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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Ben Hale
6 years ago

Hey Justin. Thanks for this. I think all fair and good points. For RoME (the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress), we generally get about 250 submissions. In determining which papers make it onto the main program (60 papers) or into the poster session (30 papers), we try to consider as many factors as we think will make for an interesting conference. That’s our primary objective. This means juggling a variety of considerations that go well beyond accepting referee scores at face value.

Most of our submissions (long abstracts of about 1000 words) are subjected to blind peer review of two referees. They’re ranked and scored, sans comments, according to the judgment of the referees. Since they’re so short and just abstracts, it’s hard sometimes to determine the strength or weakness of the paper on this information alone. Also, there is sometimes wide variability in referee feedback. We currently have a standing pool of about 30 referees, many of whom have considerably different backgrounds and interests, so scores can be swayed dramatically just by referee selection/preference. (Maybe one referee will give a 5 where another will give a 3, for instance, which would be enough to knock a paper out of the running.) Like journal editors, we try to correct for wild discrepancies in referee scoring by reading and discussing the discrepant reports ourselves, so there’s an extra set of eyeballs on abstracts after the first referee pass.

Even after that, however, we consider other factors like diversity of topic — so, for instance, we’ll check that we’re not over-represented in metaethics or under-represented in applied ethics. We usually are in both cases. (NB: Applied ethicists, political theorists, anti-utilitarians: we want your papers!) We also look for a distribution of senior and junior philosophers, big names and lesser-known names, papers relevant to the topics of our keynotes, etc. In other words, there are many factors that go into making a great conference, and we try to provide as well-rounded an event as we can. Beyond that, we try to open the event to outside participation however we can, primarily so that we can have a huge, diverse, excellent time talking about all things ethics.

It’s not a perfect process, but Alastair and I would like to think that we do a pretty good job of pulling off a great conference and applying fair and reasonable principles to our process.Report

anonymous
anonymous
6 years ago

I suspect there would be a lot less frustration and a more productive conversation about these things if there was a standard of conference organizers being completely transparent about selection processes. I have mixed feelings about these sorts of conferences, but it would be so much better if everyone just lay their cards clearly on the table as Ben has above.Report

Kareem Khalifa
6 years ago

I agree with Justin’s points, including his cautionary note about the potential abuses of organizers’ discretion. I would also add that different conferences perform different intellectual functions. Speaking for myself, here are some variables that affect what I get out of a conference: (1) its size, (2) whether or not I have a respondent to my paper, (3) whether or not the conference’s proceedings will be published, (4) whether or not there are concurrent sessions, (5) the conference participants’ common knowledge/overlap of specialization. Undoubtedly there are other considerations that I’ve failed to enumerate. Furthermore, how I weight and value these different considerations depends on where I’m at with a given paper at a given time. For instance, at more specialized conferences, I tend to want to test out ideas that are a bit “deeper in the weeds,” so to speak; at less specialized conferences, I want to see if the big picture has some broader interest and sparks interesting discussion among non-specialists. While none of these considerations precludes the possibility of anonymous review, I could see how a single template for reviewing conference contributions (say that they must all be anonymously reviewed) ~might~ result in some of these considerations eclipsing others in a systematic way that would actually diminish the variety of intellectual opportunities available to members of the philosophical community, but I say this with a good deal of uncertainty. I’d be interested if other people also view different conferences as serving different functions, and if they think that some of these functions would be harder to achieve via anonymous review.Report

On a Budget
On a Budget
6 years ago

Contributing to the clique-ish worries that invite-only conferences raise are the monetary concerns. Even if you are fortunate enough to be asked to attend an invite-only conference, you may not be in a department that can afford to attend. I have been invited to a number of different conferences where the cost of attending just one of them–including flight, lodging, etc.–exceeds my department’s *yearly* research fund. This is especially true of conferences in resort-type locations (of which there are surprisingly many!). My first few years out of grad school and into my tenure-track job at a research university, I paid out of pocket to attend some of these conferences because I thought it might be worth whatever networking connections attending the conferences afforded (and, also, that some fantastic philosophy is done at some of these conferences and it is beneficial just to go and listen and *do* philosophy with really good philosophers). However, I cannot afford to keep paying out of pocket to attend, so I (unfortunately) have had to decline repeat invitations. I won’t be surprised, after so many declines, if the invitations stop coming. Yet those individuals in departments with larger budgets–which are the bigger research institutions that are more highly ranked–are more likely to attend, since it is not a financial strain for them. But this just reinforces the same players, and (partially) explains why the same people attend certain conferences.Report

