Academic conferences have become one of the fraudulent activities these days. One gets a message almost every day about a conference on `everything under the sun’, with offers such as the publication of papers in `peer reviewed’ or `recognized’ journals. There must be a higher demand for such conferences by those who want to fill up their CVs with a long list of `conferences attended’ and to have a possible publication `fixed’ by the conference organizers. This conference business is like the other fraud industry emerging or thriving in academics, and that is the writing of PhD thesis for others. All the formal requirements for the entry to and promotions in academic professions (like the UGC performance appraisal systems) have enhanced the demand for such conferences and the profitability of the `suppliers’.
One can see big advertisements by private universities which organize a conference on one or other theme by inviting one or two big names in politics or governance or academics. There may not be anybody within that university who has done serious research or writing on that theme. The money spent on such conferences should be accounted as advertising expenses since the purpose is to achieve some (imaginary or artificial) reputation through this process. Since higher education has become a business of producing signals, it is becoming very difficult to separate out the real from fake identities. There is a perception that such conferences or public events may attract potential students or may enhance the institutional ranking. One can have a media partner on payment which will cover the conference in the news or edit page. The newspaper industry which has encountered falling profits see these as new market opportunities to make some money.
There is a set of academics who want to excel as event-managers of conferences. Researching and writing a paper are tiresome jobs but one can `show’ off one’s academic existence through the organization of a conference if he/she can mobilize some money or have access to some moneyed or powerful networks. One can see a craze to organize more and more events among those who are interested or involved in academic administration or politics. The invitations to such conferences are with a (non-academic) purpose. It is to make a deal or to strengthen personal connections. Ideological affinities and personal networks play an important role here.
Academic conferences are places where power is played out. I can see the usefulness if a recognizable position is given to a researcher who has something new and significant to say. But that is not the way power is played out in academics. One manifestation is the prominence given to a type of what can be called `rent seekers’. These people don’t talk about their current research but all the prominence that they get is due to some notable work that they have done in the past. They continue to dominate not necessarily for the continued relevance of their work but due to the `deadweight’ that they impose in the discipline or the domain. The power plays out in a much more degenerated form in countries like India. Instead of academic work, the administrative position would determine the prominence. The secretary of a government department of science may get much more importance than a practicing physicist or mathematician in a conference.
Let us think about two ideal or socially useful types of conferences and their evolution these days. First, is when a set of people who do research on a specific theme want to bring together people who do serious research on the same theme. They may want to use the peer review process to improve the quality of work before the stage of academic publication. This kind of a conference is useful when one can find a small set of people who are seriously working on the sub-theme and who are willing to seriously go through the work of others, and learn from and contribute to the learning of others. In reality, there are very few conferences of this kind. Most people who attend the conference don’t do any serious research. Very few people listen to or read other people’s work that seriously and make the effort to reflect on and criticize in an informed manner. Despite these, I would argue that this is one useful social purpose that an academic conference can serve, provided these are attended by serious researchers who are interested in furthering collective research or knowledge generation on a specific issue.
The other is an academic `mela’. The annual meetings of the associations of researchers in a particular discipline or sub-discipline are of this kind. Though this may be projected as a platform to learn from the research, this is the least priority item there. In fact, if the purpose is to know the research conducted by others, one can read it, especially through the exchange of soft copies and there is no point in travelling long distances to listen to them. I would say that such a big mela is useful for some people for some specific purposes, even if it is not for knowledge exchange. Academics in any discipline require social capital and networks, and like in any other industry, `deals’ have to be made through different ways and the conference is one such platform to get access to social capital. It may even aid the placement of young researchers, as in the case of young economists who attend the annual meetings of American Economic Association. This may be useful to meet senior researchers who may have access to research funding and other opportunities. Hence the lobbying and networking outside the presentation sessions are the happening spaces in these academic events. I do encourage my students and young researchers to attend such melas (even if I don’t see these as useful academically anymore).
One may argue that attending conferences is useful to know the latest research in a specific discipline. I have not seen this as a persuasive argument. There is one way that I get to know the latest research in the discipline that I am interested in. This is by reading the latest volume of the Journal of Economic Literature and that of Economic Perspectives. The days that I spend at the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum for teaching becomes more valuable by reading the hard copies of these journals. Of course, others may be reading the soft copies of these journals.
One can also view a conference as a set of lectures by people who are invited for the purpose. One can read these lectures and the physical presence of all these speakers at a place is not that important these days. The purpose of these lectures is to educate someone (probably students or young researchers or others who are open to or see the usefulness of listening to these lectures). It is very hard to see such an interested audience these days. The student or the non-researcher who attends such a conference is more interested is airing his or her common-sense based opinion under the guise of a question. Despite all these problems, direct face-to face interaction with a lecturer is important, especially if there is a set of people who are interested in the subject. Students who are studying a particular discipline or issue may benefit from this set of invited lectures. It may be difficult to have such lectures on all these interesting topics from the in-house faculty in an academic place. However very few conferences are projected as a set of invited lectures.
Is there any useful social purpose that can be served by an academic event in which different people come together by travelling a substantial distance? Yes, but only if these meet the following conditions. It should be focused on a specific issue or theme. It should not be on a very general topic or a discipline at large. People who attend the conference should be those who have a strong interest and carried out substantial research or practice. Each one of them should have something interesting to say based on their current or contemporary work. The participants should be willing to learn from others and take the trouble to contribute to the thinking of others in an informed manner. When one person makes an informed remark, the supplementary or counter responses from others add value to the interaction. This process – real-time informed response of the majority of participants and the counter responses of others cannot be replicated without a face-to- face contact. The conference should lead to some collective action in terms of further research and/or practice. Then only the money to be used for such a conference is socially justifiable in these times marked by emails and online reading.