Why the ESA meeting ends with a half day on Friday, and the alternatives (UPDATED)

In a previous post I raised a question that’s always puzzled me: why does the ESA meeting end with a very poorly attended half day on Friday? Why not end with a full day, like the Evolution meeting, which more people might stay for? And then, in a revolutionary development for me, I decided to actually ask the question and politely wait for an answer rather than just posting an angry rant based on no information.

So I emailed the meeting organizers, and despite this being a crazy busy time, Brian McCarthy, the Program Chair, was kind enough to reply. Thanks very much Brian! Brian gave me permission to paraphrase his remarks. He emphasized that he was speaking only for himself, based on his long experience attending and helping to plan ESA meetings. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the ESA or any other individual.

So why does the ESA end with a half day on Friday? The short answer is: it’s complicated. Here’s a summary of the considerations involved, as Brian sees them:

  • You need enough time to fit everything in without having too many parallel sessions. As it is, people already complain about how they always want to see several talks at the same time.
  • The meeting is about much more than talks. There are field trips, workshops, all sorts of group meetings, posters…So as hard as it is to just optimize the talk schedule, it’s even harder to do that in the context of all the other things that are going on at the meeting, many of which ideally shouldn’t be scheduled opposite the talks.
  • There’s a long term, slow upward trend in demands for time from all sorts of groups. The size of the meeting fluctuates from year to year (this year will be the biggest ever!), but around a slow upward trend. Any changes you want to make to try to address attendance on the final half day need to be made with that long term trend in mind.

So what can be done? Brian noted that the organizing committee discusses this issue every year. It’s always on the radar, and I’m far from the only person to raise the issue. Brian indicated that the organizers always welcome feedback and ideas. And I would note that the organizers absolutely aren’t hidebound. Various changes to the scheduling, some of them quite substantial, have been made over the years. As I noted above, talks used to start on Monday morning; now Monday morning is given to workshops and the awards ceremony. Lunch used to be one hour, now it’s 1.5 hours to give people more time to go out to lunch. Talks used to be scheduled 15 minutes apart, now they’re 20 minutes apart to allow more time for questions. Poster sessions haven’t always been in the early evening. There didn’t used to be posters on Friday morning. Etc. So when the organizers say they’re open to change and would welcome input, they really mean it. Things have changed a lot over the years.

So here are some ideas (from me, unless otherwise indicated). At the end, there’s a poll so you can vote for your favorite. In the comments, please discuss what you think of these ideas, and also suggest any other ideas you have. Let’s not just complain about attendance on the final half day–let’s think about what could be done about it, and what the costs and benefits of different changes would be.

  • Increase the number of parallel sessions to 40, so that you can maybe finish on Thursday. Brian suggested this might be a possibility. Of course, it exacerbates time conflicts among talks.
  • Go back to scheduling talks 15 minutes apart. That would squeeze roughly 25% more talks into a given amount of time, perhaps allowing the meeting to finish with a full day on Thursday. The main cost would be little time for questions. Note that at the recent Evolution meetings, talks were 15 minutes apart.
  • Go back to starting talks on Monday morning. Reserve Friday morning for the workshops and other group meetings that now occur on Monday morning. So you still end on a half day, but it’s not a half day of talks. The worry would be that you’d hurt workshop attendance, as people attending the workshops would have to stay an extra day and thus pay an extra day’s lodging. Plus, many workshop attendees are students, the people least able to afford an extra day.
  • Go to late evening poster sessions, say 8-10 pm, as at the Evolution meeting. Drop the “latebreaking” poster session on Friday morning; if people want to present a poster, they can just get their abstract in by the regular deadline. Use the time freed up to shift some other events to early evening. Go back to starting the talks on Monday morning, thereby allowing the meeting to finish with a full day on Thursday. I don’t know if moving the poster sessions would actually free up enough time for the other changes. And it might hurt poster session attendance. You could try to mitigate that by giving attendees a ticket for a free beer at every poster session, the way the Evolution meeting did. The poster sessions at the Evolution meeting were very well-attended. All those free drink tickets would increase the registration cost, although I think you could sell the ESA rank-and-file on that. People know that you get the meeting you pay for. If memory serves I believe the Evolution meeting typically costs more than ESA but I’ve never heard about people declining to attend Evolution because of the registration fee.
  • Go to a full day on Friday. Brian raised this possibility, as he is generally skeptical that it would be feasible to end the meeting with a full day on Thursday. Ending with a full day on Friday should help attendance, as people should be more reluctant to skip a full day. This lets you reduce the number of parallel sessions too. And perhaps this change is just inevitable in the long run if the size of the meeting keeps growing. It would cost everyone an extra night’s lodging, although that might be mitigated by getting to fly home on Saturday when flights are cheaper.

