Invite-Only and Cliquey Conferences

Invite-Only and Cliquey Conferences


In the discussion of the “Networking and Merit” post last week there were a number of comments (including a few that did not get approved) about conferences that are invitation-only or appear to be cliquey, accepting  mainly friends of the organizers or those closely connected to them.

Our standards for good journals involve anonymous review, as our recent “journal practices” post emphasized. The thought behind some of the complaints appears to be that anonymous review should be the standard for conferences, as well. Otherwise, there is too great a risk that the conferences will reinforce the kinds of unfairness that manifest in a system in which the dominant determinant of the distribution of perks is who you know.

It would be interesting to hear from those who organize some of these conferences and hear about their processes and their rationales.

My view  is that conferences are sufficiently different from journals, such that the reasons for wanting nearly all professional journals to work via anonymous review do not cleanly apply to conferences. Rather, when it comes to conferences, all that is needed is a sufficient number of high quality conferences so that everyone has a decent shot at going to “enough.” This can be accomplished by having some conferences that operate largely according to anonymous review, such as the American Philosophical Association (APA) meetings and others, but can also be accomplished by increasing the number of conferences, even ones that are invite-only or do not use anonymous review.

The reason that it’s alright that different standards apply to conferences than to journals is that there are important relevant differences between them. Here are a few:

1. Access to publishing opportunities in a journal is much more important for a philosopher’s career than opportunities to present papers at conferences, and so it is much more important that access to publishing in journals not be denied to those who don’t know the right people.
2. There are many conferences—more and more high quality ones each year, it seems, and they are easier to put on compared to starting a new journal. So, if the proliferation of new opportunities mitigates the unfairness of access to existing opportunities, then such mitigation is easier when it comes to conferences than journals.
3. Journals just need a good paper from you. At conferences you are there for more than just your paper. You are there as a speaker. You are there as a listener and commenter and questioner in other people’s sessions. You are there to talk philosophy outside the sessions, during meals or other events. To some extent, you are there to be social. In general, you are there to help the conference be a worthwhile experience for those involved. Anonymous reviews of papers tell conference organizers only about the quality of your paper. The importance of the various roles you’ll play at a conference besides “author of paper” varies according to the aims of the organizers, but it does not seem unreasonable for the organizers, to some extent, to deviate from strict anonymous review in order to achieve such aims.

All of this speaks to giving conference organizers a bit more discretion than journal editors. That said, it is clear that such discretion can be abused. So I do think it is incumbent on conference organizers to make concerted efforts to reach beyond their network to include a substantial number of new people in their conferences. Additionally, I think it is incumbent on attendees at conferences to be inclusive in their interactions with others, and not spend all of their time with people they already know.

Comments and suggestions welcome.

(image: model chairs made from champagne corks and muselets for Design Within Reach contest)

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