Should I stay or should I go?
International scientific meetings are attended by scientists at a range of career stages from rookie PhD student to veteran researcher, and motivations for attending and potential benefits vary at different career stages. Here I focus on conference attendance at the stage of a researcher starting an independent career. Why attend conferences at this stage and how does one choose which to attend given that time and money is limited? I see conferences are structured opportunities for scientists to meet and to: 1) connect with new colleagues or; 2) reinforce the connections with known colleagues. Both of these provide prime opportunities for getting up to date with colleagues’ research, establishing future collaborations that strengthen a starting laboratory; 3) scout for promising junior group members looking for a new position, which will help propel the research forward; 4) meet university or industry representatives, who may offer career progression or research contract opportunities. To support these activities one has to bring ‘the goods to show’, i.e. the science produced in the lab to be presented either as a poster or as an oral presentation. The outcome is a reaffirmation of the integration in a scientific community.
Why in this context are ´predatory’ meetings booming? Invitations from some obscure entity to be a speaker or a session organizer in a scientific conference are becoming a common fixture of our mailboxes. Typically, these events are to be held in enticing vacation places, and very often the theme is not even distantly related with our work. Predatory conferences erode the bases of scientific communities, by splitting them instead of uniting them. Also, are those attending such meetings the researchers worth establishing links with, or in a true position to advance one’s science? The truth is that a career is evaluated in many ways. If academic promotion decisions are based on metrics untempered by judgement, it may look worth it for the early stage researcher with some money to spare to accept one of these predatory invitations and ‘tick-the-box’. Who knows, it may even allow for an opportunity for a couple of vacation days! However, in the long run this does not maximize the scientific and intellectual return.
Given the above, it becomes clear that in my opinion, conferences organized by, or on behalf, of scientific societies are a good bet. Not the only one, mind you, since there are high quality conferences promoted by private not-for-profit entities that also aim at building scientific communities that truly advance the frontiers of science. It is the community-building thread for the advancement of a particular scientific discipline that indeed underlies all worthy scientific conferences.
In the end it all boils down to what at each moment feels like the best career advancement move, but going to meetings that integrate us in a community, and inspire us to move our science forward is an exhilarating experience. Choose well and definitely go.