Richard Butler: offer to host SVPCA 2017, and a plan for the future

October 1, 2015

We’re delighted to host this guest-blog on behalf of Richard Butler, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, and guru of basal ornithischians. (Note that Matt and I don’t necessarily endorse or agree with everything Richard says; but we’re pleased to provide a forum for discussion.)

Dear friends and colleagues within the SVPCA community;

I am posting here courtesy of Mike and Matt with two objectives. First, I would like to provisionally offer Birmingham as a venue for the 2017 SVPCA meeting, with a host committee of myself, Ivan Sansom, and our postdocs and students. I propose to host the meeting at the University of Birmingham and the Lapworth Museum of Geology, following the latter’s redevelopment and reopening in 2016. Second, I would note that this offer is conditional on the implementation of some changes in SVPCA organisation that I believe will help secure the future of the meeting, while retaining its current atmosphere. Although I have already discussed these proposed changes with many colleagues via email, a broad scale and open consultancy and discussion within the community is needed, hence this post and open comment section.

Despite the apparent success of recent meetings, there are a couple of factors that give me substantial concern about its future. There is a trend, noted by several people, toward increasing disengagement from a large component of the early postdoctoral career and established academic community, with many of these individuals (including myself) attending SVPCA less and less frequently. Numbers provided by Richard Forrest show a small but steady decline in the number of people paying full registration (i.e. non-students) over the last five years. Having discussed this with a number of colleagues, it is clear to me that it stems from multiple reasons, including meeting length and structure, ever-increasing time constraints, and competition with the myriad other meetings such as PalAss, SVP, EAVP, ICVM etc. This disengagement is worrying for a number of reasons, but perhaps most pressingly because it is exactly this part of the vertebrate palaeontology community who are generally expected to organise the meeting in future years.

I am also concerned that people are not queuing up to organise the meeting. We are just about getting by from year to year, but offers are sparse at exactly a time when there are almost certainly more vertebrate palaeontologists employed in the UK than ever before. Why is this? Well, taking on the organization of SVPCA in its current form is not exactly attractive in the current academic world of REF, impact, museum cuts, and the ongoing marketization of universities, with charges for the use of lecture theatres and other spaces increasing rapidly. The meeting is long relative to its size (particularly when SPPC is considered) and its budget is low, and the lack of any formal organization to SVPCA means that there is limited support or continuity from year to year. Hosting it is unlikely to substantially enhance your CV, but it will certainly impact negatively on your other outputs (i.e. papers, grant applications) for that year. We risk reaching a point in the near future where there is no-one willing to host the meeting and the meeting grinds to a halt.

My proposal is that the meeting could bear a small degree of formalisation and modernisation without losing its character, and doing so would ease pressures on hosts. Following discussion with a broad range of colleagues within the SVPCA community, I am proposing that a small SVPCA steering group be established as part of the planning for the Birmingham meeting. This steering group could be established in a simple, representative, democratic, cost-free, and light-touch manner. This group would not need to meet in person other than at SVPCA itself so there would be no financial cost. There would then be an open and democratic basis for deciding upon the future of the meeting and ensuring continuity from year to year.

This committee could come up with an agreed list of recommendations for how the meeting should be organised in the future, addressing topics such as meeting length, the role of SPPC, the relationship of the meeting to PalAss (who already provide significant financial and logistic support), the abstract review process, and innovations such as lightning talks, workshops and keynotes. It could also find solutions to the significant logistic issues to do with bank accounts, payments and the like, all of which place unnecessary strain on the local organisers. Local organisers would still have considerable autonomy, but they would receive more support.

As an initial proposal I suggest a small committee that attempts to represent the different communities that make up SVPCA. The last and next meeting hosts should be on, as well as perhaps five additional elected members, serving limited terms, to represent the student, early career researcher (up to 10 years post-PhD), senior academic, museum, and non-professional communities. Pretty much all of the feedback from colleagues for this idea to date has been positive. Note that this does not imply the formation of a formal society (although that would be an option that a steering committee could discuss), and nor does it challenge many of the aspects of SVPCA that so many of us find attractive, such as its friendly atmosphere or the absence of parallel sessions. I hope it will provide a framework for us to continue to promote scientific excellence and drive up standards in UK vertebrate palaeontology, and help secure the future of the meeting for the next 60 years. I would love to hear any opinions that the community has on this proposal, and the future of SVPCA more broadly.

142 Responses to “Richard Butler: offer to host SVPCA 2017, and a plan for the future”

  1. Paul Barrett Says:

    Sounds like an excellent proposal Richard – the meeting needs some help to secure it’s long term future and a more detailed think about the format of the meeting that actually meets the expectations of attendees is probably long overdue.

  2. lizgmartin Says:

    I think this is a great idea. Having been on the organising committee this year, there are certain things that would have been done a lot better, easier, or quicker if there had been some kind of central committee to help with things.

    That being said, I’m also keen on keeping the current atmosphere of SVPCA as more relaxed and laid back than other conferences. I think that if it turned into an SVP-like conference, it would cause other issues. A lot of people go to SVPCA rather than other conferences because of the atmosphere and the fact that it is very different than other conferences, so if it changed too much it would be a shame.

    And I think it’s important to give the host committee a large amount of autonomy as you mention, because I think that’s part of what makes it great, that it does change from year to year.

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    My thoughts: the one thing I hear over and over from people at SVPCA is that they like how it’s not SVP, and want to resist it changing to be more like SVP. So while I understand and sympathise with Richard’s feeling that the meeting needs to get on a more professionalised footing, there are several things that I would hate to lose:
    1. Single-track sessions. It’s great to be able to hear all the talks, and I certainly learn more from the fish talks than I do from the dinosaur talks. Don’t make me choose!
    2. The sense that pretty much every submitted abstract gets a talk slot. If the numbers are becoming overwhelming then I would favour offering lightning-talk slots over outright rejection.
    3. The distinctive character that each individual meeting has, distinguishing it from previous and subsequent SVPCAs. I’d hate to see any change that woukd have made it impossible, for example, for Richard Forrest to run the Lyme SVPCA in 2011 — possibly my favourite SVPCA.
    4. The intangible sense of informality and collegiality — very hard to describe, but crucial.

    There is certainly nothing in Richard’s proposal that directly opposes any of those qualities. A somewhat formalised committee could simply streamline the meeting’s ability to keep doing what it’s been doing. But I suspect the plans for change may go deeper than just the formation of a committee. In particular, Richard’s mention of “meeting length and structure” suggests there may be some desire to shorten the meeting, which would make it difficult to retain both #1 and #2.

    So I’d like to hear more about the proposed changes beyond the formation of the committee (which I think is pretty much uncontroversially a good idea).

  4. Zerina Johanson Says:

    Hi Richard, thanks for your considered comments and offer to host SVPCA 2017. I think SVPCA is an important, relatively low-cost venue for the UK vertebrate palaeo community, particularly for students. That said, you raise some very good points- there are too many meetings to go to these days (I’ve been to four so far this year), and SVPCA is slipping further and further down my list. It is a long meeting, and I think abstracts should be competitive and judged by a committee. Those that aren’t suitable as talks could be given poster slots- this is standard now? Students could give lightening presentations in an earmarked session- this would highlight them and their research to the attendees. It would also free up slots in the main platform sessions. I really do want to support SVPCA, so I hope we can make some changes, but still keep the collegiality as mentioned above.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Zerina writes: “I think abstracts should be competitive and judged by a committee. Those that aren’t suitable as talks could be given poster slots- this is standard now?”

    It may well be standard; but I think it’s one of the ways in which people like SVPCA because it’s not standard. In effect, it judges abstracts the way PLOS ONE and PeerJ judge papers: if they’re sound science, they get OK’d irrespective of how sexy or mundane they sound. I think this is a desirable property.

    That said, obviously if the meeting keeps growing, something’s got to give. We already moved (this year) from 20-minute slots to 15-minute — with surprisingly little difficulty, actually — so we do seem to face a start choice between (A) even shorter slots, (B) an even longer meeting, (C) parallel sessions, or (D) rejecting some sound talks.

    I know that a lot of people don’t like (B), although actually it would be the best result for me — SVPCVA already takes up effectively a whole week, so another day of sessions during that week would hardly inconvenience me. But if the community as a whole wants to avoid the meeting getting longer, and indeed to shorten it as Richard implies, then we do seem to face an unpalatable choice between (A), (C) or (D).

    Lightning talks may provide a way out of this dilemma. If a significant proportion of speakers were happy to make short presentations of, say, five minutes each — especially for preliminary work — then we might be able to otherwise keep things as they are.

    To me, this problem of fitting all the talks in is the single most important issue that SVPCA has to resolve. I suspect it’s largely because everyone is in a single room hearing the same talks that we have this all-in-it-together informal quality that everyone likes. So if I had to pick a single one from the four constraints above, it would be (C), that we continue to eschew parallel sessions.

  6. I like a lot of the ideas above but fundamentally, the idea to have an informal-but-formal steering committee seems wise. Maybe they can arrange a poll of current/likely SVPCA-goers to see what features would do the greatest good, and base a decision on evidence like that.

