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I recently presented at a conference abroad (my first one), and the entry fee was $50 USD. Now, as this was my first conference, the concept of paying to present at a conference is still a foreign one to me. I can't really wrap my head around submitting an abstract, it getting accepted and then paying to present about the work mentioned in it. So my question is fairly straightforward. What is the purpose of a presenter paying for a conference? Isn't it for the greater good not to have barriers for showcasing research?

Edit: I see this question has generated of a lot of discussion. Let me explain some of my reasoning in choosing the accepted answer. In the region I am from (the Caribbean), due to economic hardships finding the money to pay for conferences deters many young scientists from even thinking about attending. The conferences themselves generate a fairly significant audience from graduate students, faulty members and the general public wishing to understand the scientific concepts presented (all of whom enter for free). I can't help but think how much more productive the scientific activity in the region would be if the people wanting to present didn't have to pay. Many of you are saying that $50 USD is nothing, but are neglecting the various exchange rates it takes to obtain said money. At an exchange rate of 121 to 1, $50 USD could buy me food for 2-3 weeks in my home country. I asked this question without any mention of these things because, in the most general sense, paying for conferences seems, to me, to only provide barriers to sharing results and boosting academic (read scientific) activity, and I wanted to have an idea of what others thought about a (somewhat one dimensional) version of this idea.

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    Do you really mean that you paid to present at the conference, or do you mean that you (i) paid to attend a conference and (ii) presented a paper there? I think these are not exactly the same thing. – Pete L. Clark Dec 12 '15 at 8:48
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    Why do you think you have a right to get something for nothing? – Lightness Races with Monica Dec 12 '15 at 14:52
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    @MillardoPeacecraft: I hope you look back when you're older and, in retrospect, see this for the amazing opportunity it really is. And all this complaining over $50!! – Lightness Races with Monica Dec 12 '15 at 15:12
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    No one at the conference even understood my research area — Either you went to the wrong conference, or you gave the wrong talk. – JeffE Dec 12 '15 at 16:04
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    At a real scientific conference, you pay to listen to the talks (including coffee in the breaks, and often eating a conference dinner). What you visited was a ripoff. Faculties put up these stupid rules about publications and conference talks, but accept too many grad students for this to be possible. So a lot of mediocre journals and conferences have popped up that cater this "surplus science". As they have no audience that cares, and no other funding, you pay. (Not judging your work, I know it's probably hard to get into the speakers list of a "good" conference if nobody knows you.) – Karl Dec 13 '15 at 15:21

10 Answers 10

25

First off I would like to say: apparently my experience is not normal. From most of the answers/comments on here it seems most people pay to present at conferences. I guess I'll recognize that in fairness.

However...that has not been my experience with conferences in the computer programming field. Yes, conferences cost money to put on...which is why people attending them pay money. A person presenting is part of the conference...what the people attending are paying to see! That's like charging an actor admission to their theater performance...they are the performance!

I have not personally paid to speak at conferences.


EDIT: Many in the comments have said this is academic vs. business. I do not think this is correct. I believe it is field vs. field. In the last conference I presented at the only presenters that weren't actively in academia at that moment were myself and a representative from Adobe. In fact it was neat because it resulted in myself getting to invited to speak at some colleges...which I also did not pay to do :)

I think at this point, mixing my experiences with the experiences explained on this thread, it would seem that if you're in a field with enough people attending conferences where you can have a distinct set of "presenters" vs. "attenders" then the presenters will likely not pay. If the community in your field is small enough that getting together enough people for a conference pretty much means most of the "attenders" WILL be "presenters" then you're likely gonna have to pay your share of setting up the conference. I'm sure there's also fields in-between where you may pay a lesser rate or here it's hit-and-miss from conference to conference on whether you'll be paying to present.

In the end it seems experiences vary WIDELY on this subject.

