Guest post by Donald Nicolson: The problem of thinking about conferences and Return on Investment (ROI)

Can we measure the return on investment of conferences? In this post Donald Nicolson outlines why this question is challenging to answer, and outlines some of the reasons it may not be the best question to ask when thinking about the value of conferences.


Donald NicolsonReturn on Investment (ROI) is an economic term used to describe the profits accrued in relation to an initial cost of a product. This enables a figure to be calculated that can be compared with other similar products. For example, I spend £20 on Crate A of apples, and £20 on Crate B of apples. I then sell Crate A for £40, and Crate B for £60. Here Crate B has the better ROI, double that of Crate A. In this simple example, it would be seen as more prudent to invest in Crate B because the apples generate a bigger profit than Crate A. A similar example would be where I spend less on Crate B apples than Crate A apples, and they both sell for £40. All things equal, I would want to invest again in Crate B.

Some people talk about the ROI of attending a conference. For example, Edelheim et al (2017) have discussed the ROI of conferences in terms of the time, money and effort taken to attend a conference (see also Nicholas Rowe’s Conference Inference interview on this issue). These are all variables that can be measured, (which might be a red light to those who disapprove of metrics). University management will expect staff to provide full costings of any funding request to attend a conference. More often than not, the person making the request will be expected to outline what they anticipate to be the perceived (and somewhat ambiguous) benefits from attending the conference; usually ‘presenting a paper’, and/or ‘networking’, and/or ‘career development’. These are outcomes that are probably not amenable to quantification (other than scoring ‘yes’/’no’).

Thankfully, I was never asked to provide conclusive evidence that attending a conference at the cost of my host Department had a direct ROI. In hindsight I do not know how I could show that the time/money/effort taken to travel to, and attend and present at a conference had a tangible ROI. I would provide a detailed written report on the conference; although it would most likely have been evident if I got anything out of the conference from my enthusiasm, or not, when talking about it.

My main issue is that I do not see conferences as being amenable to cause and effect. Therefore, it is difficult for me to understand how a conference organiser could show ROI. Here the costs might run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, and take years of planning and preparation before its execution, usually over the course of four or five days. One outcome that might indicate conference ROI is “Impact”. I do not consider profit as a ROI for a conference, because in theory, some Universities hold a charitable status. (In addition, it is important to note that this might not be relevant for conferences that are run by Industry, especially if they seek a ROI). Because I worked in an applied field of research (Health Services Research), ‘Impact’ was something that was always at the centre of the projects I worked on. Therefore, when I began my empirical work on conferences, the Impact of a conference was something I was interested to tease out. This reflects my academic background, where the precise measuring and evaluation of intervention and outcome are the norm. But I now see the idea of conference Impact as problematic. The perceived Impact of a conference will probably vary widely amongst those organising it – and similarly for those attending. And as was noted in my 2017 book, Academic Conferences as Neoliberal Commodities, Impact is probably an alien concept to conferences in the Humanities (though this may be changing with the spread of Impact discourses across disciplines, in the UK context and beyond). Therefore, I am now prepared to say outright that I consider ROI is not a helpful concept for gauging the value of conferences.

Methodologically, I think it is difficult to show for some outcomes, that a conference has clearly met its investment and delivered on target what was a priori expected. It will be simple enough to say if a conference has drawn in the numbers of people that it sought to do. (This might be a proxy measure that a conference has broken even). But I fail to see how a conference can be shown to have engaged with each and every attendee, benefitting their being there.It seems to me that the temporality of a ROI is important to consider. For example, I have been to many conferences where any benefit was not immediately felt in the here and now of the conference, but rather developed with time; for example, months could pass and then something would trigger my recognition of what I’d heard at a conference, giving me a better understanding of the present. Lastly, and probably most crucially; it is doubtful to me if there is a clear and reliable measure that can show a conference has had a ROI, other than monetary, which for most universities, is at least in principle, not relevant.

I consider there are also ideological reasons to be critical of conference ROI. Academic life is precarious enough these days without a conference organiser being criticised if the conference is not perceived to have delivered. If a conference does not have the desired ROI, this should not have implications for the employment of the conference organisers, or the attending researcher.

As such then it is probably nigh on impossible to compare and contrast the ROI between different conferences. The lack of clarity on a ROI might be tied to the more general confusion around what is the purpose of conferences. These points highlight the difficulty with applying economic and effectiveness concepts to conferences; (which might be further reason to be critical of the Neoliberal Academy). But clearly, we need a better conceptual basis for understanding conferences. For Conference Scholars, this is our ongoing challenge.

About Donald Nicolson

Donald Nicolson confs picDonald Nicolson has worked in academic research since 2001 and is still an independent scholar, much to the chagrin of himself and his family. In July 2018 he gave an invited keynote address to the Association for Borderland Studies conference in Vienna, from which this piece arose. He can be approached on Twitter @the_mopster. His first book, Academic Conferences as Neoliberal Commodities, was published by Palgrave Macmillan. Some people think it is not bad.





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