  David Z Feb 12 at 17:17
    
@DavidZ: what I thought of when reading the term were a bunch of famous scientists (also famous for giving awesome lectures) I heard. When those were around, the lecture hall was always full. Mainly with academic audience, though. I think it is largely a thing of reputation: for the lecture series and the lecturer and much goes by person-to-person information. –  cbeleites Feb 12 at 17:25
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If your work is publicly funded in some way, then your outreach should be free. If attendance is poor, consider finding some other venue for your outreach, such as an event hosted by a school or museum where you will have a more "captive" audience.

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A possibility that I have not seen mentioned: contribute the lecture as part of a fundraiser.

This stems from the belief that while information should be free, the actions of distributing it should not. If you find an organization (possibly even on campus) toward which you are sympathetic and might have such returned because of the subject matter of your lecture, you might offer the lecture as part of a fundraising effort, requesting a minimal contribution. This may achieve both goals of increasing its perceived value (as suggested elsewhere in this thread) and having you perform more of a service than just delivering information. A side benefit is that the recipient organization normally will handle the logistics of scheduling the talk and getting the audience.

Check with your university on approved ways of doing this: I have not done anything like this in this millenium, so the rules may have changed.

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I think whether or not charging a fee is a feasible idea depends on the circumstances. There are several factors at play here.

  • Your role. This is the hearer's primary perception of you. E.g. I think it is quite common that authors who read from their book charge some fee. This would be perceived like the artistic performance you mention, and it is also the case for journalists talking about e.g. political topics. On the other hand, it is really (at least here) uncommon to charge entrance fees for scientific lectures for the public.

  • The topic. The "norms" of fees for lectures may vary according to your topic.

    If you are talking about some medical topic and charge even a nominal fee, I think there is a risk of repelling people more than one could attribute to the fee: you may leave a slightly "fishy" impression that you are talking for the fee and thus maybe you are saying what you think the audience wants to hear as opposed to giving an independent opinion. Just like the default opinion is "be cautious" if the lecture were sponsored say, by a pharma company.

    I don't think it would matter in this case if the fee is so nominal that it doesn't even cover the rent for the lecture hall. Of course in this case, you could turn the argument and say "I'm charging a fee of you, dear audience, so that I do not need to go to pharma industry for sponsoring".

    For topics which are also discussed politically, I think the reasoning should be roughly similar. Though people are used to hearing speakers that have a clear political opinion, and there are scenarios where it would probably be perceived as normal if entrance is charged (see the book author reading).

    If on the other hand you are going to give an awesome experimental lecture, I think no concerns about your integrity would be linked to the fee. People may be willing to pay just as they pay the entrance fee for a science museum.

Note that none of these points looks like drawing a larger audience (unless maybe the fees are to cover extra advertisement), just like repelling some or not.

A completely different consideration: Why not choose a smaller lecture hall? It is not very pleasant to be in an empty-looking lecture hall, neither for the speaker nor for the audience. Much better if the hall small enough to be well filled. And a slightly overfilled lecture hall leaves the nice impression that far more people did come than were thought to come... May also be creating an impression that this lecture is an insider tip.

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@JZimmerman: thanks for the edit. –  cbeleites Feb 13 at 11:04
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