I was invited to give a talk at an upcoming conference. The abstract has myself and two other authors listed. Is it unreasonable for me to back out of the presentation (they were only paying for the hotel, food and conference registration fees and not flight) and have a co-author do it? The reason for me backing out would be over extending myself due to a combination of poor planning on my part and some luck on grant pre-proposals.

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    The fact that you were invited makes this quite different (versus if you had submitted a an abstract without being asked). Feb 10, 2017 at 23:50
  • @DavidKetcheson I agree, but I couldn't figure out how to get that into the title. Feel free to reword the title (or the body).
    – StrongBad
    Feb 11, 2017 at 0:02
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    Good idea -- I tried to make it more specific. Feb 11, 2017 at 1:32
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    Logical nitpick: this isn't a true dilemma, since your proposed action makes no sense: you can back out (whether it's unreasonable or not, at least it's your decision) but you simply cannot "have a coauthor do it" any more than you can auction off the invited speakership on eBay (hmm, interesting idea come to think of it...). At most you can propose to the organizers to invite your coauthor in your place. As for the other aspects of the question, @AnonymousMathematician's answer offers an excellent analysis.
    – Dan Romik
    Feb 11, 2017 at 4:02
  • This paper? Feb 12, 2017 at 1:17

4 Answers 4


One question is whether your coauthor will do as good a job of speaking or otherwise contributing to the conference. If you are well known as an excellent speaker and your coauthor is not, or if you are a much better known researcher, then the organizers may be unhappy with the substitution. Another potential issue may be if your name has been used to advertise the conference, on posters or the web. However, if you and your coauthor are more or less on an equal footing, then I doubt the organizers will object.

I'd recommend apologizing for being unable to make it due to reasons beyond your control (without going into detail), and offering your coauthor as a potential substitute, while still giving them the chance to decline and just cancel your talk or replace you with someone else entirely. I'd make it clear that you are suggesting the coauthor as a possibility without having asked the coauthor yet, so that they don't feel trapped by not wanting to insult a substitute you have already lined up.


I'd say it depends on what the invitation was like. If all three of you were addressed, and were asked to have someone be the invited speaker, then it's perfectly reasonable to ask to replace yourself; and impolite but tolerable to announce a replacement. If you were invited personally, then - no, it's not appropriate.

However - and this is even more important than what I said above so I'll increase the font size:

It is infinitely better to say you cannot make it because of fatigue or just any excuse, than to collapse and cancel at the last moment, or show up completely unprepared.

in your specific case, it sounds like you're just going to have to postpone something else, even if that means reduced chances of getting a grant, missing a submission deadline etc.

PS - It's a question of ethics as well, not just of etiquette, which is why I retagged. You don't get off that easy...

  • I don't mean to be rude, but what on earth does this have to do with ethics? If you read the question carefully, OP is considering cancelling his conference talk because he has overextended himself, meaning he will either break the promise to deliver the invited talk (already a stretch to consider this an ethics issue even on a normal day) or be forced to break some other promise. So yeah, I think he does "get off that easy" because it would be quite unreasonable to criticize him for unethical behavior here. Incompetence, possibly (though I don't think so), but ethics? Please.
    – Dan Romik
    Feb 12, 2017 at 1:19
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    @DanRomik: He has not overexrted himself, he is planning to exert himself by doing things that are apparently more useful to him (e.g. regard grants he's been awarded). So, it does indeed involve ethics.]
    – einpoklum
    Feb 12, 2017 at 1:41
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    I am just as committed to the grant proposals, if not more so, than the talk. Someone else can give the talk almost as good as me, backing out of the grants i am PI on would screw over my CIs and backing out of the ones I am a CI on would screw over the PIs.
    – StrongBad
    Feb 12, 2017 at 1:53
  • @einpoklum I would speculate that if you had ever been a principal investigator on a grant you might not be so cavalier about breaking commitments you made in that capacity. Hopefully some day you will discover what that's like and recognize that StrongBad is being quite reasonable here.
    – Dan Romik
    Feb 12, 2017 at 6:25
  • +1 for the first paragraph. If the invitation isn't really personalized (i.e. not necessarily addressed to three authors, but perhaps generic bulk mail to all invitees) I don't think the organizers would mind.
    – LLlAMnYP
    Feb 12, 2017 at 10:42

Unless this is a keynote address (where the organizers specifically want you because you are a bigshot in your field) it is usually sufficient if any of the listed authors presents the paper. Many conferences have "no show" policies which prevent the inclusion of the paper/abstract into the conference proceedings (and hence prevent publication) when none of the authors shows up.

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    I think this is less true for invited talks . . . Feb 11, 2017 at 3:49
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    In my field (theoretical computer science), "keynote address" and "invited talk" mean exactly the same thing. We're not talking about a regular conference paper, here. Feb 11, 2017 at 21:54
  • @David and in my upcoming conference "invited" means "hey, you showed up last year, so I have your email, care to give a talk this year?" and sending a coauthor would be totally fine.
    – LLlAMnYP
    Feb 12, 2017 at 10:39

I'll assume "Can I send a coauthor in my place?" doesn't mean "is this legal or possible?" (obviously yes) but rather "is this an ethical or collegial thing to do?" for which the answer, I'll claim, is "no." The organizers invited you, not your co-authors, for some real reason -- maybe they expect you to speak well, or you're the leader of the work and can comment best on its future directions. And more importantly you agreed to speak. Barring personal or medical emergencies, this means you should do what you agreed to do, and what you were invited to do. Your time management skills are irrelevant. (And frankly, I find the complaint weird -- so what if you have to work on grant proposals? If it's so urgent, do this during the N-1 hours of the meeting that aren't occupied by your talk.)

Having organized symposium sessions, I'd be annoyed if an invited speaker flaked out because they were "busy," and it would not leave me with a good impression of their abilities.

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    -1 for Your time management skills are irrelevant. Perhaps you are fortunate to be able to predict with such stunning precision your future workload that you have never found yourself in an awkward situation of struggling to keep up with commitments. The rest of us don't have that superpower, and there's no shame in occasionally feeling overextended. How to deal with it is another question, but your statements about time management skills and workload situation being irrelevant or something the conference organizers will have no understanding or sympathy for is strictly false.
    – Dan Romik
    Feb 11, 2017 at 18:53
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    Very well-meaning, but none of this tallies with reality. It's common for profs. especially to backout and offer a coauthor/student in their place.
    – innisfree
    Feb 12, 2017 at 5:16
  • Have you never, once, in your entire life, had to cancel a plan because something else came up? Lucky you.
    – Jason C
    Feb 12, 2017 at 5:42
  • My phrasing, in retrospect, sounds harsher than I intended. I will again note, though, that the OP is not asking whether it's possible to back out of a commitment, but how backing out is perceived. Have I struggled to keep up with commitments? Yes, very much so. Have I helped out friends and colleagues in similar situations? Yes, very willingly. Have I left "my" tasks undone to keep a promise I made to others? The answer is also yes. These are not contradictory statements. I realize this job of ours is often overwhelming; I often struggle with this. But that is its nature. Feb 13, 2017 at 5:36

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