One idea I haven’t listed, because Brian and I agree it’s a non-starter, is to cut the number of talks via some sort of screening process, so as to allow the meeting to finish with a full day on Thursday. I would not want to see the organizers in the business of trying to prejudge talks based on their abstracts, for several reasons. Nor would I personally want to see the number of talk slots cut and filled via some sort of lottery or first-come, first-served system.

Personally, I would very much like to see the ESA try something to address the very low Friday attendance. Anyone assigned to present on Friday is all but wasting their time, in terms of getting their science seen and heard (UPDATE: Just to clarify for a colleague who misread this last sentence: if you have a Friday slot you’re likely to be wasting your time only in terms of getting your science seen and heard by others, not in terms of all the other valuable things you get out of attending the ESA meeting!) And even the worst case scenario–you try something, and people don’t like it and tell you to go back to half-days on Fridays–isn’t so bad. At least in that case people would no longer see the low attendance on Friday morning as so bad, because they’d have seen that the alternatives (well, an alternative) are even worse.

But I’m just one guy–what do you think? Below, you can vote for what you think is the best way to address the issue of very low attendance on the Friday half day. In the comments you can explain your vote, and suggest other ideas for addressing this issue.

34 thoughts on “Why the ESA meeting ends with a half day on Friday, and the alternatives (UPDATED)

  1. At the very least, it would be nice if they refrained from tearing down the exhibit hall until after the Friday morning poster session. I’m not sure if that happens every year, but I distinctly remember it happening in more than one of the years that I have attended the meeting, and it amplifies the desolate feeling of the final day.

  2. I think a good compromise would be to shift field trips to Friday morning. That way, if you can’t afford the extra day, you don’t miss out on any of the cutting edge science being presented in the conference. No one ends up being stuck in a session they don’t want to be in. People only miss out on a great chance to learn about the local scientific/natural world, which may be a shame, but is never my principle reason for attending a conference.

    I guess the field trips serve another function though – they break up the hard-core effort of concentrating full on for a whole week. But this still isn’t enough to balance out the overall benefits of shifting them to the end IMO.

    • Hmm. If I recall correctly, most field trips are the Sat. or Sun. before the meeting anyway. At least, that’s the way it used to be in the past; I haven’t looked at the field trip schedule for this meeting. But if my recollection is correct, moving the field trips to after the meeting wouldn’t accomplish anything, would it?

      • Fieldtrips at the beginning of the meeting also provide a good opportunity to meet new people.

      • Fair enough. I should have mentioned that I’ve never been to the ESA meeting, but low final day attendance is a common problem across other meetings, including those with midweek excursions.

  3. I voted for the full day of talks on Monday with workshops on Friday. As things are now, you *already* have to pay an extra night’s lodging (Sunday night) to go to Monday morning workshops. That’s assuming your aren’t doing workshops on the prior weekend.

    I would also be in favor of a full day on Friday, though people might skip out on the last talks of the day anyway for a flight home the same day. I think you’re stuck with people skipping the end unless you put something of a draw at the end. Heck, why not do a full day of talks on Friday and then put more workshops on the following weekend. That way, you have fewer workshop conflicts and people who can’t make one weekend can try to catch workshops the other weekend.

    Also: ” I would not want to see the organizers in the business of trying to prejudge talks based on their abstracts.” Seriously?! Contributed talks already get prejudged based on their abstracts; those that don’t make the cut (whatever it is), get shuttled off to the poster sessions. Or did you mean something else here that I’m not understanding?

    • Hi Margaret,

      Technically, arriving on Sunday isn’t considered spending an “extra” day because the welcome mixer is Sunday night.

      I agree that if the meeting gets longer, more people will only attend part of it–maybe skip the last 2 days, or the first 2, or whatever. But I think that’s ok, as long as you don’t have any one day that’s really poorly attended, as is currently the case.

      Yes, there is currently some screening of oral abstracts currently, but my understanding is that it’s mostly for things like whether you’ve specified any results…

  4. Reduce the number of things going on outside of talks and posters. Every single club meeting or organizational event for every entity on the planet does not need to occur at ESA. Maybe, some of them can occur and just too bad if they overlap on talks! I’ld say cut the number of days, limit the number of talks/posters per speaker might also help. IF people don’t want to stay, then maybe that day is unneeded? Then just extend events further into the evening or earlier in morn or both.