A frequent conference organizer
A frequent conference organizer
6 years ago

Here is another important difference between conferences and journals that ought to be noted: it is not uncommon for conference organizers to compensate at least some attendees for at least some of the cost of travel. Needless to say, conference organizers have a finite pool of resources to draw upon, and depending on one’s location some potential attendees will cost (much) more to invite than others.

So, it is not uncommon that conference organizers simply can’t invite some predetermined # of participants selected by anonymous review — that is, without risking going wildly over budget, or being forced to substantially lower the # of invited participants. That seems to me a good reason why conference organizers (at least in these cases) shouldn’t be expected to d so.Report

Marcus Arvan
6 years ago

Hi Justin: Thanks for engaging with my critique! I am less confident than you are that the marginal difference that presenting papers at cliquey conferences makes in terms of eventually publishing papers is “very little.” Typically, a relatively small number of people work on any given philosophical problem–and when it comes to selecting reviewers, top journals in particular tend to utilize an even smaller, more select class of people: the kinds of top-notch people who are likely to attend selective conferences and workshops. So, I think, the likelihood for a real difference in publishing outcomes is not very little; it may be substantial.

That being said, I think our differences are probably mainly due to different commitments of moral emphasis. For instance, you write, “Now one might say that the relevant question is instead: what percentage of papers given at these types of conferences end up published in good journals, compared to papers given at “fair” conferences? Here, I would bet that the former percentage is noticeably higher. But we can’t infer from this the causal relationship between “presenting a paper at an invite-only or cliquey conference” and publishing the paper in a good journal because it could be that the people at these conferences, on average, write better papers than the people, on average, who only attend “fair” conferences.”

I would agree that we can’t infer a causal relationship here. My point, though, is that given how suffused our discipline appears to be with anti-meritocratic practices–troublesome journal practices, reviewers engaging in “Google reviewing”, etc.–we should err on the side of caution, disallowing/abandoning practices that *plausibly* result in anti-meritocratic outcomes (even if we lack clear causal proof that they do). This is also how I want to respond to the other parts of your reply. For instance, when you write, “the strength of that duty [to minimize favoritism] would vary with the extent to which such favoritism contributes to importantly bad outcomes”, I’m apt to agree–but I’m inclined to think that since we work in a highly competitive environment with far too few jobs for deserving applicants, as well as an environment where favoritism seems prevalent (see some of your recent posts on journal practices, etc.!), the degree to which favoritism of all sorts is likely contributes to importantly bad outcomes is quite high, and so for that reason should be stamped out wherever it plausibly occurs. But again, I think this just highlights our differences of moral emphasis.Report

Alastair Norcross
6 years ago

I agree with what Ben says above about RoME (except that we already seem to get plenty of anti-utilitarian papers). But we are fortunate, in that we have a fairly large program, a large number of submissions, and a large number of (reasonably) willing referees, so we can balance a lot of factors and still maintain a high quality conference (actually, it’s a congress). As for invite-only conferences, I suspect that most of these simply wouldn’t exist, if the organizers had to make them available to blind-refereed submissions. I have organized quite a few conferences (not just RoME for the past eight years), and it takes a truly enormous amount of work to organize even medium-sized ones. One of the conferences I organized (four times in the last eight years) was an invite-only conference. Lots of invitations were issued, and only a fairly small number accepted, and if there were people who heard about the conference, wanted an invitation, and did work on the relevant topic, they would get an invitation. Still, there wasn’t a call for papers, or a blind refereeing process. If there had been, the conference wouldn’t have existed. I certainly wouldn’t have organized it. (I am expected to teach and write philosophy as the main part of my job. Conference organization is classified as “service to the profession”, which counts for almost nothing in my annual evaluations.) A lot of good philosophical work got done at this conference (despite the fact that Justin was there a couple of times). A lot of people who got invited were junior people, who were neither well-known, nor from prestigious departments.
And then there are the really small invite-only conferences, with, say, 4 to 10 papers presented. These are usually focused on a very specific topic, bringing together people who are working on it. Sometimes, these are called “workshops”. Is it a bad thing that these exist? What about a department’s colloquium series? These are usually one at a time, across the year, but we could view such a series as a temporally extended conference, or workshop. I can see how there would be a problem, if the only way for people to present their work outside their own department were invite-only events. But, given that there are large numbers of blind-refereed conferences, such as the one that Ben and I expend huge amounts of energy on each year, the existence of small (or even some large) invite-only conferences, workshops, or colloquia in addition doesn’t seem to be excessively problematic. Or perhaps we should suggest that all departments with colloquium series now only make their selections by a process of blind-refereed submissions?Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

