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Conferences are a great platform to exchange ideas and to learn about different research areas. Also, more importantly, conferences expedite the process of publishing as journals may take months/years.

However, my question is - "why was is it mandatory to attend a conference in person in order to publish a paper in some xyz conference in pre-pandemic times?"

There are many people constrained by factors like money/time/family and struggle to attend conferences. They do prefer publishing their results at a conference in order to expedite the process of publishing but find it extremely difficult to travel to a foreign country. Conferences are conducted in extremely extravagant venues and attending just lectures costs 500+ euros, leave aside food and stay. Conferences are often held in big cities so lodging is also tough. Travelling to remote countries is not only expensive but also has a large environmental and climate footprint.

In order to grow in academia, it is important to publish fast. But why does research publishing forces constraints like this, and why nobody talks against this? Why cannot there be choice given to authors to not visit if there are other constraints.

Will post-pandemic era be different even slightly different, and will we be inspired by the online system of conference existing in current times.

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  • 16
    what field of study are you in? For the life sciences, many papers are never presented at meetings first. Aug 9 '21 at 15:55
  • 1
    I work in computer science field. A related post also addresses this concern - academia.stackexchange.com/questions/147808/… Aug 9 '21 at 18:07
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    @Aruralreader Previous pandemics with video conferencing?
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 9 '21 at 20:32
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    A conference is a place where people present their work by giving talks and discussing. Sometimes, a conference may collect some short abstracts into a booklet, for people who want to know a bit more about one talk or to refresh their memory later. CS has twisted that into a mess where the conference is seen as competitive publishing. If you remove the part about meeting and giving a talk, the conference has become some kind of journal? Maybe there would be a place for journals that take papers + videos. Fast publishing: either the papers are crap, or the journals could be improved. Aug 10 '21 at 13:34
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    There are many "Letters" or "Express" journals that focus on rapid publication. I do not think the motivation for publishing at conferences is to publish fast: I think it is a way to advertise your work. Your paper may be more likely to draw attention if you present it at a conference session full of people working on your field than if it just appears in a journal among the thousands of papers that appear every month in the same field. And of course, networking during the breaks is an important part of conferences.
    – wimi
    Aug 11 '21 at 9:10
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Conferences are conducted in extremely extravagant venues and attending just lectures costs 500+ euros, leave aside food and stay.

The cynical answer is that in-person attendees pay fees that fund the conference.

Typically conferences involve people presenting the work in some fashion. Even now, video conferencing tools can be a bit unreliable. I'd say they've improved substantially since the pandemic encouraged a lot of investment in that area, and it works well with other trends in the tech industry like cloud services. That said, I think people attending a conference in person want to hear in-person presentations. If people show up at a conference where half of the presenters are remote, they might wonder why they bothered to come in person.

As @RichardErickson points out, in some fields conferences are not the norm, or at least are not the "most respected" venue for publication. So I'd say the causation is a bit upside down: you're asking "why are conferences this way" when you could possibly see it more directly the other way: "'conferences' are what we call it when work is presented this way". You could come up with alternatives, but A) Those alternatives already exist, and B) They just aren't called conferences.

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    The even more cynical answer is that it gives (some of) the attendees an excuse to travel to those extravagant venues, using their research grants to pay for it.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 10 '21 at 5:17
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    (+1) but your answer should say "The cynical (but also accurate) answer...".
    – Ben
    Aug 10 '21 at 8:24
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    @TheVal what advantages are those? I am very in favor of remote work in everything except conferences. The presentations are only a part of conferences, often a small one. As you correctly point out, the in-person talks around posters is where I have gotten most benefit out of the conferences I have attended. That's where the networking happens, that's where you get to discuss cool new developments. Unfortunately, this just doesn't work online. At least not in the virtual conferences I've attended. There were attempts to get people to chat and network but they failed. All we had was the talks.
    – terdon
    Aug 10 '21 at 14:01
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    What Bryan said @TheVal. I was really looking forward to the virtual meetings since I am a fan of all things related to working remotely and have been working from home to a greater or lesser extent for 15 years or more. However networking, the act of randomly meeting people and chatting about your field simply doesn't work well online. That might change one day, but the conferences I've been to (which include a couple of HUGE ones) were just not there. So please dial down your rhetoric, this isn't a question of principle, it is experience. I wish they did work, but they don't.
    – terdon
    Aug 10 '21 at 15:24
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    @jamesqf that's absolutely true. But the online conferences I've attended that tried to offer some form of networking made it even harder for shy people. It is very uncomfortable (and I'm a fairly social person who finds it easy to strike up conversations with strangers) to have a natural conversation with someone you don't know in a video call. So I would say that even for the introverts, networking in online meetings is harder, not easier. If you can't network, then there's no point in conferences anyway. Just read the papers.
    – terdon
    Aug 10 '21 at 17:12
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Having been involved with the organization of a number of conferences, I observe that this comes from the peculiar combination of computer science publication culture and venue contracts.

