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IBAC 2015 - some thoughts on conference organisation

The International Bioacoustics Congress 2015 was a fantastic conference. Lots of fascinating research, in a great place (Murnau, Bavaria, Germany), and very well organised! In this note I want to capture some thoughts that it triggered, about the practical organisation of a conference.

The staff that faciliated the conference made it run very smoothly. There were helpful people in the downstairs office almost all week, to ask questions etc. I particularly appreciated the facilitation for conference speakers: downstairs, the organisers loaded our presentations onto the laptop and checked they worked; then upstairs, there was a sound engineer who very efficiently fitted us with the radio mic and opened the presentations. This kind of support was crucial to make it possible to have such a busy schedule: many sessions had only 15 minutes per speaker! So no time for messing around.

Various IBAC people said, and I agree, that it's vital to keep it as a single-track conference: that seems to be part of its friendly community atmosphere. This is tricky, as IBAC has grown so that the schedule is now tightly-packed, and one "easy" way to reduce the pressure would be to go multi-track. I suspect the biggest risk there is of splitting the community into taxa (birds, marine, anurans, etc). So if parallel sessions were to be used (not my preferred solution), it'd be better to do that with the "open" rather than themed sessions, as someone at the AGM suggested. (The mix of open and themed sessions was well-balanced here in 2015.)

Every day opened with a 60-minute keynote, which is a great and widely-used pattern. We then had 20-minute slots in the themed sessions, and 15-minute slots in the open sessions. In my home discipline I've never seen 15-minute talk slots, and I think that's too short. I think that 20-minute slots are good, as long as the chair insists on keeping some time for questions, since I personally believe that public discussion with conference speakers is a really important part of what conference presentations are for. The IBAC chairs didn't insist on this at all really, which is a shame. That aside, they were well hosted.

The poster sessions were lively and very interesting, but physically they were too full! It was often very difficult to even read the titles of posters, let alone talk to the person standing there, if one or two people were discussing a nearby poster. This could have been improved by having 4 separate sessions of 40 posters, rather than 2 sessions of 80 which were each repeated for two days.

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So, as I've already implied, IBAC was very highly subscribed, with many talks and posters, and I've been suggesting it could be better if the programme was a bit less tightly-packed. How could this be done (without going multi-track)? One answer is to be more selective, i.e. to accept fewer abstracts. Immediately I want to highlight a risk of this: it's great at IBAC to have lots of student and early-postgrad presenters, so we would want to avoid a selection process that favoured big names or experienced abstract-submitters. (We'd also want to maintain a decent balance across taxa.) I'd suggest a simple quota: minimum 50% student or recently-graduated people, both for talks and for posters.

Being selective has a cost: interesting things get rejected. The quality of IBAC 2015 was high, there's no need to be selective for quality purposes. IBAC is currently every two years. I wonder if the IBAC community would be interested in having IBAC every year? There's clearly enough content for that. Would it suit the rhythm of the community? Could the IBAC steering committee cope with the doubled workload?

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I find a printed programme absolutely essential. The 2015 organisers decided that many people don't want it because they use electronic versions, so printing it would be wasteful. That's fine, but for me and many others we need something. I think ideal would be simply to have a tick-box on the conference registration form, "Would you like a printed programme?" Simple to handle, and reduces unnecessary printing.

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A few other miscellaneous thoughts:

  • The social event in the middle of the week was excellent (I went on the hike). Also it's crucial to have something like that to give the week a good rhythm. For me that kind of thing is much more important than the "conference dinner". (After all, most of us are dining together each night. I've always found the "conference dinner" a slightly odd ritual.) Having said that, we did have a lovely dinner and a good dance afterwards.
  • Someone mentioned the issue of gender balance. Certainly IBAC had a good gender balance compared against many of the computer science conferences I go to. It's true that the keynote speakers were more men than women. The organising committee told us they had tried to get an even balance - it's always difficult, because female keynotes are often in high demand. In my judgment IBAC did well. I like the suggestion made during the AGM that gender balance of keynotes should be officially made an aim for IBAC organisers, without having to force it as an absolute requirement.
  • Someone suggested everyone should put their photo on their poster - it helps people know who to look for! This is a good idea, though we must remember that some people have personal reasons not to print their photo. So I'd suggest the organisers should "strongly recommend" all presenters add their photo into the top of their poster.
  • The IBAC organisers said that they'd deliberately chosen a small town (and a beautiful one), so that people would tend to stay together, meeting each other in the cafes etc. This is a clever idea.

Of course almost everything I've written is about general conference organisation, not just IBAC. These thoughts are spurred by conversations we had at IBAC, and spurred by the overall extremely good conference organisation. Massive thanks to the IBAC 2015 organisers and staff!

P.S. I previously blogged about the research at IBAC 2015.

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