It seems that conferences/workshops that **present themselves as fair** ought to live up to that.

So, e.g., if a general interest workshop that is invitation-only consistently presents itself as *not* playing favourites by only inviting those whose submitted papers deserve it (assuming appropriate balance in area, gender, and career stage), then it should do just that.

I’d be okay if a workshop, however prominent, said “Hey this is invite-only and the organising committee makes the call about whom to invite. We are NOT fair. TTYL!”Report

Alastair Norcross
6 years ago

“So, e.g., if a general interest workshop that is invitation-only consistently presents itself as *not* playing favourites by only inviting those whose submitted papers deserve it (assuming appropriate balance in area, gender, and career stage), then it should do just that.”
I’m a little confused here. What is it that you are saying an invitation-only general interest workshop should do? It looks like you are saying that it should only invite those whose submitted papers deserve it. But if it’s invitation-only, the papers haven’t been submitted, right? Are you talking about invitation-only workshops, that present themselves as open to submissions, but are really invitation-only? Do they issue a call for papers, but simply ignore the responses, except from those they’ve already decided to invite? Are there such things? (I’m not saying there aren’t. I just don’t know of them.) I agree that it would be very bad behavior for a conference or workshop to issue a call for papers, and then not bother to referee the submissions, but simply invite those whom they had already decided to invite.
“I’d be okay if a workshop, however prominent, said “Hey this is invite-only and the organising committee makes the call about whom to invite. We are NOT fair. TTYL!””
How explicit does this have to be? Does there have to be a disclaimer on the website, or on the workshop printed program? Do they have to use capitals in the declaration that they are not fair? Or is it enough that they don’t give the impression that the participants had been selected by a process of blind review? In the posters for our colloquium talks, do we need to include the phrase, “The speaker was chosen by the department colloquium committee, based on suggestions from faculty and graduate students, and was not chosen by a process of blind review”?
I don’t mean to sound flippant here. I am genuinely uncertain as to what you are saying. It seems like you are objecting to events that somehow give the impression that the speakers were chosen by a process of blind review, when that isn’t true. If so, I also object to such events. I’m also puzzled by the implication that “fair” can only apply to a selection procedure that uses blind review. If our graduate students and faculty say that they really want the colloquium committee to invite Professor X to give a talk here next year, because they are really interested in hearing what Professor X has to say, how would it be unfair to invite Professor X to give a talk? Likewise, if they (faculty and graduate students) say that they would really like the department to host a workshop on the topic of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and they really want to hear what Professors A, B, C, and D have to say on this topic, how would it be unfair to invite Professors A, B, C, and D to that workshop?Report

John Schwenkler
6 years ago

I’m with Justin (and Alastair Norcross) in thinking that we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here. Should professional philosophy be a lot more meritocratic, and more open to people outside of prestigious positions? Absolutely. Do invitations to workshops, small conferences, colloquia, etc. perpetuate certain problematic forms of privilege? Yes, they do. (And I agree with Marcus that these invitations can have a *huge* benefit to one’s professional prospects.) But at the same time, such events also do a great deal of good in supporting excellent philosophical work, and it’s not as if there’s a zero-sum relationship between holding smaller workshops and conferences where most or all of the participants are invited, and holding larger ones where submissions are anonymously reviewed. (Among other things, the latter approach takes *a lot* of extra time and energy.) If the complaint is about the *cliquishness* of some of these smaller and invite-only events, then that seems more justified, though still it’s not reason enough to do away with them altogether, but only for organizers to be more creative and open-minded in how participants are selected.Report

