I picked up a blog post from Twitter yesterday that left me very cross. I decided not to retweet it, mainly because I couldn’t fit all my crossness into a one-word comment on the original tweet, and partly because I didn’t want anyone to think I was condoning the views expressed by the blogger.
The post was published anonymously by someone calling themselves ‘Weasely’, who complains about the cost of a recent four-day conference priced at £120 for early birds or £150 for late bookers (£100/£130 for postgraduates), plus a year’s membership of the British International Studies Association (BISA) if you’re not already a member (£30). Weasely thinks that if you can’t afford to go to a conference, you should simply gatecrash – he or she suggests that forging a badge would be helpful – and take everything you can while you’re there, including food and drink for later. Carry tupperware and flasks for this purpose, advises Weasely, and help yourself to a bottle of wine from the wine reception. Get your tenured friends, or those with permanent posts, to help you gain illicit entry. The blog post is titled ‘Steal This Conference’.
The conference Weasely complains about was run by BISA which, like the Social Research Association (SRA) on whose Board I sit, is a learned society and a registered charity. The Boards of these organisations are made up of volunteers who work hard in their own time, alongside a small number of paid staff to put on events like these – who, because they are very dedicated people, also work in their own time as well as their paid time. BISA has one full-time member of staff, the SRA has the equivalent of approx 1.5 full-time staff, and these people are not highly paid. Also, learned societies, being registered charities, are not for profit. If we’re lucky, we do make a surplus from our events, which is used to support our other activities for public benefit, and to build up reserves against the times when we’re not so lucky and we make a loss.
Attending a conference without paying either reduces the surplus or increases the loss. This practice would push up costs. Even Weasely’s suggestions are likely to have that effect, as learned societies will now have to consider buying more expensive badges, perhaps with bar codes or holograms and the equipment to read them. They will also have to consider paying people to monitor entry to individual sessions as well as to the conference as a whole.
I don’t know why Weasely thinks it’s OK to steal a conference place, food and drink etc. His or her commenters are more measured. One uses shoplifting as an analogy, which seems quite reasonable in the circumstances, and Weasely responds rudely with the view that ‘shoplifting can be essential for survival, so screw you’. I don’t agree with the tone or the content of that comment. Debate is vital; rudeness is neither necessary nor collegial. Conference attendance is not essential for survival, even in career terms. Asking for help can be essential for survival; shoplifting is stealing. Stealing is rarely defensible, and stealing from volunteer-led charities is despicable.
I think BISA did really well to keep the price of their conference so low. Postgraduate members were being charged £25 per day, which has to be a loss leader as that wouldn’t cover the cost of venue hire, food and drink, let alone the delegate pack, admin support, and all the other costs. I suspect there was a great deal of work behind the scenes, e.g. to attract support from sponsors, persuade suppliers to offer discounts, and find funding for speakers. But I do realise that even such low costs are out of reach for some people – because I am one of those people. As an indie researcher, I would have to pay at least £150 (early bird booking fee plus a year’s membership) plus travel and accommodation, which hikes the cost dramatically, and be prepared to spend four days not earning any money. That is often the clincher.
But sometimes there are conferences I really want to go to. So I’ve found out how to go to conferences for nothing, and do so ethically: offer to volunteer. Conference organisers often need people to do all sorts of things: staff reception desks, babysit important speakers, run around at plenary sessions with roving microphones. If you have the skills, you can convene or chair a panel or two. And, as with festivals, helping for some of the time gets you free entry the rest of the time, often with travel and accommodation thrown in. Plus you get to meet the organisers who are often influential people. So all I have to contribute is my unpaid time, and that feels like a fair exchange to me.
This isn’t widely advertised, and may not be available at all conferences, but it isn’t hard to ask. For me, asking would be easier than stealing. So if you want to go to a conference, but the cost is more than you can afford, give the organisers a call or drop them an email. Explain your predicament, tell them about your skills and abilities, and ask whether you can offer your services in exchange for a conference place (and, if necessary, travel/accommodation). Do this as far in advance as you can – though it’s always worth a try, even if you only find out about a particular conference at the last minute. I’d be very surprised if you didn’t receive a sympathetic hearing at the very least, and you might well find yourself with a good deal and some new friends into the bargain.