Should web “conferences” be free?

Yes. And no.

A post at the ACRLog explores the issues of cost and conferences — in particular, web conferences.

“Free” is a bit much. The problem with offering something for free (or even really, really cheap) is that a lot of people will sign up and not come, and you’re left with a big bill for unused infrastructure based on bad numbers. This helps no one.

On the other hand — and this is the important point, I think — I don’t know anyone who considers going to a conference an excellent opportunity to donate money to the organization. Only the organizers think of a conference as a money-maker. For the rest of us, a conference is a money-sink.

I’m of the firm opinion that:

  • Conferences should strive as much as possible to break even
  • Anything that needs funding should be funded through dues increases, which provides for a much better mechanism through which ROI can be analyzed.

Obviously, nothing is this cut-and-dried. Profit-making conferences are the toll-roads of the professional world: those that make the most use of the resources pay more. That’s fair, in its own way, but it’s essentially a regressive tax and hence should be avoided.

I can postulate two ways in which this would hurt a conference. First, the obvious: a percentage of your population can’t afford to come. If you’re not concerned about losing the input of that group, well, you’ve got no business running an organization. You can’t lose money on everything, of course, and I know everyone believes they’re cognizant of financial issues, but I think a lot of organizers aren’t aware of how much that extra $100 is to a lot of people.

The second is a concern about presentation quality and the pressure to get butts in seats. I’ve seen conferences where I really, honestly wondered whether many of the papers/poster were accepted simply because it more or less guarantees that the presenters will show up.

The primary goal of a conference has to be to help disseminate information and provide professional contacts. Secondary goals should be just that — secondary.

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