JDRox
JDRox
6 years ago

I have to say that I’m more inclined to agree with Marcus than Justin. It’s funny because I often seem to think that philosophy is more meritocratic than Justin and some of the other regulars here, but I think there is a HUGE advantage when going on the job market if everyone knows who you are and has had a chance to see you in person (assuming you are impressive in person). I know of certain grad students that were already “part of the in-group” when they hit the job market. Not because they had published good work (they hadn’t published at all), but because they knew all or most of the major players from attending and presenting at conferences. And basically, being part of the in-group almost guarantees that you won’t be a complete bust: you’re much more likely to get invitations to publish in volumes, speak at conferences, etc. And being part of the in-group makes your work better! (If for no other reason than you get lots of quality feedback.) But attending cliquey conferences is good for becoming part of the in-group — much more efficient than, say, attending the APA once a year as well as a regional conference or two. It is also the case that attending top-notch conferences is also an extremely efficient way to get the “pulse” of the profession and to become conversant with ideas in books and articles that one hasn’t read. When I am able to attend certain high quality conferences–often cliquey ones–I am able to learn, socialize, and network significantly more efficiently than I am able to do at APAs, and vastly more efficiently than I am able to do at regional conferences.

That being said, of course people should be able to invite who they like to conferences. It is just worth keeping in mind that those decisions, cumulatively, have consequences.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Oh I was so unclear above. Rush job. Damn rush jobs.

So I just meant that if Conference A is actually composed of 50% special set-asides for friends-of-the-organisers (or something like that), then it shouldn’t represent itself as determining participants by way of some sort of blinded refereeing process. It should just say something like, “We often invite back people who have come in the past (regardless of the relative quality of their blind submission) so as to ensure continuity of what we see as a wonderful community of inquiry.”

And, if Conference B is an invitation only conference where organisers decide whom to invite, then that’s A-OK. No need to say anything. But don’t *pretend* that the decision about whom to invite was made on the basis of some sort of careful blind review process.

My point is really about truth-in-advertising. That’s all.Report

Alastair Norcross
6 years ago

Fair enough. I have no objections to those points.Report

Another Anon Junior Person
Another Anon Junior Person
6 years ago

Agreed with #9. Conferences that are not actually fair about inviting people to invite-only conferences *benefit* from the appearance of fairness. They get more submissions and more buzz than they otherwise would if they straightforwardly advertised themselves as, say, unofficial MIT class reunions. Conferences that are not in fact fair should not reap the benefits of appearing fair.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 years ago

Marcus,

You say, “I’m inclined to think that since we work in a highly competitive environment with far too few jobs for deserving applicants, as well as an environment where favoritism seems prevalent (see some of your recent posts on journal practices, etc.!), the degree to which favoritism of all sorts is likely contributes to importantly bad outcomes is quite high, and so for that reason should be stamped out wherever it plausibly occurs.”

Suppose we follow your advice. Since it won’t reduce the competitiveness of the environment or provide any new jobs, what importantly bad outcomes are we avoiding? No matter how we organize conferences many deserving applicants will fail to secure decent academic jobs. Is it so much worse if a marginally less deserving (but still highly deserving) candidate gets a job instead of a marginally more deserving candidate? Either way a highly deserving candidate isn’t getting what she deserves, which is bad enough all by itself.Report

anonymous grad student
anonymous grad student
6 years ago

The APAs are also only some percentage blind reviewed–a large portion of the program is invited. And in my experience on average the invited sessions are far better, and I get far more out of them, then the refereed sessions. It would, in my view, be a sad day if the organizers of APAs stopped organizing invited sessions. I especially like the author-meets-critics sessions, and it would be nearly impossible (perhaps impossible) to recreate something like that with blind reviewing.Report

anonymous17
anonymous17
6 years ago

What is the definition of “invite-only” conferences? I always assume that the conferences I organise are open to the public, if public funding is involved. That is, anyone can attend. The size of the venue might impose a restriction on the numbers of people attending, but I have never run into having to restrict attendance because of this.Report

Another Anon Junior Person
Another Anon Junior Person
6 years ago

The worry about invite-only conferences not being entirely fair is *not* about whether it’s permissible to have certain sessions carved out for certain purposes that must, by design, be invitation-only (e.g., author-meets-critics sessions).