  7. Charlie Underwood Says:

    I feel that SVPCA, as with Palass, is extremely useful as a way if keeping in touch with both people and advances in various parts of palaeontology. It may even be the less formal way things happen at SVPCA that makes it so good. Saying that I probably only go to either of them one year in three. I don’t know how other people get conferences paid for, but I can only get funded for the occasional conference and only then if I can clearly demonstrate research importance- I can’t really do that with general conferences and I am not in a position to self fund these very often. So I only go when I feel I can afford the time and money. Do other institutions pay more for conferences or do other people spend more of their own money? I don’t know. Time is also an issue, with other conferences, field classes and fieldwork it starts be be difficult to justify being away from home. Making it shorter would help, but then parallel sessions lead to missing out on interesting things that may cross fertilise research, and shortening talks risks making them all conclusions and no information. If it were organised such that it was easier to come for a day of themed talks it would help me come more often, but probably spoil the atmosphere. I have no answer. Sorry.

  8. Robert Sansom Says:

    I thoroughly support Richard’s proposals. SVPCA is good meeting, and there is near universal agreement that its informality is its strength. Nevertheless, there is a serious problem with regard to participation in the meeting from certain sectors for very real reasons, and this represents a fundamental challenge for its long term future.

    A working group to consult on possible changes and a committee to enact those changes are eminently sensible suggestions. As such, having a conversation/consultation such as this should surely have everybody’s support, irrespective of people individual preferences.

    I don’t think it is necessary to get into the specifics at this stage because the main proposal is for a consultation exercise. Having said that, I echo the comments of Richard, Zerina, and Paul. It is perfectly possible have fewer talks over fewer days with a dedicated poster session to broaden its appeal (not only in terms of quality of talks, but also less demanding in terms of time) and still retain its informal and friendly feel.

  9. I don’t feel qualified to comment on the committee stuff – I’ll leave that to people that have actually organised SVPCAs.

    In general I’m in agreement with Mike’s points. I certainly don’t want a shorter conference, and would go longer if anything. The length helps create the atmosphere, newcomers are bound to get to know people by the end, and regulars get a chance to talk to people they might not have otherwise.

    Rejecting talks seems like a drastic action which I’d rather not see happen, but I recognise the problem growth is causing here. Voluntary lightning talks seem like a really promising direction. I would have loved to give a lightning talk as my first at SVPCA, as I suspect a lot of first-time speakers would. Perhaps optional 10 minute talks should also be considered? Maybe voluntary sorting of talk length is all that’s needed to fit everything in, and put the emphasis on more significant talks.

  10. Not Important Says:

    As a postgraduate, I perceive the lack of interest from senior academics to be the more troubling aspect here. But it is very very understandable. SVPCA seems to have turned in to ProgPal which is specifically designed for the undergraduate and postgraduate practise talks. Like SVPCA it has a laid back, non-judgemental (*cough*) and informal atmosphere. Personally I have valued SVPCA for the opportunity to see senior workers presenting world-class research in this kind of atmosphere.
    SVPCA has been very inspiring in the past, when I’d see my heros presenting, and getting a chance to meet and talk with them properly. While I obviously relish the opportunity to present my own work (as do all students), I would much rather see the cutting edge science of the established academics in a shorter higher-quality showcase of our subject. Their work after all is what ultimately steers the ship and future research. For me that’s what made SVPCA so special in the past, and it is a view shared by many others.

  11. Gareth Dyke Says:

    As (one of) the main organisers of this year’s meeting I welcome Richard’s comments and suggestions on this (these are my views, not those of the others who ran the Southampton meeting this year). I also ran the Dublin meeting in 2008. I wanted to make several points:

    -I think we should maintain SVPCA and maintain it’s ‘informality’. I think strongly that the SVPCA is a very valuable part of the annual ‘scene’. I also like the structure and the inclusion of SPPC;

    -Richard is right in my view – we need more organisation and a management structure for these meetings. Not necessarily a ‘president’ etc etc, but some organisation. A treasurer is needed 100% as well as a small management group that can be maintained over a number of years, to provide some continuity (and to cut down the very considerable amount of work that goes into running these meetings);

    -Although we had a very good turnout this year, I was quite sad that more of the UK ‘established’ academics did not come. I think this is precisely because of the issues Richard highlights.


  12. lizgmartin Says:

    I agree that lightning talks are the preferred way to go over rejecting talks. I think straight out rejections and recommended posters should only go to those that have obviously flawed abstracts, or abstracts with no information at all. Otherwise, if there is little information or for students with little to no data/conclusions yet, encourage them to do lightning talks.

    As a student, SVPCA is a great conference to do your first talk at because of the informal atmosphere, and friendliness. If we start doing proper peer reviewed abstracts with flat out rejections, I think a lot of students would lose that chance to be able to do their first talks. I’m not saying that all students should be outright accepted (we could only accept student talks that have data and conclusions, for example), but I think we could do it in a way that still encourages students to give talks, while keeping the numbers down and not doing parallel sessions.

    Zerina said that students can give lightning talks in an earmarked session – does this mean that students would not be allowed to give normal talks? I think that’s unfair, as there are some very good student talks. In fact I’ve seen student talks that I would consider to be at least as good if not better than some non-student talks. You can’t compare a Masters student or first year PhD to someone in their 4th year finishing up, those talks would be very different. I think that there would have to be more criteria to decide on lightning talks than just “they are a student, therefore they get a lightning talk”.

    I would really hate to see it go the way of other conferences where it becomes extremely difficult to get a talk, and then ends up being dominated by talks by well established palaeontologists, and students getting constantly rejected. This is my view as a student who has given several talks at SVPCA (including my first ever talk), and I can sympathise with future students trying to do the same thing.

    (again emphasising that I’m not saying students should automatically be given talks, if the abstract isn’t good, they shouldn’t get a talk)

  13. Stuart Pond Says:

    “…there is a serious problem with regard to participation in the meeting from certain sectors for very real reasons…”

    Is it possible to state what their reasons are? It would far better if we were all sure we were’t talking at cross-purposes and there was as little ambiguity as possible.

    The committee is a good idea and as long as it was kept relatively informal and membership flexible. At this year’s event at Southampton (I was a member of the Host Committee) there were still quite a few established academics attending, but we also had more delegates than ever before plus a varied and busy talk schedule and a well-attended field trip. That the sessions don’t run concurrently is a strength of the meeting and as has been mentioned in several comments the meeting could be a day longer without any issue. The social aspect the meeting allows delegates to chat at length and form collaborations. We also have a special collection with PeerJ that means papers will be published based on many of the talks given; preprints are going up already.

    One issue for the SVPCA is it’s proximity in the conference calendar to the SVP and the subsequent demands preparing talks/posters for both meetings in relatively short succession; plus it costs.The SVP is now so costly to attend the SVPCA acts as an alternative to many of us, and as has been mentioned retains the collegial atmosphere the SVP lacks due to its sheer size. Many folk simply cannot to afford to travel to North America; for this reason alone the SVPCA is of tremendous value.

    Based on this year’s meeting there are perhaps some ideas worth considering:

    1) Live streaming the talks.

    2) Changing the posters on a daily basis as at the SVP to allow more to be displayed.

    3) Lightning talks dispersed within sessions.

    What it doesn’t need:

    1) Concurrent sessions

    2) Conference hotels

    3) Any raising of the cost.

    4) Shortening.

  14. Mike Taylor Says:

    Liz Martin writes: “does this mean that students would not be allowed to give normal talks? I think that’s unfair, as there are some very good student talks. In fact I’ve seen student talks that I would consider to be at least as good if not better than some non-student talks.”

    I very strongly agree on this — to be honest, some of the least engaging talks I’ve seen at SVPCA have been from fairly well established people who seem to have lost interest and are just going through the motions.

    I think what’s being suggested here is more than we have a session or two of lightning talks in the week, and that we might expect a higher proportion of students to apply for lightning talks. But I would strongly support the principle that the allocation of full-length talks should be on the basis of the research, not the researcher. (As surely everyone would?)

  15. pfalkingham Says:

    I’m loath to start rejecting abstracts if we can help it, unless they are clearly fundamentally flawed. If there’s anything I’ve learned from conferences over the years it’s that the correlation between abstract quality and talk quality is weak at best! Hopefully a lightning talk session (potentially implemented 2016 Liverpool) will reduce the need for that.

  16. Jessica Lawrence Wujek Says:

    I think Richard does bring up very good points, as do most comments left here. There are a few things that need to be planned out more, or more details given. As a member of this year’s hots committee I can say that this is a big commitment to host and you need lots of help and lots of time (as you do with almost any conference/meeting). A larger ‘overseeing’ committee to help with these issues would be good I think, especially to pass on advice and contacts for help. How soon should these changes take place? Should we try to start some of these changes in Liverpool and see how it goes? Also if the changes do not happen fast enough for your liking will you not do the meeting? It’s hard to say what would be better, making small changes over a long period of time, or lots of changes quickly. Does anyone have thoughts on that?

    My concern with the elected seats is that there is not a clear way to vote for these seats, and regulate who votes without forming some sort of society. How do you keep the voting fair and regulated? I know this is a small point but still something that needs to be considered and talked about. We also give hosts of the meeting lots of freedom, which is great and keep variety! But this means that the committee sizes will change, I don’t think it is a problem, unless voting for things takes place at these meetings and one committee could have more pull than the other. Once again I know it is something small, but something to consider. Especially HOW and WHO will make all these decisions before we have the committees set up.

    I agree that talks, if the meetings continue to get big may need to change and lightning talks given, but am opposed to automatically giving students them, when it really depends on type of talk and quality of abstract. I do wish to see more well established people at these meetings as it is great for students to see they are humans too, not just names on paper and are nice and want to help further this science….but as Stu said without getting the reasons why established people do not want to attend anymore, how can we fix this and make it so they do?