For most other fields, this would simply never arise as an issue, because conferences don't have "real" publications, and thus there is no point to sending a paper to a conference that you don't attend. Because conference publications "count" in computer science and a few related fields, however, there is a strong incentive to publish but a weaker one to actually show up and give the talk.

So if you didn't force people to show up and give the talk, then a significant fraction of papers might not be presented. That's embarrassing for a conference, but worse, likely to be disastrous for its finances. And that is because of the contracts conferences have to sign with the venues that host them.

Most places that will host a conference, like hotels or convention centers (and even many universities!) will require a certain minimum revenue from the conference, based on the number of days and space that is being occupied. This can be structured in a number of ways, e.g., number of rentals from the room block, total cost, etc., but the bottom line is that for a typical conference the majority of your registration fee goes straight to the venue. And if not enough people show up, the conference still has to pay that minimum cost and will go into debt. Most conferences are thus always walking a fine line between higher registration fees (which attendees will resent) and higher risk of financial disaster (which may kill the conference). Requiring an author to attend (or at least pay a registration fee) is one way to help make finances a little more predictable.

During the pandemic, a lot of conferences have, in fact, successfully gone virtual, and I expect that some will continue that way. But people do still want and need to meet in person for a number of reasons, e.g., you can't have hallway conversations when there are no hallways! And any conferences that meet in person will, no doubt, be right back in the same tension between venues and attendees.

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    Yeah, as somebody currently organising a CS conference, this is the sad truth. If you make attending optional, many of your accepted paper authors will choose not to attend, and then the finances won't work out (and you have no program). One of the many reasons why it's a bad idea to mix up publishing and conferencing / networking the way we do in CS.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 11 '21 at 8:44
  • @jakebeal "And if not enough people show up, the conference still has to pay that minimum cost and will go into debt." But, people paid the registration fees, so why will it go into debt? I guess the number rooms or the space that are booked is based on the number of people registered.
    – FreePawn
    Aug 11 '21 at 16:41
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    @FreePawn The contract is often drawn up based on expected attendance, not actual attendance. Thus, for example, a conference might reserve a block of 100 hotel rooms for 4 nights for attendees. If only 60 attendees actually book before the reservation date ends, then the remaining 40 are released for general booking. If the hotel only books 15 of them to other people, then the conference gets charged for 25 empty hotel rooms for 4 nights each! Problems can likewise happen with respect to other expenses like catering, publication charges, etc. (though the details are different)
    – jakebeal
    Aug 11 '21 at 16:50
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    @FreePawn They're not stupid questions, they're just things that you don't usually see or think about until you've been the one doing the actual organizing. In this case, the problem is that you've got to have the venue contracted long before people start registering and booking their trips. In that contract, the venue is generally in the position of power and able to put the risk on you in the contract. Thus you have to make a bet on how many people will come. If you bet too high, you end up paying for empty rooms. If you bet too low, you end up with attendees who can't book a room.
    – jakebeal
    Aug 11 '21 at 17:23
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    @FreePawn - indeed, conference venues are booked at least a year in advance, sometimes several years for the largest ones (think major conference centers like the Moscone in San Francisco). If you have a big conference (APS March meeting) there are really only a few places you can host it, and those places also host many other academic/industrial conferences. You meet their requirements, or they move on to the next applicant. This involves guarantee on room occupancy, conference room usage, meals, coffee breaks, A/V equipment - they want a piece of it all...
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 11 '21 at 20:03
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To answer your question with a question, what would be the point of publishing a paper at a conference that you don't attend?

I suspect this question is highly dependent on field, but in the natural sciences, I struggle to imagine what would be gained by submitting a paper to a conference that you do not attend. You cannot give a talk, you cannot rope people into your poster, you cannot network, and you can't do anything fun. Basically, you'd be throwing your idea/work out into the void--albeit a void where your work is now technically public, but not published in a journal, with none of the upsides. Why not just submit a paper to a journal at that point?

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    I guess OPs question can indeed be rendered as "x why not just submit to a journal?". That's what researchers in most areas outside CS do anyway.
    – henning
    Aug 11 '21 at 11:41
  • In CS the point is that conference proceedings publications count as "real" publications, and you can submit the "full" version of the work to a journal afterwards, basically allowing you to get two publications out of the same material. This is why submitting "just" to a journal is unappealing in that field.
    – a3nm
    Aug 12 '21 at 9:41
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You point out the advantages of getting together at conferences. Prior to the internet this was the most efficient way for groups of scholars to meet and interact. That has changed, of course.