    • Um, you mean for on site registrations? Because the vast majority of attendees pay the whole-meeting registration fee. For them, making Fridays free is equivalent to just reducing the registration fee.

  5. If you were to actually track attendance you would find that a good number of people leave Wednesday night, so the attrition is actually noticable on Thursday. I have helped with the Plant Population Ecology section’s silent auction and when we called Wednesday night, we have caught people at the airport. I don’t think canceling section mixers is the way to go. They provide an opportunity to meet people and network which is great for graduate students and early career acadmics.

    One thing worth commenting on from above, if registration is raised to cover the drink tickets, they aren’t really free drink tickets. For those of us that don’t drink beer or wine, it is usually a waste of money if it were to get added. I think most people are happy to buy their own drinks, if they are available.

    • “if registration is raised to cover the drink tickets, they aren’t really free drink tickets.”

      True-but they sort of feel like it. Plus, once you’ve paid a fee that covers the drink tickets, you’re going to want to attend the poster session to claim your free drink. Of course, as you note, this is only attractive to people who drink alcohol.

    • Yes, attendance does drop starting on Thursday. But Friday is much worse. As Mike notes, you’ll always have some drop in attendance later in the meeting. But it’s a question of degree. At the Evolution meeting, for instance, the final day attendance was lower than other days–but it was still quite substantial. No one assigned to present on the final day will have felt that they were just wasting their time talking to a near-empty room.

  6. I haven’t personally been to an ESA meeting (40 concurrent sessions???? really??!?!) but many conferences schedule their banquet/dinner for the very last evening to encourage delegates to stay for the whole meeting. Of course this may reduce attendance at the dinner relative to having it on one of the middle evenings, but perhaps it would encourage enough people to stay for the talks, at least (and just take the evening flight home), to be a worthwhile option… if the society does move toward having a full day of events on Friday (obviously wouldn’t make much sense to have the afternoon off and then come back for the dinner). Though considering this is a relatively long conference, I would also imagine that those attendees with family commitments will try to be home Friday evening (especially after missing part or all of the previous weekend) regardless of the conference schedule.

    I agree with Malcolm that limiting presentations to one per person is a fair way to reduce the number of talks/posters without a selective process – if that isn’t being done already.

    • Hi Emily,

      The ESA’s closing banquet/gala is always on Thurs. night, in part as a way to encourage people to stay for Friday morning. Doesn’t seem to work.

      Presentations are already limited to one per person.

      Yes, as the meeting gets longer, probably more people will only attend part of it. But perhaps if it’s long enough, some people will attend the just the later part rather than just the earlier part, so that you don’t end up with any one day on which hardly anyone attends?

    • Re: 40 concurrent sessions, this year there will be about 35, and this will apparently be the biggest year ever. Which means >4000 attendees (the joint meeting with Intecol back in 2005 was ~5000 if memory serves, but that included many non-ESA members, obviously). When you have that many attendees, 35 concurrent sessions (possibly growing to 40 in future) doesn’t seem out of line…

  7. Here is another perspective on annual meeting structure…
    The annual meeting of the entomological society of america starts on Sunday morning, we have 12 minute talks (10 + 2 for questions) in the general sessions and then longer talks in the symposia, and we are done in 4 days allowing travel home on Thursday. This also allows travel in on a Saturday for lower fares. There are typically ~3000 at this meeting. While there have been discussions about extending the meeting to reduce conflicting talks, attendees seem to prefer the fewer days commitment over longer talks.

    • Heck, there are physics conferences where the talks are 7 minutes long! The talk basically just functions as a “trailer” for your work, and people can come talk to you later if they want to know more.

      I personally would be fine with going back to scheduling talks 15 min. apart. But so far that seems not to be much of a vote-getter.

      • So as not to skew results, I won’t vote again, but I think the 15 min talk is (part of) a good solution. If you can’t say your piece in 15 mins, 5 mins extra ain’t gonna help much.

      • A bit of historical context: When I was your age, when the WWW was just a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye ;-), talks were scheduled 15 min. apart. Typically, the speaker would talk for about 13 minutes, leaving time for perhaps 1-2 questions, but it wasn’t uncommon for people to go 14 min. and have to be stopped by the moderator. And hardly anyone ever spoke for less than about 12 min. When ESA went to talks scheduled 20 min. apart, they also brought in a strong emphasis that speakers were only supposed to speak for 15 minutes, with the last 5 minutes belonging to the audience for questions. So in bringing in longer timeslots, the primary purpose wasn’t to give speakers more time (though they did give them a couple of extra minutes), it was to give the audience more time. Now, in principle they could’ve done the same thing by keeping 15 minute timeslots and ordering everyone to speak for 10 minutes max. But I doubt that would’ve worked–speakers all just would’ve kept using most of the time. What the ESA did was clever, I think, it was good applied psychology.