    Overall I think a lot of work needs to be done, and maybe someone to work with perhaps Richard Forrest as well since he has been putting a lot of work into this meeting each year. Perhaps the group needs some sort of board to help implement these changes for the next few meetings until the conference gets on a better track…

  17. Mike Taylor Says:

    Jessica says: “My concern with the elected seats is that there is not a clear way to vote for these seats, and regulate who votes without forming some sort of society. How do you keep the voting fair and regulated?”

    In practice, I don’t think that kind of thing is likely to be a problem, at least in the foreseeable future. It’s part of the nature of SVPCA that this stuff just works out OK. I mean, there’s never been a society to vote on who gets to host each meeting, but it gets worked out.

    So I wouldn’t worry about this. I’d be inclined to say anyone who wants to stand for election can, anyone who wants to nominate someone can, and anyone who wants to vote can. Just like how anyone who wants to comment here can.

  18. To add my thoughts to the discussion:
    I’m all in favour of a committee of some sort because there are some aspects of the meeting which need more continuity of organisation. Whilst the web site and database provides some of this, there are some aspects, in particular financial, which are very disorganised.
    Any committee needs to rule with a light hand, and be responsible primarily for ensuring venues for future meetings. Their role must be to support rather than dictate.
    I’m not in favour of shortening the meeting. Much of its character comes from the fact that it gives time to get together with other delegates, As someone not directly involved in academia I particular I value this, and there are many other delegates in my position.
    The format of meetings is very much up to the annual organisers. Ideas such as lighting talks, separate poster sessions and so on are something which should be taken on board and will no doubt be incorporated, but I feel that if this is dictated by a committee it will have a stultifying effect. It’s good to try out new ideas (for example hosting in a non-academic venue such as Lyme Regis!) and there was certainly a period during which the programme became very rigid. We don’t want to return to the days of the inevitable mammal talks on Friday afternoon during which half the delegates fell asleep. The success of this years conference showed that reducing talks to 15 minutes does not lead to a drop in quality.
    Evaluating abstract submissions could be carried out by some sort of committee, and this is something I organised for the 2011 meeting. However, the decisions on acceptance needs to be left to the organisers because numbers submitted are somewhat unpredictable, and there is an inevitable last-minute juggling before the programme is finalised to ensure that slots are filled.
    Above all, I don’t want the SVPCA to turn into a second-rate clone of the SVP. The meeting happens every year because delegates want to come, and because someone puts their hand up and volunteers to organise it. We don’t need to emulate the SVP to successful: it is a very successful meeting both in terms of numbers attending and the scientific quality of the presentations.
    Although numbers attending this year were high, it was noticeable that many of the more senior academics who come most years were not there. It would be a good idea to find out why this is the case.
    I write as someone with no academic position, and who is not involved in the day-to-day struggle of those who are in a world of restricted funding and short-term appointments. There are things which someone in that world wants from a symposium, such as how it contributes to a CV or how it helps to advance a career, and this should certainly be addressed. However, it must not be forgotten that for many delegates such as myself this is not the reason why we come. (Putting on my old fart’s hat) I’ve been coming to these meetings for nearly 20 years, and during that time have seen delegates who first attended before they had even been to university advance to permanent jobs in the field. In fact, this year we had the youngest delegate ever, aged 13. Other delegates are well past their sell-by date but come because they enjoy the chance to meet old friends and to get to know the youngsters who are in the early stages of their careers. We must not lose these people.

  19. Richard Butler Says:

    Thanks to all for the comments so far. Keep them rolling in – it is encouraging to see this engagement.

    I just want to pick up on a few points. First, although I am delighted to see lots of debate about how exactly the meeting format should or should not change, my immediate concern is more about setting up some kind of steering group or committee to help organize and support the meeting, and to think about the meeting’s future, perhaps drafting a series of recommendations for future organizers. I am very happy to see that most people seem to support the setting up of such a committee as this has been contentious in the past. How we would vote for that committee is not really an issue – we can consider anyone who has attended SVPCA in the last X number of years as part of the SVPCA community, and eligible to stand or vote. I would point out that under current arrangements there would be nothing to stop me hosting the meeting and unilaterally imposing whatever changes I wanted on the meeting for that year. What I am proposing is the introduction of some democracy for the first time.

    Second, can I make very clear that I think no-one would want to make any changes that are going to have a negative impact on students. If the number of talks were to be reduced, there should be no reason that it would be students that would suffer, as long as they were presenting scientifically strong abstracts. My experience of other meetings where there is competition for talk slots is that students often do BETTER than more established professionals, because they put more time and effort into their abstracts.

    Several people have asked why more established academics are turning away from SVPCA. I can only give you my personal reasons. For me, one key reason is that it is too long relative to talk quantity and quality. Even ignoring SPPC I can lose the best part of five days when travelling is included. The meeting is as long as SVP, which is 10 times its size, and longer than PalAss, which is 2–3 times its size. Given all of my other academic and personal commitments and the existence of many other competing meetings, I find attending SVPCA difficult to justify. I also encourage my students to go the SVP, PalAss, and Prog Pal, but only rarely SVPCA.

    What would I personally like to see? I think an overall shorter meeting, three days at the absolute maximum (but even two or two and a half), which would be achieved by not organizing SPPC in its current form and/or reducing numbers of talks. To compensate for fewer talk slots I would want a more prominent poster session, and perhaps a dedicated lightning talk session. I’d like to consider a keynote address, and maybe some small pre-meeting training workshops aimed at students. Abstracts would be reviewed, and offers of talks versus posters/lightning talks would be decided solely on scientific quality.

    I strongly disagree that everyone should get a talk regardless of abstract quality: for me SVPCA is absolutely not a meeting to stand up and give a 20 minute talk about work you _intend_ to do, regardless of whether you are a first year student or a long-established professor, or to give works that are not scientific in nature. Even Prog Pal now has some competition for talk slots, so the opposition to any competition at SVPCA strikes me as archaic.

    Those opposed to change seem to simultaneously want the meeting to stay long AND cheap. This is impossible longterm. It costs a lot of money to run a meeting these days, and costs for catering and the hire of lecture theatres and other spaces increase all the time. Either registration costs will need to rise significantly, or the meeting needs to be shorter and tighter.

    Finally (for now), it is exactly early career academics like me who need to be organizing the meeting for it to have a future. If we don’t buy into the meeting and consider it useful for our research groups then we are not going to step forward and organize it. I have a deep affection for SVPCA and it played an important role in my early career, and I seriously wish to keep key elements of it such as single sessions and its friendly atmosphere. However, I am not going to spend weeks or months of my life organizing the meeting in its current form. If ultimately, the community does not want to see change, then I will happily withdraw the offer of a Birmingham meeting and allow someone else to step in.

  20. Thank you Richard, I agree with most of your comments. I have enjoyed the two SVPCA meetings I have attended but I am aware they suffer from the shortcomings you mention. Your proposals sound sensible to me.

  21. lizgmartin Says:

    Richard Butler says “The meeting is as long as SVP, which is 10 times its size, and longer than PalAss, which is 2–3 times its size.”

    I’m not sure I agree with that. SVP this year is 4 days of talks (5 if you include the day before with registration, and the social the day before, plus add another 2 for travel as you have to go to North America) and PalAss is 4 days, while SVPCA was 3 days, or 4 if you include SPPC and the ice breaker. Yes, the other conferences are bigger, but that’s because they involve multiple sessions at one time. Most people have said that they don’t want to go that route for SVPCA. I don’t think that SPPC needs to be considered in the length because that is essentially a separate conference. Registration is paid for separately, and if you don’t want to spend the extra day at that conference, you don’t have to.

    I agree with the idea of a dedicated poster session though. We did that slightly this year, but it would be better to have an even longer session. I think that dedicated poster sessions would make people more likely to submit posters, and make them more desirable than previous years where you just look at them during coffee breaks. It also makes it easier to talk to people at the posters if you know that there will be a dedicated hour when someone will be standing there.

  22. Richard Butler Says:


    PalAss is 2.5 days + a fieldtrip (half day symposium + two full days of talks). By comparison, SVPCA is 5 days if you include the fieldtrip.

    SVP is and always has been four days (normally Wednesday to Saturday). Sure there are some workshops + registration the day before sessions start, and fieldtrips that a small number of people go on, but the core of the meeting is four days, as is SPPC/SVPCA. At best, you could argue SVPCA is one day shorter despite being a tenth the size.

    As an organiser, there is little difference between SPPC and SVPCA. Both require time, effort and money to organise. I think there is a key question about whether SPPC is truly valued by the community and should continue to be organised as a sister meeting to SVPCA.

  23. lizgmartin Says:

    Richard – Sorry, you’re right about PalAss. I looked at the schedule but managed to miss that the last day is a field trip. Of course until we see the schedule, we won’t know if they are doing concurrent sessions or not. But if it truly is 2-3 times the size of SVPCA, they will have to with 2 days only of talks. We seriously struggled getting all the talks in this year at SVPCA in 3 days.