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    In biology (and I think several other fields) there's a specific group of presenters called, for example, "Invited Presenters". These are generally well-established researchers, not necessarily world-renowned (who might be "Keynote Presenters"), and these invited presenters not only don't pay to present, but generally get their travel and rooms covered by the conference. But in addition to these (and often outnumbering the invited presenters by 3 or 10:1) are a host of researchers who give less-hotly-anticipated talks, or posters, or workshops; and these larger numbers do have to pay. – iayork Dec 12 '15 at 18:21
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    In my experience (mathematics), 90% of the people attending a conference are presenting. That's probably the difference. – Alexander Woo Dec 12 '15 at 18:58
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    In my field (geoscience) it's very unusual to attend a conference without presenting anything. For instance, at EGU2015 there were 11,837 attendees and 14,064 presentations (some people present more than once). No published figure that I can find for the number of non-presenting attendees but it must have been tiny -- certainly not enough to fund any significant fraction of the conference. As iayork says there may be an exception for invited/keynote speakers but in my experience these are a small minority, probably far less than the 1:10 proportion iayork mentions. – Pont Dec 12 '15 at 19:25
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    As to the notion that "people are paying to see me talk". Yes, to some extent. But at the same time I'm paying to see others talk. And I'm also paying to have a roomful of peers hear me talk, and to receive their feedback from hundreds of person-years of accumulated expertise. I'm advertising my work (and myself!) to a large number of potential future collaborators and employers. It's meant to be a mutually beneficial exchange. – Pont Dec 12 '15 at 19:31
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    You seem to be referring to professional conferences, not academic conferences. Those are a totally different game. – ff524 Dec 13 '15 at 0:04
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It costs a lot of money to put conferences on. Generally, the fees are to help cover this.

In many fields, the majority of people attending are also presenting. If they didn't charge people to present, they wouldn't be able to generate enough revenue from attendees to make it work.

Note that $50 is very cheap for an academic conference--in my experience, most cost hundreds of dollars. Even then, in many cases the conference fees don't cover the whole cost of the conference, and the difference has to be made up with sponsorship or from other sources.

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    @pnuts In the conferences I go to, the great majority of participants are presenting. Are conferences in your field different? – David Richerby Dec 13 '15 at 0:35
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    @pnuts This is academia.se, and the question is about academic conferences, not commercial conferences. And I'm not sure that a conference where 99% of the attendees are presenting (as opposed to 1% presenting to the other 99%) demonstrates a lack of "delight in sharing knowledge"... – Pont Dec 13 '15 at 0:59
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    @pnuts No fear, this site is absolutely open to non-academics :) (recent example). However the scope of the Qs and As themselves is limited to academia: see the help centre. – Pont Dec 13 '15 at 1:19
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    @pnuts The conference I had in mind was the AGU Fall Meeting, and it probably does have to be seen to be believed :). I just found some figures for last year: actually only 21000 presentations (so 91% not 99% presenting, sorry), of which 7000 oral (about 2 months' worth) and 14000 poster (about 3 years' worth assuming 2 hours attendance time per presenter.) – Pont Dec 13 '15 at 1:58
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    @pnuts "In the commercial environment" Well, that's interesting but this is Academia Stack Exchange and, within that context, it's pretty clear that we're not talking about business conferences but academic conferences. Of course, you're welcome to participate but discussing non-academic conferences without making that clear is likely to be more confusing than helpful. – David Richerby Dec 13 '15 at 13:35
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I had your same reaction at my first conference. Now, I have just finished helping to organize a small conference (computer science). As @dan1111 wrote, conference really do not come for free.

These are typical items you need to cover with the registration fees:

  • Room costs (if the conference is held at a conference center / hotel; credits @Andrew)
  • Welcome reception
  • Coffee breaks
  • Lunches
  • Social dinner
  • Water for the speakers
  • Accommodation for keynote speakers
  • Printed proceedings (common to have them in CS)
  • Excursions (small excursions are often included in the fees. Sometimes they are partially covered by the fees to offer a discount to the participants) including transportation
  • Best paper award

Some conferences cover the registration fees to the organizers, as well (not in our case).

Also keep in mind that for small-to-medium conferences, you can never guess the number of participants with high accuracy. If you pay for 80 participants to the catering service but only 50 participants show up, you lose the money.

Finally, sometimes you just have a wrong guess and make some little profit out of the registrations. That money often goes back to the organizing university (or the societies) to hopefully cover up for other research-related expenses.