      • Having said all that, while I like the 20 minute slots, I could see going back to 15 minute slots, especially in combination with either full days on Friday or starting talks Monday morning. That combined measure would both address the Friday morning attendance issue and reduce the number of parallel sessions.

  8. When ESA went to talks scheduled 20 min. apart, they also brought in a strong emphasis that speakers were only supposed to speak for 15 minutes, with the last 5 minutes belonging to the audience for questions

    Maybe you can add a little current flavour to your historical perspective… did speakers behave themselves WRT timing with 20 min slots this/previous year? Or did some still need chimes?

    • They mostly behave, and more importantly the moderators are mostly good about making them behave. Although I do have the vague impression that things have slipped a bit over the years, with more speakers running 17 or 18 min. than in the first year of the new system. But overall, going to 20 min. slots certainly had its intended effect.

      And no, I’m still not in favor of chimes, although as I’ve indicated in previous posts mine is just one man’s view, and the chimes were an experiment worth trying (and repeating, if the majority feel differently about them than me).

  9. I voted for starting Monday morning only because I am looking at Monday morning–and it is dead time. When the rest of the meeting is so packed, why not use the first half day? Especially if the last half day is considered problematic?

    I could also see shorter talks working fine, and didn’t vote for it only because my Monday AM is going to be pretty darn boring. I don’t think we need 5 full minutes for questions, and agree that with good moderators, comments made upthread that the story could be told in 12 minutes are bang on.

    I have to say, what ever happened to the special talks and awards being in the evenings? Move ’em to the evenings again (another thing you see at Evolution) and have talks start right away on Monday, and you are done in 4 days. Then the banquet really is the end. (and if they move to all day Friday, move the banquet to Friday….but then I bet people might skip the “half day” Monday!).

    This year, I came on Saturday–because of a Sunday workshop. Monday AM is dead time for me, as I said above. And yeah, I’m leaving on Friday midday (though I will go see a couple talks that AM, I won’t be a serious attendee, got a train to catch!).

    • Like you Elizabeth, I arrive ready to rock & roll on Monday morning, and not having any talks to go to is light riding in a car that stalls when the light turns green. Of course, the ESA would say that you do have something to attend–the awards ceremony. There was a time when it was in the late afternoon or early evening, but I think they moved it to Monday morning in part to try to encourage/force people to show up (I’m speculating on that). I agree that the awards ceremony belongs in the early evening.

      I do think that starting the talks Monday morning and moving the workshops to Friday morning seems like a natural and easy-to-implement move. And it’s attracting a lot of votes. I think it would be an experiment well worth trying next year.

  10. At ISEC this year they made the final talk a plenary (about the future od statistical ecology). That might be one way to keep attendence until the end: schedule a talk that everyone will want to listen to, and announce it well before the meeting.

    • You can certainly try. But honestly I doubt that would work well enough. Even if you had someone as famous as E. O. Wilson (and you wouldn’t, not every year anyway), I don’t think you’d get hundreds of people staying for a half day they wouldn’t otherwise stay for.

      But I could be wrong. Did ISEC end on a half day? And what was the final day attendance like compared to the other days?

      • The attendence was almost as much as the other days.

        ISEC isn’t really comparable with the ESA because it’s smaller, and was held in the middle of nowhere. But I still think the idea is worth considering.

  11. One aspect of the low Friday attendance that does not seem to have been discussed is that the Friday morning is heavily laden with late breaking material. Since much of these posters, etc are not very organized thematically, they do not provide much of an incentive for people to stay an extra night in order to attend (say, 1 poster that you may find interesting). Personally, I feel the current structure for late breaking materials is not worthwhile. In addition to the proposed full Friday schedule, I propose they scatter the lake breaking sessions throughout the meeting (at least the poster component). This would allow some people with late breaking material to have their work seen, and provide incentive for others to stay and see material that would otherwise have been crammed into concurrent sessions in the previous days.

  12. I like the idea of going to a full day Friday. It might be nice to have a no-talk, workshop etc. day in the middle – this would allow people to take a break and sight see or go on a field trip, without missing something, and perhaps help avoid talk and poster burn-out. Plus if the workshops are in the middle, maybe students can more easily justify being around for them, rather than skipping them for cost-savings at the beginning or end.

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