    I still think SPPC is a separate issue. Maybe it does need to be evaluated, but I don’t think it’s that big of a deal organisationally speaking on top of SVPCA. I was on the committee this year, and SPPC was not nearly as big of a deal as other things to organise, no more than a field trip, and even less work than some field trips I’m sure (Gareth – please correct me if I’m wrong!). We did really struggle getting talks and abstracts for SPPC this year, but that was the only struggle we had for organising it. It was not a lot of time and effort in addition to what we were already doing (other than Mark Young hounding people to submit). But if it is to be re-evaluated, I don’t think it should be on the basis of whether or not it’s too difficult to organise for the host committee. I think that as long as it is valued by a number of community members, it should continue. Maybe be re-formatted slightly, but not completely axed.

  24. Mike Taylor Says:

    What would we lose if SPPC simply became the first morning of SVPCA? An annual symposium, in effect?

  25. lizgmartin Says:

    Mike – I suppose we would lose A) some time out of the SVPCA schedule, and b) the field trip to collections typically associate with SPPC.

    That is an option though, but I think would put pressure on other aspects of timing. Or even (if people agreed), SPPC could be concurrent with the first morning session of SVPCA as most people don’t attend both meetings. But I think it does need to be revisited especially after we struggled this year with participation. Although that may have been because of the fact that it was on a holiday (although no one said anything about that being a problem for the conference to us).

  26. Richard Butler Says:

    Mike: that is a viable option as far as I am concerned and one I have considered. However, first of all I think an effort needs to be made (by the steering committee if set up) to determine if and why we should continue to organise SPPC given the yearly struggle for speakers. Does the prep, curatorial + conservation community really value it? If so, why does no-one want to present? Might an alternative format such as a poster symposium be worth exploring. We should not continue to organise it simply because of tradition.

  27. The other Mike Taylor (plesiosaur one) Says:

    1. I do like SPPC – it is very useful and relevant.

    2. At Southampton, did people feel that there is a continuing problem of first and second year PhD students presenting at SVPCA? If so, then it seems to be adding to the burden and length with very little benefit to the audience, given the variable quality and tentative nature of the results. I know they need training, and it’s great for them, but that is what the Pal Assn’s ‘Progressive Palaeontology’ meeting is for. I would MUCH RATHER have the SPPC papers than those immature papers, especially if (for instance) a half day can be saved.

    3. Don’t forget quite a few people are self-funding. I know I wasn’t at Southampton but that simply reflects my dissatisfaction with the meeting which is now marginal for me in cost/benefit, especially if a lot of colleagues are not coming.

  28. The other Mike Taylor (plesiosaur one) Says:

    One other point about SPPC. If SVPCA is as long as it is them something has to give – and many people are there for the main VP papers and have to concentrate on them even if they’d like to go to SPPC. Don’t forget the recent trend of rearranging the sequence of papers means that one has to attend the whole meeting just to be sure to see e.g. the plesiosaur papers.

    Get rid of the students who don’t have anything reasonably complete to say, marge SPPC into the main meeting with a morning session at the start, and get the total length down to three days with a field trip.

  29. fossilguytom Says:

    I’m a final year Phd and I didn’t go this year because there were too many talks, and it would have been too expensive. Cost is hugely prohibitive, and when forced to choose a conference the bigger shorter one is always the more attractive option. Personal sentiment aside I think it’s important that quality wins over quantity; to reduce costs and to get back to the USP of SVPCA; excellent and diverse research discussed properly as a room. In my humble opinion it should be two days maximum. Posters are a great platform and much preferable to a lightening talk format which I feel is demeaning. Disagree if you like but having discussed it with other postgrads “Your talk isn’t worth our time” is the message loud and clear. A poster or a talk is a nice tried and tested 0 or 1 decision for the organisers.
    My two pence worth. T

  30. Mike Taylor Says:

    For me, going to a conference at all is an expensive thing to do (in time and organisational effort as much as money). Once I am over that activation-energy hump, the actual length of the conference is not such a big deal — the marginal cost of an additional day is very low, and its value very high. So reducing SVPCA to two days would be a disaster for me: halving its value while hardly reducing its cost.

    We need to distinguish between two very different things when we talk about the “size” of a meeting. One is the number of delegates. My sense is that Richard Butler and other potential hosts would like that number to be as high as conveniently possible, since hosting a meeting that is big in this sense is perceived as more significant for one’s career. The other sense in which a meeting can be “big” is the number of talks. Paradoxically, at least some people who would like there to be more delegates also want there to be fewer talks, presumably so they have to spend less time at the meeting.

    I find myself a bit baffled by this. Is it really such a punishment to have to be at a meeting? If it’s that bad, maybe we don’t need so many meetings? As a very vertebrate-focussed palaeontologist myself — as I thought we all were here — I can give EAVP and PalAss a miss without too much pain. I would be sad if SVPCA were shrunk so that people who want to go to all three don’t have to attend too many meeting days in total.

  31. Richard Butler Says:

    I don’t want to make this discussion all about meeting length, because it is only one of many issues that need to be thought through. But I want to respond to some of the comments here made by Mike & others who want to keep the meeting at current length. The arguments against shortening the meeting seem to be largely that ‘I like it the way it is’, and don’t seem to understand why many of us think this should be up for discussion, and perhaps experimented with.

    The implications of having a longer meeting are:

    (1) It becomes considerably more expensive to organize and registration costs inevitably rise.
    There seems to be a genuine lack of understanding from some people here that it costs a LOT of money to hire lecture theatres, social spaces and other venues for academic conferences, and to organize the associated refreshment breaks and social events. For example, even to just hire a lecture theatre and have very basic morning and afternoon tea and coffee breaks for a meeting the size of SVPCA is likely to cost £1000 to £2000 per day, or higher, at most large universities. These costs are rising all the time. That is before you have to hire space for posters and evening social events, and buy alcohol for those social events. Every extra day adds thousands to the cost of running the meeting, and this will be reflected by higher registration costs. Gareth and Phil can probably give us the details, but I believe that we are fortunate that the Palaeontological Association has provided funding in recent years to subsidize the meeting and keep registration lower than it might be, but we cannot be reliant on this long-term.

    (2) It becomes much more demanding and stressful for the meeting organizers, putting off potential hosts.
    Meeting organizers are generally exceptionally busy academics whose time is pulled this way and that by the commitments of teaching, maintaining a research profile, managing a research group and grants, applying for funding, fulfilling university/museum administration roles, fieldwork, outreach, editorial and review tasks etc., not to mention maintaining some semblance of a personal life. Organising a combined SPPC/SVPCA that lasts four days is MUCH more daunting than one that lasts maybe 2.5 days. And because a longer meeting is more expensive, it means either lots of time scratching around trying to find funding and making deals to do stuff on the cheap, or taking the flack when registration costs rise. Ultimately, the bottom line is that if academics don’t want to organize the meeting, the meeting will die: are those people who want the meeting to stay basically as it is willing to step into the breech and organize it on a regular basis?

    (3) It is much more expensive to attend.
    A longer meeting means higher registration costs, but it also means one or more extra night’s accommodation, and extra days of eating in restaurants. Adding an extra day to the conference easily means it costing £100+ more to attend. That might not put some people off, but it is a big deal for students and others with limited funding.

    (4) It puts those with very limited time off attending regularly.
    I’m a relatively early career academic, but my time is extremely hard-pressed (see above), and it only ever gets worse as one progresses up the ladder and modern academia places more and more demands upon researchers – I can only imagine what it is like for someone senior like Mike Benton or Paul Barrett. Moreover, because of fieldwork, research trips, and conferences I spend a lot of time away from my family each year, which can take a toll on one’s personal life. In an attempt to minimize this, each conference becomes a time cost/benefit exercise for me. I absolutely do not mind going to a long conference like SVP because I feel that the quality of the talks is going to be excellent throughout and there are so many people that I need to speak that it takes at least four days to try and track everyone down! For SVPCA, which is much smaller and the talk quality is much more variable, I find the current meeting length difficult to justify, and so attend infrequently. Even when I do attend, I often only attend for part, or will bunk off for half a day to catch up on work. I’m not alone in this regard, but I think it is difficult for those who don’t have an academic job to understand. Many of us would prefer a shorter meeting with a higher and more consistent standard of presentations throughout – this would encourage more regular attendance by the established academics who are currently increasingly disengaging with the meeting.

    That’s my thoughts on this. I think the exact meeting length is something the steering group, if established, needs to discuss and provide recommendations, but I think it is very unlikely that SVPCA/SPPC Birmingham 2017 will last four days.

  32. Just to make my position clear, I understand that the cost of venues is high, and I would accept higher registration fees. Not SVP levels, but higher than £70!

    The argument that students are put off by the extra costs incurred by the extra day seems to be contradicted by the rising number of attendees surely? Seems to me that if demand is high, prices can rise.

    Are these the essential problems we are trying to solve?
    1. The decline in attendance by post-doc academics (do we have numbers on this?)
    2. The burden on organisers and possible difficulty in securing venues

  33. Ian Corfe Says:

    My perspective, as a postdoc not currently in the UK (I’m in Finland) but attending most SVPCA meetings is a little different, as I use it like others have said they use SVP, to catch up with friends, colleagues, collaborators and my UK students. And as I’m travelling from overseas, an extra day either way currently doesn’t make much difference for me. To address a few points others have brought up though:

    – Posters, SVPCA has gone back and forth with posters recently in terms of importance, dedicated poster sessions or not, length of these etc., sometimes to the annoyance of poster presenters. If posters are to become more important to keep up with rising attendances and/or less days and so fewer talks, then maybe a consistent poster session format would encourage people that posters are valued as much as talks. At present there is usually a free night, maybe 1 hour could be taken off the end of the talks that night (3/4 talks depending on length) and a 2 hour dedicated poster session with presenters next to posters the whole time organised. A cash bar would help the conversations… If the meeting shrinks in length, fitting similar in could still be considered.

