Science and Environment

How to make the most of scientific conferences — 5 key points to remember

STAR SCIENCE - Raymond R. Tan, Ph.D. - The Philippine Star

Conferences are one of the most important avenues for dissemination of research findings (arguably second only to peer-reviewed journals, which we will talk about in a future Star Science article). They provide opportunities for face-to-face discussion, constructive critique and professional networking, which, if properly utilized, can enhance the quality of scientific work. Furthermore, conferences provide researchers a means of establishing international presence in their respective disciplines; such visibility is essential because of the inherently globalized nature of scientific progress. Incidentally, because the research strength of universities is built upon the aggregate outputs of their researchers, the same argument applies for establishing an institution’s international reputation. This point is especially vital when considering how local institutions can improve their standing vis-à-vis counterparts outside of the Philippines. Thus, in this article, I will discuss five key points to get the most impact out of conferences. These suggestions are meant both for individual researchers (who must make decisions as to which conferences to attend) and institutions (which need to wisely allocate resources to support the activities of their researchers). My main suggestions are:

• Think global. While there are many local conferences held regularly by different Philippine-based organizations, it is important to recognize that there is an entire global research community beyond our borders. Modern scientific progress is built on worldwide exchange of ideas, and it is essential for Filipinos to be able to participate in such exchanges. Failing to do so will relegate us to the status of a scientific and intellectual backwater. Thus, participation in such overseas events, while being much more expensive than their local counterparts, is essential for establishing an international outlook and presence.

• Become a conference “regular.” One effective way to establishing professional presence is to attend the same conference each year. Conferences are often host to de facto communities of researchers, who use the events as the scientific equivalent of annual (or regular, in the case of recurring but non-annual conferences) club meetings. They provide a means of renewing professional ties, exchanging ideas in a culturally novel environment, and brainstorming on future projects. By becoming a regular participant in such recurring events, a researcher can get to know, and be known by, his/her peers. Such presence can create interesting opportunities for career growth in the future.

• Do more than just present your work. Presenting a paper is ostensibly the main purpose of attending a conference. This means that the “official” work to be done is to talk for 10-15 minutes, and then to spend another five minutes or so answering questions, and then claim a “certificate of participation” from the organizers. While it’s tempting to just go off for some sightseeing afterwards, conferences provide a rich opportunity for activities such as professional networking and benchmarking. These are both important for one’s growth as a researcher. Networking is an important activity which may create surprising opportunities for professional growth (more on this in a future instalment of Star Science). Also, it’s easy to become complacent about one’s research, so exposure to other people’s work often provides a good way to benchmark with international norms of research quality (which is why, for instance, I send my graduate students overseas to present their work and make them watch presentations of other Ph.D. students).

• Choose high-level conferences. Not all conferences are created equal. We easily recognize similar hierarchies in, say, sporting events (e.g., the Olympics are far more prestigious than the Asian or ASEAN games); to novice researchers, the distinctions among conferences may not be as clear. One can get the most mileage from his/her work by aiming for the best conferences, where the renowned gurus of the discipline are present. Such conferences are more selective, and thus more submissions are rejected; and they tend to be more expensive (i.e., registration fees can run in excess of $500, and of course they will often take place outside of the immediate neighborhood of the Philippines). However, such costs come with distinct benefits, such as the opportunity to speak before (and interact with) the giants in one’s field of work. Major conferences also provide opportunities for publication in journal special issues, and in some cases the proceedings themselves are listed in major citation indexes such as Scopus or Web of Science. They thus provide valuable incremental points for the researcher and his/her institution. I consider such benefits to be sufficiently important for a researcher that, when necessary, I have at times used personal resources to supplement the cost of attending them.

• Beware of bogus conferences. Bogus conferences have emerged alongside predatory journals and publishers in recent years, preying on inexperienced researchers by charging pre-registration fees for low-quality, or even non-existent, events. Additional damage is incurred since their victims have to pay for transportation and lodging. The best defense is the principle of caveat emptor. Nowadays, it is a simple matter to use the Web to check the credibility of the organizers; for instance, as a general rule, events organized by academic institutions will often be safe enough.

Statistics show that the Philippines is disproportionately under-represented in scientific conferences for a country of 100 million people. Thus, I think a concerted effort must be made among locally based researchers, institutions and government agencies to increase the overall visibility of the Philippines in the scientific world. Doing so is part and parcel of developing a knowledge-based economy in this country, and thus establishing firm foundations for sustained growth in the 21st century.

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Raymond R. Tan is a full professor of chemical engineering, university fellow and current vice chancellor for research and innovation at De La Salle University, Manila, Philippines. His main areas of research are process systems engineering and process integration. He received his BS and MS in chemical engineering and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from De La Salle University, and is the author of more than 100 published and forthcoming articles in ISI-indexed journals in the fields of chemical, environmental and energy engineering. He currently has over 120 publications listed in Scopus with an h-index of 26. He is a member of the editorial board of the journal “Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy” (Springer) and is editor of the book “Recent Advances in Sustainable Process Design and Optimization” (World Scientific). He is also the recipient of multiple awards from the Commission on Higher Education, the National Academy of Science and Technology, and the National Research Council of the Philippines, as well as commendations for highly cited papers in “Computers & Chemical Engineering” and Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) journals. E-mail him at [email protected].









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