But, the fact remains that publishing isn't free. There are certain costs, perhaps a bit lower for online than print, but they are still there. Someone has to cover them and usually the funds come from a variety of sources.

For example, large conferences in CS normally have corporate sponsors who contribute to the costs. But attendance fees also cover a large part of the conference and subsequent publication. Members of organizations like ACM also contribute to publication costs through membership fees.

You also point out a problem. Costs, especially travel and housing costs, can be prohibitive for some people, especially if the conference is far away or there are disparities in the economies of different places. This problem doesn't have complete solution.

One possible solution would be for governments to get more involved, though that might also have downsides. But publication fees could be supported (in theory) by taxation, spreading the costs over more people.

Grants to individuals are possible in some places to cover conference fees and travel, but this needs to be planned for. The grants might come from governments (such as the NSF in the US) or from private companies. I once had such a corporate grant that I could use for travel.

Some academic institutions will also provide funds for conference travel, usually assuming the presentation of a paper.

Some conferences, but not the big ones, are held on university campuses during vacation times, reducing costs. But a large conference needs a large venue, with a lot of support activities, and those are, as you say, somewhat extravagant.

My personal view is that education and scholarship, including publishing, is insufficiently supported by government (taxation), and that is a US view. More, in my view, needs to be done to assure a better future.


A note on the pandemic:

When the pandemic hit it was realized that things had to change and that standard practice couldn't be used. But the "compromises" made were always known to be imperfect and experimental. No one really had a very good way to carry on as in the past. But "let's do the best we can with what we have" let us stumble through the chaos. Either we eventually go back to what we had before (conferences) or we design a new way to interact remotely that doesn't have so many downsides. We don't know yet, which outcome will occur.

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  • "perhaps a bit lower for online than print": in fact they are not of the same order of magnitude. arXiv operating costs amount to a few dollars per paper, much cheaper than what it would cost to print and ship paper copies of research articles.
    – a3nm
    Aug 12 '21 at 9:42
  • @a3nm, don't forget the essentially perpetual cost of online hosting, including tech people. It isn't zero and it is a long term promise.
    – Buffy
    Aug 12 '21 at 10:08
  • Yes, it isn't zero, it amounts to a few dollars per paper as arXiv illustrates.
    – a3nm
    Aug 12 '21 at 10:18
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tl;dr: Many people like in-person conferences, and mandatory attendance for authors makes it easy to justify funding of conference trips.

In-person conferences are popular. One thing that many people like about them is that they mean a context change: people leave their familiar daily environment with its many distractions and constraints. Some people say that in-person conferences are the time when they actually get some serious work done.

With the mandatory attendance model, having a paper at a particular conference is often seen as a ticket for a funded trip to that conference: funders and institutions won't ask questions why the trip is necessary.

In contrast, virtual conferences have often been regarded as an additional burden to accommodate in an already-full schedule, rather than a relief.

Should models with non-mandatory in-person attendance (hybrid conferences) become more common, people are worried that this will negatively impact the support from their funders and institutions to visit conferences in person, because funding a whole conference trip is generally more expensive than just the registration fee for virtual attendance.

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  • "Should models with non-mandatory in-person attendance (hybrid conferences) become more common, people are worried that this will negatively impact the support from their funders and institutions to visit conferences in person, because funding a whole conference trip is generally more expensive than just the registration fee for virtual attendance." -> Citation needed
    – mmeent
    Aug 10 '21 at 7:43
  • @mmeent Like most answers on this website, this is based on own experiences from conversations with many people. Aug 10 '21 at 8:03
  • This is a good answer, but it shouldn't ignore the less excusable fact that researchers like to travel to exotic places for conferences, and not necessarily to get work done.
    – a3nm
    Aug 12 '21 at 9:43
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There's many excellent answers here, which give some of the reasons why conferences were held in person before the pandemic, but one thing I'll add is that even before the pandemic it was not always mandatory to attend the conference in person.

I absolutely love this example from 2016:

At the most prestigious annual conference on Adiabatic Quantum Computing, one of the most prominent researchers in all of quantum computing (Aram Harrow, a tenured professor at MIT, who you might know as the 'H' in the HHL algorithm) gave a lecture virtually at the in-person conference. You can see the entire talk, including the speaker on Skype (not Zoom) being introduced by the famous Ed Farhi who is often credited with coining the term "Adiabatic Quantum Computing" which is the name of the conference. He gave the talk virtually because he had recently had a baby.