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    Don't forget room costs! Small conferences can usually get by with borrowing space, but once it gets past a certain size you frequently need to hire facilities - and those aren't cheap. – Andrew Dec 12 '15 at 9:35
  • Good point! I forgot about them in the list as the conference was held at my university. But if it is held in a conference hall / a hotel, you also have to rent the rooms. – dgraziotin Dec 12 '15 at 9:56
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    For some conferences, especially small ones, the presenters may be a significant fraction of the people attending, so comping them would have a large effect on the finances. – Patricia Shanahan Dec 12 '15 at 12:15
  • you can never guess the number of participants with high accuracy Doesn't almost everyone register well in advance? – Federico Poloni Dec 12 '15 at 12:44
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    @FedericoPoloni not in my experience with smaller conferences. Most people will register during the last days of the early bird registration, which often ends ~30 days before the start of the conference. At that point you should have most of the deals in place already. I guess that prediction is easier with big, top conferences. – dgraziotin Dec 12 '15 at 13:48
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As the other answers say, conferences cost money to present, and so they have to charge to recoup their expenses.

But there's another thing to think about. You paid the $50, right? If you didn't believe you were getting at least $50 worth of value from the presentation, then you wouldn't have paid.

If I offered you the opportunity to present your talk in my living room, while my kids played video games around you, you presumably wouldn't have paid $50. (If you would, then please email me. We'll talk.) Less ridiculously, there are many other conferences that you wouldn't pay $50 to present at, because they're not relevant to you (landscaping golf courses? String theory?) or because they don't have the right people, or are in the wrong place; you've made the decision that they don't offer you $50 worth of value, while this conference does.

So it's not merely your presentation that you're paying for. You've made the decision that presenting your abstract to the people at the conference, with the attendant benefits of exposure, conversation, feedback, or whatever else it was that you value, was worth $50.

We don't know everything you consider in this choice, but it was a choice. The point is that you've already made the decision that you're getting at least $50 worth of value out of this.

So the simple answer to your question, "Why do we pay to present at conferences?" is that there's been a general agreement that the presenting at certain conferences has value to us.

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    If you didn't believe you were getting at least $50 worth of value from the presentation, then you wouldn't have paid. - he clearly said that he attended because his college requires him to present his work to get a degree. From that we can infer that he's doing it because it's mandatory, not because he think he's getting something useful from it. – Davor Dec 14 '15 at 12:06
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    @Davor Presumably, satisfying graduation requirements is "something useful", possibly even worth $50... – João Mendes Dec 14 '15 at 12:57
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    @JoãoMendes - no, satisfying arbitrary requirements is not useful in any useful sense of the word. By that logic you could make eating dirt useful academic activity if your faculty required it. – Davor Dec 14 '15 at 12:59
  • He added that edit long after I wrote this answer. But it doesn't change anything. He paid the $50, and he received the benefit of allowing him to graduate. Yes, it's a stupid requirement, but it's no different from the million other stupid requirements for Ph.D. graduation (it's been a long time since mine, but I'm pretty sure that I had a $50 signing fee somewhere in my tuition). Now, from the sound of his edit, this was probably a predatory conference scam, but he did get his value from it, or he wouldn't have paid the fee. – iayork Dec 14 '15 at 14:08
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    that's not a very good point, if I put a gun to your head asking for $1000 you get your value for the money, it's even a bargain as your life is worth more than that...the question implied was "is it something that is good for academy, fair in general..." – P. O. Dec 14 '15 at 16:37
8

Paid by the particular niche commnunity

The way many academic conferences work, it's a gathering made by a certain circle/niche of researchers for themselves. The conference is not for showcasing research to outsiders, it is for exchanging research between themselves.

One way or another, having such a gathering costs some money. Generally, no one outside that niche community is interested the conference. This means that the research community itself is going to pay for it one way or another is they want this event, and the simplest and possibly fairest way is to have all participants chip in to cover the expenses.

The other alternative is if some organization of that research niche is able and willing to sponsor the expenses for everyone - in many cases a host institution will provide facilities and/or organization&hosting labor for free, so that the participation fee is needed only for things such as food/catering and invited speakers and thus can be very low such as $50 per participant.

3

Some journals do not seek a fee from you to publish your paper, even though they might incur costs in the processing of your paper or in its publication. However, a paper presentation at a conference is quite different because, aside from the costs in the processing of your paper or in its publication (in the conference proceedings), the conference organizers also have additional costs (for the venue, the food, the honoraria paid to the invited speakers, etc.). Think of it as paying for your attendance to the conference, that is, payment is required for everyone attending the conference, including those who present papers (except of course, the organizers and the invited speakers).