Here’s how it goes. You have a conference that advertises itself as inviting paper submissions from anyone in the world, regardless of degree, institutional affiliation, etc. The concept for the conference is billed, roughly, as follows: the best papers (balanced by how accessible they are to a general audience) will be presented in full. People who wrote papers that are very good, but not good enough, or accessible enough, to be selected for presentation, will be invited to be commentators. People who wrote papers that are good, but not good enough, or accessible enough, to make it into the aforementioned two categories, will be invited to be chairs. The idea is that the whole system is basically meritocratic, from best (presenters) to good (chairs).

As others have mentioned, some conferences that are invite-only seem to have participants who may not have been chosen in the aforementioned way: they may not have submitted a paper at all, in fact. They may, instead, be someone who has come in the past and been a good participant, or someone who is the spouse of another philosopher on the conference list, etc.

Now, the concern is simply that such conferences should be transparent about this, and *not necessarily* that they should not have a special process in place for inviting commentators and chairs. Obviously, people have the right to organize any kind of conference they like, with selection procedures of their choosing. But because, as mentioned above, conferences benefit from the appearance of operating under a meritocratic system (as I outlined above), it is wrong for them to advertise themselves in a way that is not fully transparent. Conferences should not unfairly benefit.Report

Kate Norlock
Kate Norlock
6 years ago

anonymous17, the use of “invite-only” conferences in the context of this thread refers to having only invited presentations on the program, as opposed to refereed presentations through competitive submission.Report

anon faculty
anon faculty
6 years ago

I think the main issue is getting lost in the terminology. Here’s the problem, simply put:

Some conferences that claim to be open to everyone and to select papers purely on the basis of merit, relevance, and so on. But these conferences then end up with lists of participants who it’s very difficult to believe have been accepted in this way.

I think we have to name names to make the point clear. The paradigm of this has been alluded to several times on this thread and elsewhere. It’s the Bellingham Summer Philosophy Conference. That conference claims to be open to everyone, and puts out a call for papers. But if you look at the list of participants, you find that, year after year, the vast majority of participants are either MIT graduates or spouses/partners of MIT graduates.

It would raise some eyebrows to advertise a conference that invites only members of one department, though this is sometimes done (MIT, for example, has the MITing of the Minds, which features presentations from former students). But I think what people are finding exceptionally problematic is that conferences that purport to select papers purely on merit and topical relevance clearly privilege people from a certain group.Report

William Blattner
William Blattner
6 years ago

I am an organizer of an invitation-only conference (International Society for Phenomenological Studies). It’s more of a workshop, actually. I have tried very hard over the years to invite new participants, esp. younger participants who could use the career-boost. And I’ve tried to invite participants who are outside the original professional-social network of those of us who started up the group up more than 15 years ago. Some thoughts:

1) I do think such meetings are likely to increase the probability of publication, if for no other reason than that one gets expert feedback on work-in-progress.

2) I invite a new person maybe once every other year. There’s an important reason to keep our meeting small: given that it’s a workshop, we don’t have parallel sessions or the like. We have to keep participation down to 10–15, because even at that low level, several folks have to volunteer to attend without presenting. That’s an expensive proposition, and it’s not something one can ask of an attendee all that often. There are a few people with practically unlimited travel budgets, but not many. I have a very reasonable travel budget, but even with it I cannot do more than two meetings a year (given the cost of air travel), and I cannot travel internationally. A single flight to Europe would take about half my travel budget.

3) Now, I think it’s important to distinguish between invitation-only meetings and at least one thing that might be implied by “clique-ish.” I do think that “… is a friend of X” or “… belongs to Y’s academic social network” are illegitimate principles around which to build a meeting. If everyone’s paying their own way, then maybe it can squeak by (though I still think that’s a bad thing). But I do think that universities should not be paying for participants to attend meetings that are organized in this way. (And note that to the extent that a university’s pool of funding dollars derives from a federal, state, or local government, there are political-philosophical reasons to brand such things as illegitimate.) From the outside, not knowing how a meeting is organized, it can at times be difficult to distinguish between a meeting that is clique-y in the bad sense and a meeting that is organized around a narrowly defined set of questions, methods, or texts. I have tried very hard over the ten years I’ve run my meeting to do the latter, not the former.Report