    – Length of the day. It’s my impression that SVPCA actually has quite short days usually compared to other conferences, running a fairly relaxed 9-5 most years vs longer days at other conferences (8-6 is common, sometimes longer or 9-7, 8.30 to 6.30 etc). The start might have to be juggled to ensure the 1st am slot isn’t to an empty hall, but this would still allow another 6-8 or more talks per day, nearly equivalent to a whole am or pm session at present. If there are less days overall, this wouldn’t be too demanding…

    – fossilguytom mentioned discussion in the room. I feel that was lost a little this year with 15min vs previous 20 min talks; but again this is a compromise between ‘feel’ of the conference and length/number of available talks that should be discussed.

    – One of the conflicts in this thread is between SVPCA being seen as a friendly inclusive meeting welcoming to students – how many of us gave their first talk there, I did! – versus the kind of length to talk ‘quality’ ratio issues mentioned by i.e. Richard (Butler) as a possible reason for less postdoc and permanent academics attending. As attendances seem to be increasing, this implies increasing absolute and relative student numbers if postdoc/permanent staff numbers are going down. As mentioned, this presumably means that the poorest academic attendees, students, are still seeing it as an affordable conference. Trying to balance these aspects is obviously difficult; would a poll/ranking of the ‘importance’ of different aspects of the meeting help determine what people think should stay or could/should be lost?

    – Richard mentioned only attending part of the conference, but my impression is that a number of permanent academics who previously did that no longer attend at all, implying that however long the conference, they might not attend anyway. It’s difficult to gauge, but do you Richard (and others) get the feeling that a much larger number of those people would attend if it was i.e. a day shorter? Or would it still be behind say SVP, PalAss and other conferences on the list of conferences to attend?

    – SVPOW Mike Taylor – the ‘V’ in EAVP stands for Vertebrate, so no excuses there! I also don’t think it matters for the career of a researcher whether your conference has say 50 vs 200 people, the importance really only changes if you organise one of the big 500+ people ones, and then you tend to have standing committees vs local committees etc so it’s less of an individual effort. I’m not sure how important overall leading the organisation of a conference is seen on a CV, nice to have but not vital would be my impression, so a lot of it at the SVPCA level is as a service to the vertpalaeo community rather than a career progression/advancement opportunity I imagine.

  34. Zerina Johanson Says:

    I just wanted to say that I saw the lightening talks for students as a positive thing- something to highlight their research in a dedicated session, not meant to be negative at all. Perhaps better for first and second year students? Although I guess this could also be accomplished in poster sessions.

  35. Let’s get some things straight:

    1. The meeting is increasing in attendance year-on-year, and my subjective view is that the scientific quality of the talks and poster presentations is also increasing, a view which I know is shared by others. This is not a meeting in any sort of crisis. It is very successful.

    2. The format of the meeting is not something imposed from above by a committee, but a decision made by whoever volunteers to organise the meeting. There are changes each year, for example the decision for 15 rather than 20 minute talks. The possibility of lighting talks and more formal poster sessions has been discussed for next years meeting, and it’s up to Peter Falkingham to decide what to do. If Richard Butler wants to make radical changes to the format in 2017, that’s his decision, and I for one would fully support him in this. However, that does not mean that such changes are set in stone, or that subsequent meetings may revert to a more traditional format.

    3. If a committee is set up, it is no better placed to find future venues than is the very informal way in which things are done now. No committee can force someone to host the meeting: someone has to volunteer to run it. Individual members of a committee may help to find volunteers, but in many ways this is little different from the current situation.

    4. The size and format of the meeting has changed considerably over the six decades of its existence. Arthur Cruickshank, who went to the very first meeting in 1953 has described it as far being a venue in which students could present their research was an opportunity for the great and the good to hand down their wisdom to students, who were strongly discouraged from contributing.

    5. As John Martin has so expressed it so well, the SVPCA is not an organization but an organism. It has grown and changed over the decades because good ideas have been kept and bad ideas rejected. It has evolved to fit into its environment, and as that environment has changed so has the meeting.
    If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

    6. The SVPCA does not exist to boost the CVs of early career researchers. It exists because there is a community of people, some of them with established academic careers, some of them struggling to establish their careers, some of them wanting to decide if they want an academic careers, some because they have retired from academia but love to come to meet old friends, some of them because they make their living (or not) as palaeartists, some of them because they collect fossils, some of them just because they love fossils and are fascinated by the insight they give us into deep time but have no formal education in the subject… There are many people and many different reasons both for attending and for volunteering to run the meeting. I (and Richard Edmonds(we seem to have rather too many Richards here!)) volunteered to run the 2011 meeting not because I saw it as a career opportunity, but because I love the meeting, love Lyme Regis and thought that it would be a great idea to run it there. I think it went well.

    7. There are some ways in which a committee of some sort would be a great help, in particular making sure that there is a single bank account for the meeting which can be passed on year-on-year to the next organizer. It could be useful in providing support for the organiser so that the job of running the meeting is less demanding.

    8. Contrary to what has been written previously, the only formal connection the SVPCA has with PalAss is that they look after the Jones-Fenleigh Fund. I was surprised to hear that Gareth had a contribution from them this year. I most certainly didn’t when I ran it (and I would have been very grateful for a contribution!), and don’t know if any other organiser has in the past.

    9. And finally: The SVPCA is not the SVP. It is not PalAss. It is not ProgPal. It is not EVAP. It is the SVPCA, with its own way of going about things, and is highly valued by those who attend it.

    And a post final thought: This is in some ways a philosophical debate between those who think that something can only function with some sort of central control and those who think that it can function through the interaction of its individual components. We may think that an organism can operate only if it has a brain, but let’s not forget that the vast majority of organisms on this planet function perfectly well (or rather slightly imperfectly well) with no brain or even any nervous system.

  36. The other Mike Taylor (plesiosaur one) Says:

    Richard (plesio one)

    Duly noted. But –

    SVPCA may be highly valued by those who attend it. The question is whether it is as highly valued, and why not, by those who don’t attend it.

  37. Richard Butler Says:

    Some interesting and insightful comments Richard. I just wanted to pick up on a few of them.

    1. The numbers that you have supplied me with for attendance for the last five years show total numbers fairly static in the 110-120 range, with slightly larger numbers for Edinburgh, and an unusual bump for Southampton. There is no evidence of a trend towards a bigger meeting in the short term and I dispute this claim. However, there has been a decrease in numbers of full registrations (non-students), as I highlighted above. I don’t want to name names, but anecdotally LOTS of the academics I have spoken to, from postdocs to retired senior figures, say they have stopped attending regularly. My proposals were influenced by Jenny Clack, who felt sufficiently concerned after the Southampton meeting to email a large number of academics and ask why they did not attend. You have also noted this, as have Gareth Dyke and others. This is not a crisis yet, but there are warning signs. Also, not everyone agrees that the overall scientific standard is increasing, even if lots of talks are excellent.

    2. Fair point. I’m not suggesting that a committee would or should dictate to organisers how they should run a meeting, but they could consider what the “default model” for SVPCA is and how things might be improved. Without any formal society (not something I am advocating), a local organiser will always have considerable autonomy. In case it isn’t clear, Birmingham 2017 will not be run under the existing model, even if a committee is not established.

    6. Clearly, organising SVPCA is never going to be something that will boost a CV. People organise it as part of their contribution to the community. Most of us want to see a strong UK vertebrate palaeontological meeting. At least eight times out of 10 though, it is organised by academics. For those people to continue to organise it the meeting needs to be as easy as possible to organise but they also need to be convinced that it is worth running it – i.e. that it is useful to them and their research groups. We’re not just going to organise it our of the goodness of our hearts. At least, I’m not.

    7. Agree entirely.

    8. I am on PalAss Council, and funding support was given to Southampton this year. My impression was that it was not the first time. You yourself have suggested that working with PalAss more closely in future might be an avenue to addressing some of the organisational issues to do with finance.

    9. Can I be utterly clear – I do not want SVPCA to become SVP. Or PalAss. But I do want a vibrant, scientifically excellent, meeting that appeals across the entire community, and that leading research groups consider a key meeting to attend.

  38. I don’t have full records for pre-2000 meetings, but generally attendance was in the 80s or 90s rather than 110-120. Numbers have been increasing over the years, and if that includes more students, I fail to see why that should be seen as a problem. Budgets can be adjusted accordingly. I don’t know how attendance at other VP meetings has changed over the same period, and I suggest that this is something worth investigating to find out if we are bucking a general trend or trailing behind.

    Let’s find out **why** people have not been attending. I understand perfectly well that financial support for attending conferences in general is becoming ever more restricted, and that is something we can’t do anything about. I’d be glad to hear from Jenny how those people she emailed have responded. There may be things which can be changed to make them more willing to come, or it may be things beyond our control.

    I’d also be interested to find out what regular attendees think about the scientific quality of the presentations. Evidently not everyone agrees with my subjective evaluation.

    I’m sure that the Birmingham conference, if it happens, **won’t*** be run on the “exiting model”, but this years’ conference wasn’t, and next years conference won’t either. I’m all in favour of changing the format. My only concern is that if we change the format too much we will be creating a “hopeful monster” which may damage future prospects. This is why I kept more or less to the existing format for Lyme Regis given the rather fundamental change in the nature of the venue.