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    This is the basic reason. Most groups don't have the funding to support conferences without admission fees. – aeismail Nov 10 '17 at 22:06
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The fact, that why are you supposed to pay and where does that money go, has been covered at most in other answers. It definitely justifies the fees from the perspective of an organizer. However, the other perspective is probably more related to you as well as of greater importance for the participants, especially the presenters of their work. In other words, what does one get from a conference which can not be achieved otherwise? hence, justifies the money paid, agreed?

This is more about the essence of the conference. The simple most answer is, it's the opportunity that conferences provide. Moreover, conferences are favored over journals because of the valuable instant feedback from fellow researchers in the field. Getting an earlier feedback is vital for the initial stages of research which can be best accomplished through conferences. Another important factor is to have an opportunity to grow your network, which is not only beneficial in research and collaboration but also is fundamental to getting job in academia.

2

I can think of a couple of factors

  1. At many smaller conferences most of the attendees will be presenting something.
  2. It's often easier to get your university to pay for you to go to a conference if you are presenting and very difficult if you are not (which leads to point 1)
2

Apart from paying to attend a conference, it is increasingly common to pay for submitting an abstract.

Why? Because processing abstracts incurs costs on organisers. There is computer infrastructure, more than one person will read the abstract, abstracts may need to be typeset to fit into a printed abstract book and/or on an online system, etc. As submitting an abstract is typically a necessary requirement for presenting at a conference, an abstract submission fee is effectively a conference presentation fee, on top of the regular conference attendance fee.

  • Yes, I think the distinction between paying to attend and paying to present has got a bit lost in most of the discussion around this question. In my experience, when there's an abstract submission fee it's about an order of magnitude less than the full registration fee, which perhaps gives some indication of the relative costs of hosting a presentation and of running all the rest of the conference infrastructure. – Pont Dec 15 '15 at 0:29
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    Why the downvote? – gerrit Dec 15 '15 at 11:15
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I have not read many of the answers, but I am pretty sure I present a unique point of view, which needs to be said my way.

Just like my above mentioned emotion, my research has something unique to say. Most Journals in the Finance area where I publish continue to charge fees , in obvious disparity to other fields for entertaining your paper and allocating time and resources of an editor and reviewer. These two asides are required to understand the context of my answer. I understand the answer could have been structured with the main idea presented first but apparently most readers also like to factcheck parts of an answer before reading it. Allowing journals and conferences sto charge for presentation does not imply we are paying indiscriminately for editorial arbitrariness as below mentioned comments would read. The payment significantly reduces the workload of the editors and allows the submitter to a journal or conference confirm he is worthy of the paper as he pays the fees. That he does not do so or the editor does not follow his given brief that leads to no guarantees from this fact alone does not reduce the merit of this argument or its empirical results. Most paid journals are higher ranked.

I think conferences force you to pay so that they are relatively sure that your paper has something valuable to present to the world. Given that others have paid to hear you , the content of your presentation need to be vetted . This is assured by using a single/double blind paper review but due to the presence of alternate views and because of the human ness of any reviewer, the peer review process is inadequate to test the veracity of the rpresented research. However, in combination with the fact that as a researcher I have to scour for funding for every conference submission, and the peer review process from a known researcher, I make the attempt to produce Original research with enough facts to relate and appeal to an audience which may not be my objective if I was engaged in just pure research which could get published in home school research journals without any conference inputs and wihtout verifying it with researchers.

The second reason we pay to present at conferences is entirely logistical. It is difficult for a conference to pay for the location and various arrangements without participants defraying expenses of the conference / association. Of course the base rate for the conference is usually highly related to the reputation of the Conference and thus reason 1 is much more important.

Also I can relate to the researcher posing the question as it is entirely impossible for me to pay for any conference out of pocet and I have to arrange for funding every time I travel.

On the flip side of course, there are conferences where quality material is foregone as the pnumber of paying researchers is limite but that is just a function of still not having enough conferences in the world to present your research given the number of researchers joining ranks every year and getting aware of and using research methods effectively.

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    I have not read many of the answers, but I am pretty sure I present a unique point of view, which needs to be said my way. - Your second reason has been stated before. Your first, on the other hand, is not very convincing. A fee would also deter good papers and doesn't help to separate good from bad contributions. – henning Apr 15 '17 at 17:12
  • henning see edit above – Suntropical Apr 17 '17 at 8:10

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