This is a question I get asked a lot. Whether it is for hiring, tenure, or a research grant, researchers seem unsure of the value of conference papers.
It’s all about impact
Conference presentations feel like they have more impact than other forms of dissemination. There are real people in the room listening. They ask questions. They might come up and talk to you in more depth later. They take a copy of the paper.
And yet, in most formal assessments of your research achievements, conference papers are considered “low impact”.
This is largely because the audience for a conference presentation is small. The presentation is likely to be short. And the material is usually work in progress, nowhere near as polished as a full journal article or scholarly monograph.
While conference papers can circulate widely through informal networks, usually the impact on the advancement of knowledge is small.
Furthermore, there is rarely any peer review for quality. Selection processes, especially in the humanities and social sciences, often use merely an abstract. The criteria for inclusion may or may not be about quality, focusing additionally on the general shape of the conference, breadth of coverage of particular topics, balance between graduate students, new scholars, and senior scholars, etc.
So why bother with conference presentations?
A conference paper isn’t an end in itself. It is part of a larger process of knowledge creation and communication.
With that in mind, you can relax about the paper itself. The goal is not a “finished” piece (whatever that is) but a coherent presentation of some of your findings, insights, theoretical or methodological musings, or whatever.
A conference presentation
- provides a deadline for writing.
- enables you to get feedback on your work in progress.
- enables you to connect with other researchers, with whom you might collaborate in various ways over your career.
- is a great first draft of a journal article or book chapter.
Your objective is to meet the people who will want to have longer discussions about your research and to get useful feedback that will allow you to improve your work and turn the paper into a solid publication.
Those people are also more likely to read and cite the eventual publication, read your other publications, and recommend your work to others thereby increasing the impact your work has on the advancement of knowledge.
This post is based on one first published May 13, 2009.