It also happened in completely different research fields:

In chemistry, for many years before COVID, a Director at a Max Planck Institute named Ali Alavi gave lectures through Skype at various conferences in the United States while he was in Germany. Also, Terry Rudolph famously wrote in this paper:

"This article is the extended text of a talk I planned to give a couple of places in the United States this year, but will not do so now having been denied a visa (apparently no immigration officer likes to hear the words “Iran” and “physics” in the same sentence)"

after restrictions were placed on visiting the US, for anyone who had been to Iran since 2011, like Terry Rudolph had in this case. This was even more severe when Milad Marvian (who was living and working in California, at University of Southern California) and Masoud Mohseni (who was living and working in California, as a senior researcher at Google) could not attend a conference in 2018 that took place in California (the country they were living in!) because it was held at NASA which is an "independent agency" but still an agency of the US Federal Government, and therefore didn't allow people born in Iran to attend. Mohseni ended up choosing not to give a talk, Marvian gave a talk but it wasn't made available on Youtube; but Pooyah Ronagh who was a Canadian citizen and came to the conference from Canada and was at the conference dinner held off-site, had to still give his talk "virtually" because he wasn't allowed inside of the NASA building where the conference took place: he literally gave this virtual talk from just a few meters away from the audience (you can hear at the beginning of the linked Youtube video, the session chair saying "Pooyah will now give a talk from wherever he is right now").

So it wasn't always mandatory, even before COVID

I've given examples from several conferences since 2016, across more than one research area, where people attended talks virtually because of recently having a baby, or being restricted from attending the conference because of where they were born, or in one case it was a British-born citizen who unusually was denied entry into USA essentially because he'd visited Iran since 2011. The reasons why attending conference in-person was always preferred (before COVID) are very well spelled out in the other answers, and I agree that those are completely true, but if you could not attend the conference for some reason, it was often (though probably not always) made possible to attend virtually instead.

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    This may sound a bit nitpicky, but I think it would be more accurate to say that exceptions to the rule "in-person talks are mandatory" were sometimes possible, instead of saying that in-person talks were not always mandatory. As you say, the reasons for such exceptions would certainly have to be strong. Furthermore, there would usually be no upfront guarantee that the exception will be made. Aug 11 '21 at 21:22
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I work in a company that does a full spectrum service for academic conferences starting with newsletters, paper submissions, review up to registrations and scheduling. I am the developer by my colleagues do the venue planning. Been to a few conferences in very different fields as a result.

Some observations

a) Often conferences are held at the city where a major research institute in that field is located. This means visits to the labs or other pilot projects in the area are part of the program. This is useful to the attendees and I know attendees who attend just for that reason.

b) Conferences have a big role in exposing up-and-coming researchers to other institutes, a large part of the papers are PhD students that publish the first or second time and want to make a name for themselves. Nothing beats standing in front of the room and answering questions from the world leader in the field, letting him or her get to know you. If this was online the meetings never take place.

c) Some industry associations have board meetings once a year and co-locate it with conferences for this reason.

d) Some conferences are held in exotic locales for exotic reasons to be honest. But in the end most of them are close to a major research institute.

e) The people who make the money are the venues. They are crazy. Once we had to run a conference at a venue that wanted 100$ per week to rent a MOUSE. Never mind a presentation laptop. nowadays this is not a problems, laptops have become much lighter and presenters need less tech support. Powerpoint has actually improved. In those days this was a problem, but in the end it was cheaper to upgrade all of our companies laptops than to rent them on-site for a week. The institutes and organizers make very little profit.

f) The entertainment and networking are the most expensive part. I have been at a conference in applied physics that involved dinner for about 500 people that cost more than 100000$, which is a bit ridiculous. All of those conferences fees go straight towards the room rent and food you eat, no matter how bad it is.

But in the end, in-person conferences do have a function, especially if it is located close to an institute. I know of several cases where students got to know their advisors or got post-PhD jobs because they were at the right place at the right time and got to know the right people.

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I am using the present tense, as if we were in pre-pandemic times.

In the field of engineering and computer science, almost all conferences make it compulsory for one of the authors to come to the venue and present their paper. Without this constraint, a conference would make much less sense. The very reason for conferences to exist is that people gather together, do social networking, get to know each other, listen to authors presenting their own work and have a chance to make public and private questions to them, or have conversations and exchange ideas and possibly projects with them. If you cannot do that, going to a conference loses half of its attractiveness.

That's the reason why I think that conferences will strive to keep working like that again, as far and as soon as possible.

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