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Attending conferences is considered one of the perks of working in academia, for a variety of very good reasons:

  • networking, meeting new people
  • cutting edge research results and new directions
  • advertise your own research (while networking)
  • (often) nice venues

In some domains, such as computer science, conferences are (becoming) the main exchange site of top work. In some other domains, conferences are considered entertainment. Next to this quality ambiguity, there are some downsides:

  • travel costs can weigh on budgets of smaller research groups
  • conference papers more likely to be dismissed by hiring committees than journal papers

A consequence of the first downside is that many groups only allow researchers to attend conferences if they have accepted talks/papers, which is difficult in top venues. A consequence of the second downside is that some researchers prefer to submit top work to top journals rather than top conferences.

I do consider the second con relevant to the question, as this is one of the reasons for ending up wanting to attend conferences without having any accepted papers.

Given the ups and downs, I would like to assess the importance of attending top conferences (even without accepted talks/papers) for both individual researchers as well as their research groups.

My field is machine learning, but answers concerning other fields are more than welcome.

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    It's hard to tell what kind of answer are you looking for. What's your specific question, given that you've already laid out pros and cons of attending conferences? Do you want an answer that's experience-based? Research-based? Something else? – ff524 Aug 6 '14 at 8:06
  • @ff524 both, ideally. The pros and cons I've listed are based on my own experience, I'm sure there are relevant aspects I haven't considered. For instance, as a junior researcher I have no idea of any considerations by heads of research groups with regards to conference attendance policies of the researchers. Frankly, though I know it is discouraged here, I am also keen to hear personal opinions on this matter (e.g. how do researchers rank attending top conferences in their todo lists). – Marc Claesen Aug 6 '14 at 8:13
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    I agree with ff524, the question is not in a right format. You should know what are the top venues in your field (conferences and/or journal), and your group might have a specific publication strategy. The importance of attending a conference is somehow orthogonal to that of publishing to a conference. Hence, it seems you want to start a discussion about conferences, collecting opinions, which is not encouraged here. – user102 Aug 6 '14 at 10:35
  • @CharlesMorisset I know what the top venues are and that attending differs from publishing. Most questions on this SE regard publishing, mine is about attending. Should (young) researchers focus on attending as much as possible, even without having publications at the conference? Should research groups in general promote such things or doesn't it help them? – Marc Claesen Aug 6 '14 at 10:38
  • @MarcClaesen: Then it's a different question: "Should I attend a conference even if I don't have a paper accepted there", as it removes the second point of your cons and the third point of your pros. – user102 Aug 6 '14 at 10:40
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I work in computational condensed matter and have attended both computational (or theoretical) and experimental-oriented conferences. When you submit an abstract for a conference in this field it usually does not imply that you are committing to publish that work in the conference proceedings or that you thereby refrain from publishing that work in a journal. Top conferences (in this field) will encourage and give you the chance of publishing in their proceedings, but will not require it.

What usually happens, is that if you can get the paper published in a reputable research journal you do that, and either 1) choose not to submit a proceedings paper or, the option that I find most interesting, 2) submit related technical work that, while still sound and rigorous, might not get published in a journal but will get accepted as a conference proceedings paper.

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    The OP seems to be in CS, where conferences are often considered to be the main publication venue: that measn that if you don't publish a paper with the conference (or do not get your paper accepted), then no talk can be given at the conference (except for invited talks). So most of your answer seems to be not applicable. – DCTLib Aug 6 '14 at 12:05
  • The OP also clearly stated "but answers concerning other fields are more than welcome". – Miguel Aug 6 '14 at 12:22
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Once again, there's no definitive right or wrong answer here. There are times where it makes sense to go to a conference where you're not presenting (if you're a beginning graduate student, or it's relatively inexpensive, or you're just getting started in a new research area and want to get an overview). There are also times when it doesn't make sense (you're already attending a lot of conferences, or budgets are tight, or there are institutional policies against funding such travel). A conference that might not be worth attending one year might be worth attending in a different year.

The best thing to do is to talk to your supervisor (if you have one), and ask for her opinion about what the best course of action is.

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