    I had no idea that PalAss funding was made available for the conference until I heard it from Gareth. As I wrote previously, I’d have been very grateful for such support for 2011. Can someone find out if previous years have been supported? Incidentally, this is an area in which a committee could be very useful.

    And yes of course it’s a no-brainer that we want leading research groups to consider the SVPCA a key meeting. But let’s also consider its wider appeal in the community, and make sure that it’s a meeting non-academics, or those not affiliated with any research group or university, or those wanting to find out if they can make a career in palaeontology want to attend. My bench mark in this (as in other matters) is that we want a meeting Steve Etches wants to attend.

  39. It’s rather interesting to note that one of the reasons Mike (plesiosaur) Taylor gives for not attending the meeting is that there is no predictable day for plesiosaur talks. Bear in mind that one of the elements of the meeting which **has** changed of the past few years is the predictable format of sessions. Change per se is not necessarily a good thing, and some of the effects of change are unpredictable and can undermine the objectives of that change.

  40. The other Mike Taylor (plesiosaur one) Says:

    Richard (F), it’s not that the other papers aren’t interesting but that an unpredictable programme makes it harder to keep costs (in money and time) under control by attending only part of the current extended programme and by booking cheaper travel in advance for those of us who live at a distance, as I (usually) do.

    This problem arises from the length of the meeting. If it was shorter it wouldn’t be a concern. My sauropod doppelganger is quite right to say the meeting mustn’t be too short, but if it gets too long soemthing has to give.

  41. Richard Butler Says:

    Richard (Forrest): I’ve already outlined why I think some people are attending less frequently and what I think we can do to address this. I’ve discussed this with many of them over email or in person, but it’s up to them whether they want to post their views here publically.

    I’ve checked the Palaeontological Association Trustees’ Annual Reports for the last few years, and both York and Southampton appear to have received financial assistance. This is awarded through their grants-in-aid scheme.

    There are clearly strongly opposing views on how well individuals here think the meeting is currently functioning, and how and if the meeting should change in our rapidly changing academic world. I hope we are all united though by a desire to see a strong and successful UK meeting that survives long term.

    As yet there has been no strong opposition to what I had thought would be a controversial suggestion – setting up some kind of steering group or committee to support meeting organisers – I suggest that we might move our discussion onto the practicalities of that, rather than talking round and round the same issues.

    I suggested in my initial post a committee of seven, and I still think that would still be a good number, but I think you would want past, current and future meeting hosts – i.e. Gareth Dyke, Peter Falkingham, and me, if people are willing to accept Birmingham as a 2017 venue and if Gareth and Peter are willing to participate. That leaves four spaces, and I would suggest they represent the student, early career academic, senior academic, and non-professional communities. Distinguishing between museum and other academics (as in my original post) seems pointless. These elected individuals could serve three year terms, as this would match the terms of the meeting hosts.

    Would you (Richard F) be able to generate a list of people who have attended the meeting over the last five years? This could be used to identify an electorate who could be asked if they want to stand for one of these positions, and then vote using a platform such as surveymonkey.

    The roles of this committee would be, as discussed, to: (i) try and solve some of the short-term and long-term logistical challenges (financial, long-term maintenance of the website); (ii) provide support to meeting organisers and develop a storage bank of useful information; (iii) help identify and encourage future hosts to come forward; (iv) think about and discuss the future of the meeting, including discussing how best to make sure the meeting appeals to the entire community.

    Does anyone actually oppose forming such a committee or think it should be done differently?

  42. Gareth Dyke Says:

    Reading all the comments with much interest, I do agree with Richard’s comments above and would be more than happy to participate further (if needed).

    Some notes, for those interested: Organising the Southampton meeting (even with the excellent team here) took about 2 months of work overall and ended up costing in the region of £8,000 overall (I can provide more detailed accounts if people are interested). We did get (as York did) an award from Palass of £1900 (we had to apply) and our major in-house cost here was the the use of the space at the NOC (lecture theatre, room for posters, outside spaces) – £2100 (this was, by the way, a special 50% reduction that I had to negotiate). Catering for the meeting (coffee breaks, 2 per-day) cost in the region of £1000 (we are restricted to the use of the UoS caterers so can’t make this cheaper) as well as social events. Traditionally, at SVPCA there are two evening socials inc. the auction and people paid for the dinner as well. I tried to keep costs down this year (£50 for regular delegates and £20 for students for the 3 days of SVPCA, including the welcome reception).

    One of the reasons we discussed at the meeting the strong need for better financial management that that SVPCA currently passes, informally, a ‘float’ from meeting to meeting. I received over £1000 from Phil Cox at York and we will pass on about the same (>£1000) to Peter at Liverpool. But this is unaudited and probably should be subject to some oversight by someone.

    As Richard notes, whether, or not, we change the structure of the meeting is up for discussion BUT we do urgently need some committee work just to ensure the future of these meetings and also (in my mind critically) to ensure financial oversight. One good idea that was put forward (by Mark Purnell) at the dinner this year would be to ask the Palass to hold and maintain the SVPCA budget (in the same way that they hold and maintain the Jones Fenleigh Fund). Finances at the moment for running the meetings are too loose. I would never imagine that these budgets would be open to abuse (I’m not saying that), I’m just not all that comfortable with it (having run two SVPCAs in the last 10 years).


  43. Mike Taylor Says:

    Gareth says: “I do agree with Richard’s comments above.”

    Which Richard? Butler and Forrest seem to be in some disagreement.

  44. Gareth Dyke Says:

    Sorry: Richard Butler – about the forming of a committee. Changing other stuff about the meeting is something that we as a community should discuss to try to find a consensus. Key here though is to try to re-engage with the (large numbers) of people who just don’t feel SVPCA is “worth their time” anymore (whatever you think of that viewpoint, change is needed).


  45. I don’t think I am in disagreement with much of what Richard has said. I fully concur with the idea that there should be a committee of some sort, and that the role of that committee should be to facilitate the running of the meeting, ensure future venues and provide an element of financial continuity and oversight.
    That individual organisers can change the format is a non-issue: they can and have in the past, and is one of the reasons why the meeting continues to be a success.
    We may disagree as to what constitutes the success of the meeting, and there are some differences in our opinions as on the scientific quality of presentations and the reason why some regular delegates have not attended in this year in particular. But these are matters on which we can gather the views of past attendees to find out what others think.
    There is no doubt that the nature of academia is changing, and that there are more pressures on those trying to build a career in the fields of vertebrate palaeontology and comparative anatomy (and let’s not forget the second part). This affects the SVPCA and must also be affecting other meetings. It would be a good idea to find out if there are problems with attendance and so on elsewhere, if changes have been made to address such issues and how successful this has been.

  46. Mike Taylor Says:

    Let’s ask the immediate key question, then: is there anyone who thinks that the committee suggested by Richard Butler is not a good idea? All I have heard so far is agreement, or at worst ambivalence. If that’s the case, perhaps someone would like to start the process? (Would it be you, Richard? Or would you prefer someone else to take the lead?)

  47. Susie Maidment Says:

    I very much agree with what Richard B is proposing and am strongly in favour of setting up a committee to help with the logistics of organising SVPCA. I believe it will lead to more people being more willing to volunteer to host the meeting in the future because having a committee to help out and offer support will make the whole thing less organisationally daunting.

    I have not been to SVPCA since the Oxford meeting. This year I only have funding for one meeting, and I’m going to PalAss. As an early career researcher, I go to meetings to meet collaborators, to draw attention to my research, and to be inspired by work that is being carried out by others. While SVPCA has always been great for the first two of these, I’m going to be blunt: it’s not always that great for the third. My personal reason for not attending SVPCA regularly is that there are two many talks that report work that is going to be done, or give long faunal lists of things that have been found at a site with little or no interpretation or implications.

    SVPCA is *not* a venue for students to do their first talk: we very specifically have ProgPal for that. I actually think that it is *critical* for the survival of the meeting in its current form that a more robust approach to peer reviewing abstracts is taken.

    A couple of people have strongly argued against this here, most notably Richard F and Mike Taylor (dino). To them I would say that academia is not like it used to be: we simply cannot afford the time to organise a ‘bit of a get together’ for everyone to ‘have a nice time’ with no real scientific benefit to us or the wider academic community.

    Frankly, maintaining the status quo IS going to result in wider disengagement from working academics. If those of you who are not academics are willing to find a venue and organise the meeting every year, then fair enough – carry on as it is. I think it would be a shame, because part of what is good about SVPCA is that the entire community engages. And rather than complain about having to get through peer review to do a talk – write a better abstract!

  48. Mike Taylor Says:

    “Rather than complain about having to get through peer review to do a talk – write a better abstract!”

    Well, that’s fine, Susie — but it clearly can’t work for everyone.

    For what it’s worth, I’m not sure it’s true to say that I’ve “argued strongly” against rejecting talks. My inclination is against it, but I am persuadable. But I can’t offhand think of a single talk this year that was about work that was going to be done — and only one that struck me as being about work that is either too early in its life to be very interesting, or just plain weak.

  49. Mike Taylor Says:

    I should also mention that, if anyone had asked me, I would have been very much against shortening the talk slots from 20 to 15 minutes — but that turned out to be completely OK. So I am perfectly capable of being wrong about these things.

