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.