Sunday, April 30, 2017

Ratcheting up the racket

If only the following were true, it would be disquieting. But, this is merely a scenario, one that has been ratcheted up. It should make for a good read.
Recently I was involved in an “International Conference ...” at the interface of technology, economics and development, on the side of the organisers. The name of the conference, let us just say, was ambitious; something about infrastructure improvements in the countries of the so called developing world.
The response to the call for papers – I am sure multiple calls, and pleadings, and getting down on one’s knees were part of the efforts - was more than enough for the time allotted, say 2 days, with 1/4th of one day taken up by the Inaugural Session, almost devoid of technical content. Indeed, the response was so good; a session of about 2 hours had to accommodate 13-16 papers, giving each speaker effectively no more than five to six minutes. So, you can understand what sort of a technical content one could expect in these dos. Such conferences do not disappoint – as you cannot go any lower.
It appears that the promoters had sort of indicated that the papers that would be presented would also be published in a journal, to be sure indexed so as to give a leg up for the researcher. That was the bait. And, many people, most of them students in post-graduate programmes in engineering streams whose curriculum commit them to publishing a technical paper in an indexed journal. You must understand that the organizers of such conferences sort of commit without really committing (you sort of figure out what I am sort of saying). This sort-of-committing gives the organizers a real reason to make a real demand of a registration fee which is not unsubstantial.
Now, let the stage turn around and show the other side, the university to which the department that organized such an event. The university demands are this many papers need to be presented at this rate of registration and the upper limit of expenses. Bottom line. Of course, there must be international contributions. This can be easily achieved given the networking strength, of the university and the department and the readiness of these foreign experts who can write-off their expenses in their tax returns!
The point here is, you would be hard pressed to find any mechanism that can rewind the wheel by which all those involved would be truly benefitted.
The time frame for organizing a conference should be enough to communicate seriously and repeatedly with professional peers, meanwhile expanding one’s network. Get away from using fancy words in the title, like “Nano-“, “emerging-“ etc. and let the initial invitation be written carefully to indicate the topics in mind. Make sure the final invitation hews reasonably close enough to what was in the initial invitation. I have also seen the following dichotomy in Indian conferences: Conference supported by academic institutions would have as sponsors/co-sponsors other similar institutions and government research departments. There will be no interest in inviting industry experts. This trend is repeated in the opposite direction, I have to assert.
Paper presentations should be given enough time for meaningful transfer of knowledge. Every session must slot for Q&A from the audience. The sessions must be organized in such a way that if indeed there are parallel sessions, the topics in these parallel sessions must be distinct enough that a participant would not feel that she had to miss an important paper being presented as she had to choose between two.
I know the current ecosphere that includes an active beehive organizing conferences is helpless in removing the ratchet in the mechanism. The one-way movement, towards the abyss, is written in the genetic code of the institutional set-ups.
Though the above is an imaginary scenario, I am afraid it is not too far that it would be realized.
That would be a sad day for the profession, whichever one it is.
Raghuram Ekambaram

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