  50. I haven’t argued against the idea of a review process, or the rejection of talks. However, the problem I had during the 2011 meeting was that there seemed no consistent basis on which to reject talks, and that was not my opinion, but the feedback I had from a panel of reviewers, all of them leading academics. I basically sent them out, and they all came back with the recommendation that they be accepted. If talks presentations are to be rejected, it needs to be done on the basis of a consistent procedure which is as objective as possible. It’s important not to repeat what has occurred in some previous meetings when talks seemed to be accepted or rejected on the basis of the personal preferences of the organiser.

    I can’t remember any recent talks which have consisted of long faunal lists, and the number reporting work which has only just been started has decreased significantly.

    I have expressed the opinion that the quality of the science in presentations has been getting better year on year. Do others, who have attended meetings regularly over the past few years share that opinion? Or disagree? I thought at the time that the quality for the Lyme Regis meeting was the best ever – though perhaps I am biased – but thought that it was even better in 2012. Excellent again in Edinburgh, boosted by the Stan Woods special symposium, excellent in York (even if most of us learned far more about mole rats than we thought possible) and excellent again this year, when the reduction of talk length to 15 minutes made presentations more focussed and clear.

    I can remember some talks which were pretty dire, but such talks seem to be a thing of the past. What do people think?

  51. Marc Jones Says:

    It’s great to see so many people giving their time to discuss the future of a conference where I’ve seen many great presentations, met lots of great people with diverse interests, and received constructive but friendly feedback on my own research.


    This future of SVPCA was discussed on the facebook group page a few years ago and as I suggested back then it would be worthwhile sending out a questionnaire to establish, for example:

    1. why exactly some people are no longer attending SVPCA
    2. the likely future attendance without change to format
    3. which aspect of the current format would be most desirable/unpopular to change

    I appreciate that some of you have already informally surveyed several people and think you know but some of the conflicting statements show that not everyone is on the same page. Provided that it was constructed properly, a questionnaire would provide a democratic and more objective basis for decision making by a host or standing committee in addition to reducing the room for anecdotal speculation.


    To me the atmosphere at ASH (Australian Society of Herpetologists) and CAVEPS (Conference on Australasian Vertebrate Evolution, Palaeontology and Systematics) is similar to that of SVPCA and therefore they provide a useful source of inspiration and comparison. Both ASH and CAVEPS pride themselves on being student friendly and have regular attendances between 80 and 150. The atmosphere at PalAss feels different to me and I haven’t been to EAVP to make a comparison with that meeting.

    Executive committee?
    ASH yes
    CAVEPS no
    SVPCA no
    It seems to me that establishing a committee is worthwhile for many of the reasons already stated. ASH has one and yet has a similar atmosphere to SVPCA. I agree with Richard Butler that the standing committee should include past and future meeting hosts and with Richard Forest that the host committee should still be given flexibility to experiment with the precise format as might appropriate to the venue.

    ASH 2.5 days of talks
    CAVEPS 3 days of talks
    SVPCA 3.5 (4 with SPPC)
    SVPCA is shorter than both ASH and CAVEPS. As Richard Butler says it seems likely that the present length of the meeting is too much for several of the established academics to attend or host. As a result their students may also be less likely to attend which does not bode well for the long term future of SVPCA.

    Talk slot duration?
    ASH 5, 10, 15, or 50 mins (largely based on request not on status)
    CAVEPS 20 mins (50 mins for keynotes)
    SVPCA 15 mins (but previously 20 mins)
    As others have said a session of shorter talks (not just by 1st and 2nd year students) seems like a worthwhile avenue to explore.

    Parallel sessions?
    ASH some days
    CAVEPS some days
    SVPCA no
    Given that both ASH and CAVEPS have parallel sessions it seems worthwhile experimenting on this front if the venue permits. I didn’t used to like the idea of parallel session but at ASH and CAVEPS it works fine and asking someone how the other talk session was is a fun topic of conversation. At ASH and CAVEPS the parallel session tends to be a symposium based around a person or hot-topic. For SVPCA the parallel session could be SPPC, an engaging symposium, or even an innovative workshop. The focus of the last two possibilities could be selected to draw in big hitters (and their students and collaborators). Interestingly at the International congress of Herpetology in 2012 there were 16 parallel sessions/symposia and yet during the coffee breaks the atmosphere often resembled SVPCA.

    Dedicated poster session?
    ASH briefly one afternoon
    CAVEPS one evening
    SVPCA not usually
    I agree with Ian Corfe that grater continuity would be desirable for the emphasis of poster sessions. I appreciate that the number of submitted posters varies from year to year but providing a suitable environment for the posters (e.g. not in total shadow) is something the host committee needs to take seriously.

    Evaluation of abstracts?
    ASH some
    CAVEPS some
    SVPCA some
    Both ASH and CAVEPS have some reviewing of abstract similar to the level of scrutiny employed (at least some) past SVPCAs but not the same level as SVP. As I’ve said before judging abstracts to determine platform priorities is the worst method except for all the others when there is competition for a limited number of talk slots. Judging emphasis should be on:
    – clear and meaningful aims and questions
    – materials and methods that are appropriate
    – conclusions that are appropriate to the results (and wider literature)
    – novelty

    Start and end times?
    ASH 9:00-17:00 ?usually
    CAVEPS 9:00-16:30 ?but variable
    SVPCA 9:00-17:00 ?usually
    Ian Corfe’s point about the day length is interesting but SVPCA is pretty similar to ASH and CAVEPS in this respect.


    There are several other people who are familiar with SVPCA as well as ASH and/or CAVEPS who would be worth asking for suggestions that might contradict some of the points I made, e.g. Mark Hutchinson, Adam Yates, Zerina Johanson.

  52. There a lots of opinions here, and it is gratifying to see that Marc has actually provided some facts.

    1. Attendance at the SVPCA was hovering around the 80-90 mark pre-2010, but since then has been hovering around the 110-120 mark. This year it was over 150. This does not seem to indicate any lack of success. Can anyone provide information on attendance to other conferences to see if the SVPCA is lagging behind or bucking the trend? Without that information, the numbers don’t mean much.

    2. The scientific quality of the talks has been criticised – and in the most part by people who have not attended the meeting since 2012. This is not my impression, and I know that others share my views. Bearing in mind that this is a subjective judgement, we need to have more subjective opinions to see if there is any broad agreement on trends in quality, in particular from those who attend regularly. So what do people think?

    3. The absence of some senior academics this year was noted, and it would be good to know **why** they have not attended, rather than projecting personal opinions onto their motives. I know that Jenny Clack has written to some of them. Some may be reading this blog. Can we have some hard information rather than suppositions?

    4. The format of the meeting is a non-issue. It’s up to individual organisers to decide how to run it. If someone volunteers, they can run it as three days of 5 minute talks or one day of three hour talks if they think that would work. I suggest however that too radical a departure would be unwise. We don’t want to create a hopeful monster.

    5. The need for some form of committee to provide support for organisers, and continuity between meetings is pretty well a no-brainer. The format of that committee needs to be discussed. Richard B has suggested how it should be made up, and the basis for election. Does anyone have any other thoughts to throw into the pot? Or is there a general consensus to go ahead with Richard’s proposal?

    We don’t want to be going round in circles, but let’s debate on the basis of evidence and argument rather than personal predilection.

  53. Mike Taylor Says:

    Richard Forrest notes: “The scientific quality of the talks has been criticised – and in the most part by people who have not attended the meeting since 2012. This is not my impression, and I know that others share my views.”

    Excellent point on who it is doing the criticising!

    I am trying to avoid posting too much on this thread for fear of overwhelming it, but since Richard F. has now asked this as a direct question I will just say that I share his impression that the quality of talks if anything has been on a slight upward curve, especially as regards the progressive reduction in “here’s what we plan to do” talks.

    Anecdotally, the least engaging talks I have heard at SVPCA have sometimes come from the most senior people, not students (and not ECRs). Perhaps because students take their talks more seriously, and put more effort into them than some people who have been around for a long time: see paragraph 5 of this post.

    All of this is to say two things: first, whatever problems may be threatening the future of SVPCA, I don’t buy that declining scientific quality is one of them. (Perhaps Richard B.’s problem here is his own ascending scientific quality, so that he now judges talks by higher standards than he did a decade ago?)

    And second, if we do find ourselves “reviewing” abstracts (which seems to be code for rejecting them), I want to reaffirm as strongly as I possibly can that it must be done entirely on the basis of the abstract itself and not of who has submitted it. I think everyone would agree with this in principle; but I’m not so confident how it would work out in practice if someone very senior and respected submitted a dull-as-ditchwater abstract.

    The point here is not that SVPCA should be a venue for student talks — it’s not that, and as others have noted, we have the excellent ProgPal conference for that very purpose. The point is that talk quality in my experience does not correlate at all with career stage, and we need to be very, very sure that we’re reviewing the former and not the latter.

    On to other aspects …

    Like Richard F., I would very much like to hear from more senior researchers (and established ECRs) about what the reasons are for their attending less. I really appreciate Richard B.’s having stepped forward with such a clear account of his own reasons, but I am wary of assuming without further evidence that his reasons are everyone’s.

    Finally, on the proposed committee: in light of much agreement and a complete absence of disagreement, I say let’s go for it. Richard B.s specific proposal regarding membership and term of office all seem good to me, and I’d be happy for the proposal to be accepted as it stands.

  54. Susie Maidment Says:

    Several people, including yourself Mike and Richard F, have repeatedly asked “why are established academics not attending?” and then when I reply to explain why I haven’t attended, you jump down my throat to tell me that a) I can’t have an opinion because I haven’t attended recently and b) that I am wrong. You are more than welcome to disagree with my opinion, because that is all it is, but please when I answer a specific question you have asked, don’t tell me I’m not entitled to comment!

