What is the distinction between the following scientific events:

  • conference,
  • congress,
  • symposium,
  • meeting?

While I have some idea about differences (e.g. congress - large and serious, meeting - by a certain organization, ...) I have an impression that sometimes the terms are used interchangeably.

Is it safe to assume that the three later are variants of a scientific conference?

  • I downvoted: There is no universal answer, each community has its own idea of what is what. – Sylvain Peyronnet Feb 16 '12 at 15:03
  • @SylvainPeyronnet - Of course, but isn't there at least a notion of what is what? You'd hardly think the definition of a "journal publication" would vary widely from field to field, would you? – TCSGrad Feb 16 '12 at 15:07
  • 1
    @SylvainPeyronnet: Well, I guess I don't understand the downvote. Is the question unclear of off-topic? It is perfectly fine to answer with it depends by field: in hard sciences ..., in medicine ..., whereas in engineering ... . – Piotr Migdal Feb 16 '12 at 15:14
  • @shan23: even for a journal paper it is not the same field by field. At least this is my conclusion after seeing papers of relatives in other fields. – Sylvain Peyronnet Feb 16 '12 at 15:21
  • @PiotrMigdal: in this case, I think we should wrote a question by field. Otherwise it is too confusing for occasional users of SE. For me the question is (somehow) clear and on topic, but is not constructive. – Sylvain Peyronnet Feb 16 '12 at 15:22

There are certain (informal) nuances I believe:

  1. Symposium - Prestigious conferences, generally leading venues in their respective fields. Example: Symposium on Discrete Algorithms, European Test Symposium, Symposium on Foundations of Computer Science (FOCS) etc

  2. Conference - Regular venues for publications, may range from established venues to the archaic. I understand the bulk of publications of most researchers are in one conference or other, as symposiums tend to have a very low acceptance rate.

  3. Meeting - I'm not so sure there are many of these, but I understand that it is more of a forum for interaction/surveys/posters than for publication of full papers. (I based my answer on the description for SIAM Annual Meeting 2012, which describes itself as providing "a broad view of the state of the art in applied mathematics, computational science, and their applications through invited presentation, prize lectures, minisymposia, and contributed papers and posters".)

  4. Congress - This would typically be held once a year per discipline, highlighting the achievements, notable results in that field. These are typically attended by leaders in that field, and feature a series of invited talks (for example, look at Mathematical Congress of the Americas 2013).

  • 6
    I agree that congresses are usually big, but otherwise I think the distinctions are pretty arbitrary. Basically, the name is whatever the organizers choose to call it. Any constraints come just because it would feel a little silly to call a twenty-person workshop a congress, for example. I don't see symposia as being particularly prestigious, but maybe organizers aiming for prestige are more likely to choose that name (because of the classical etymology). – Anonymous Mathematician Apr 25 '12 at 14:30
  • 4
    Were symposia actually believed to be universally more prestigious, the hacks who run fake conferences would immediately start calling their venues "symposia." Perhaps they already do... – Lev Reyzin Apr 25 '12 at 20:37
  • A couple of examples to keep in mind: The International Congress of Mathematicians is not held every year but every four years (with one slight deviation from periodicity, caused by martial law in Poland). The Boise Extravaganza in Set Theory is, as far as I know, the only meeting called an extravaganza; the name was chosen for the acronym. – Andreas Blass Nov 15 '15 at 21:35

Nothing. They're synonyms. See also "Workshop".


"Conference" or "meeting" are catch-all terms that can refer to any scientific gathering. However, I'd argue that a "Symposium" tends to be smaller than the others, and more narrowly focused. "Conferences," "Congresses," and "Meetings" can all be huge affairs, but it's hard to think of many "Symposium" with a similar size. A "workshop" is also an event of somewhat smaller size than a "congress" (which generally implies a huge attending audience).

  • Agreed, the only thing I would add is that "scientific gathering" is himself a bit of a limiting term, historians, librarians, etc all have academic conferences, meetings, workshops and congresses but are not scientists. So might be best to say "scholarly gatherings" or "academic gatherings" – Trevor Owens Apr 25 '12 at 12:51
  • Fair enough. I was following the original poster's question. Although I don't recall historical "congresses" (not a statement that there aren't any—just hadn't heard about them from my historian professor colleagues). – aeismail Apr 25 '12 at 13:08
  • "However, I'd argue that a "Symposium" tends to be smaller than the others, " In my experience meetings are the small ones with a very narrow field. – DSVA Aug 4 '17 at 11:42
  • I suppose it depends on the field, because in mine, symposiums are actually the biggest by far, with multiple tracks running at the same time, and thousands of attendants. – Pablo Aug 4 '17 at 11:43
  • @DSVA The Society of Neuroscience Annual Meeting is enormous and icnredibly broad – Azor Ahai Aug 4 '17 at 16:37

Such differences also depend on the development of scientific associations and how they named their annual conference/congress/meeting in the first place. For instance the general conference of the ECPR and the IPSA World Congress Might use different terms, but they all are organised and work quite similarly.
Plus, sometimes, it is just a way of naming a gathering of academics more fancy ;) , see http://phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1704


Congress- Conference- Colloquium- Symposium- Seminar- Workshop;
have the following differences if one proceeds from Congress to workshop:

  • Informality decreases
  • Number of participants decreases
  • One theme and many sub-themes with a large scope to one narrow theme, scope narrows down
  • A number of papers and key note addresses to limited number of papers and key note addresses.
  • Informal discussion to hands on job training
  • Colloquium is limited to a group of researchers concerned with a few themes mostly to review progress.
  • workshop means something job training, do it yourself.
  • 2
    Can you please provide some evidence or documentation for your assertions? This doesn't agree with my own experiences. – jakebeal Nov 14 '15 at 19:37

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