    I was one of the people Jenny Clack emailed. I was part of a long discussion via email that spurred Richard B to write this post. I have discussed at length with my colleagues why I did not attend this year and last year (for the record I was on maternity leave in 2013). I didn’t actually feel the need to reply to this post because Richard B already knows my feelings on this, and I suspect that’s why several others haven’t commented either. I commented, however, because the post is being overwhelmed by the opinions of just a few people.

    I have never, and would never, suggest that we reject student abstracts because they are from students. I too have seen lazy, boring talks from senior academics. Blind peer review of abstracts would prevent the issues around rejection of our senior colleagues’ work. And the criteria on which we should judge abstracts is not difficult to work out – indeed, SVP have an excellent set of guidelines that includes requiring actual results in the abstract. The perceived ‘flashiness’ of the work has nothing to do with it. As Mike said earlier, it would be a similar criterion to PLoS One papers – decent, repeatable science.

  55. Mike Taylor Says:

    Several people, including yourself Mike and Richard F, have repeatedly asked “why are established academics not attending?” and then when I reply to explain why I haven’t attended, you jump down my throat to tell me that a) I can’t have an opinion because I haven’t attended recently and b) that I am wrong.

    Sorry, Susie, that’s not my intention at all. My point is that I’d like to hear from more non-attenders, not that what we’ve heard from you and Richard B. already isn’t valid!

    (Perhaps it’s reasonable that you can’t have an opinion on the last few years’ talks if you’ve not attended them. Doesn’t at all mean your reasons for not attending aren’t valid.)

  56. Richard Butler Says:

    Richard F, I’m going to pick up on one of your points: raw numbers alone _do not_ tell the full story of whether the meeting is successful or not. Based on the registration list for this year, here is a partial list of postdoc and above vertebrate palaeontologists who did not attend the meeting (apologies to everyone listed for taking your name in vain, and to anyone that I have missed!):

    Matt Friedman, Roger Benson (Oxford), David Norman (Cambridge), Susan Evans, Paul Upchurch and Anjali Goswami (UCL), Martin Brazeau, Susie Maidment, Phil Mannion (Imperial), Paul Barrett, Zerina Johanson, Angela Milner, Andrew Milner (NHM), Rob Sansom, Phil Manning (Manchester), Steve Brusatte, Stig Walsh, Nick Fraser, Mike Taylor (Edinburgh), Emily Rayfield (Bristol), Marcello Ruta (Lincoln), John Hutchinson, Laura Porro (RVC), me, Ivan Sansom (Birmingham)

    Now many of these people might have excellent work and/or personal reasons for not attending this year, but the total number of absences in a small academic community is startling. I don’t think this is a one-off: many of these people have attended less and less in recent years (I accept that a few on my list have never been regular attendees, but most have). Does it not concern you that the demographic of our only UK vertebrate palaeontology meeting has dramatically shifted from being genuinely representative of the entire community to lacking the majority of the post-PhD academic community? When I was a PhD student _everyone_ went.

    I would also very much welcome comments from those members of the community who are not attending as often as they have done previously. Marc’s suggestion of an electronic survey may be worth exploring as well.

  57. Paul Barrett Says:

    Hi everybody,

    I’ve been holding off posting here as I’d already discussed this extensively with Richard and others, not only in the light of Jenny’s recent call to arms, but following from conversations I’ve been having with colleagues about the format and content of the meetings for many years.

    Personally, I have been dissatisfied with the meeting for some time. My last one was also the Oxford meeting. Since then, I’ve had to miss one due to personal reasons, but I was so pissed off with the meeting by then (after many years of growing disaffection) that I started to rule it out mentally and the time became a very convenient one in which either to take my annual holiday or fieldwork (which I’ve been doing over the time of the meeting during the past two years).

    Prior to this I was a regular – indeed, I think I’ve attended more than anyone else who’s thus far replied, with the exception of Mike Taylor (plesiosaur). My first meeting was 1991 – as an undergraduate. Indeed I think I am the only person who can comment on the meeting as someone who has attended at all career stages.

    My disaffection began at the Glasgow meeting – not because of the organisation or talks (I remember it being a rather nice meeting), but because of the narrow-minded attitudes expressed in the frustrating and ultimately pointless debate over whether or not we should team up with the Bristol SVP. The naysaying against SVP that took place at that meeting convinced me that many regular attendees were not really interested in engaging with the leading international society in our field, which struck me as shortsighted and insular. This disaffection grew at Oxford – it was unprecedented to extend the meeting simply to accommodate additional talks, rather than exercising some form of quality control to weed out weak abstracts (and by golly there were some awful talks at that meeting). So, these two events and a long term feeling that the meeting wasn’t delivering are some of the reasons my attendance has dipped recently. Moreover, in a time when we’re expected to maximise impact of our research, the small size and insularity of the meeting makes it less attractive than SVP, for example.

    I have to say that quality of the talks is one of the reasons. When I helped with the 2002 meeting in Cambridge (one of three SVPCAs I have been involved in co-organising including Oxford 2003 and London 2005) we instituted a process of peer-review. This led to rejections, which some people found hard to bear (suck it up people – we all get papers and talks rejected if they’re found to be lacking). I’d say that peer-review is an essential component of the meeting going forward, as would be maintaining a fixed length for the meeting and increasing the attractiveness and importance of a good dedicated poster session. Of course abstract selection has to rely on the abstract – not on who wrote it – but everyone has to realise that they need to take this seriously and actually write an abstract that includes real data and not just a wish list. Students often perform better in this respect that established figures, so I wouldn’t worry too much about them – platform slots should be awarded solely on the basis of quality (as judged by a peer-review committee with clear guidelines) rather than career stage, buggins term or some kum-bah-ya attitude that everyone deserves a shot. This should be about showcasing excellent work, not a care in the community exercise.

    Please remember that SVPCA is a professional meeting (which is why us academics care about it getting right and this is how we justify getting time off from our day jobs in order to attend). It’s not a cosy get together – it’s there for information exchange and discussion. Don’t get me wrong, my definition of ‘professional’ in this context is very broad and I would include engaged members of the amateur community very much in that definition – people who contribute strongly to the subject through publication, collection, museum support and sheer enthusiasm (e.g. David Ward, Steve Etches and other people contributing directly here). These people have always come to the meeting and should always be welcome to do so and to present their work. Indeed, it would be good to see more engagement from this community with the meeting.

    The term ‘informality’ has been banded around a lot as a positive reason for not tinkering too much with the meeting, but let’s not confuse informality with banality or let it be an excuse for setting the bar lower. Most people in this discussion have shorter memories on this subject than I: I can assure you that the meetings I first attended were quite different from those that happen now, so harking back to the past is a poor model (they used to be much, much more hierarchical). Informal, as I understand it, would mean a friendly, non-confrontational and welcoming environment that allows free discussion among all participants and easy mingling – it does not mean a lowering of standards so we can all engage in a communal group hug.

    Susie is right to say SVPCA is not necessarily the best place for a first talk and she is also right to mention that this is exactly why Prog. Pal. exists (and the latter also allows community building among students in a way that SVPCA doesn’t as it brings the whole UK palaeo community together, not just VPs). Nevertheless, as mentioned above, students often have excellent science to present and I wouldn’t discourage this, but I would discourage supervisors from suggesting that their students give talks at SVPCA as it’s perceived as an easy option (or just to put their face on the map in the opening stages of their MSc or PhD). Let’s improve the meeting by helping everyone to up their game.

    Meeting numbers are not a good guide to satisfaction. Audience figures for banal rubbish like the X-Factor show that popularity is no proxy for quality. Recent increases in attendees are entirely student driven and simply reflect the rise of Bristol and Southampton’s MSc courses, as well as an all time record number of PhD students in the UK (reflecting in turn lots of new faculty positions). In one way this is great – it shows that the subject is growing from the bottom up – but in others it masks the underlying trend that the MSc and PhD supervisors, who are the people who actually set the direction of VP in this country, are coming to regard SVPCA as a meeting of little relevance to them.

    I have a lot more I could say, but I think I’ve said enough for now. To round off, in terms of organisation, I’m in favour of shorter talks (15 mins), no parallel session, published abstracts, a good poster session, a committee to help keep continuity, a peer-review committee etc. As an aside, I hate flash talks and think they’re pointless. If the feeling in the room was that we should all work harder to increase the professionalism and quality of the meeting, while still maintaining its friendly atmosphere, it would start to come back on my radar in a much more serious way that it has recently.

  58. lizgmartin Says:

    Initially, my first thought in response to Richard B’s post was “I’ve never seen half of those at the meeting as long as I’ve been going”, but then realised that I guess that is exactly the problem many of them may have attended before I started, and have since stopped. I can remember several of them at the first meeting I went to (Oxford), but they have been fewer and fewer since. I know that many people had specific reasons why they couldn’t attend this year (field work, visitors, family vacations), but many just declined to come.

    Part of me doesn’t want it to change too much because I like the atmosphere, and although everyone seems to be set on that staying the same, I can see it changing. On the other hand, I have been disappointed with a number of people not coming in recent years that I have wanted to meet or speak to (Richard B being one of them). Coming to the last 2 years of my PhD is when I need to be talking to people about post docs, and this year would have been perfect, but there just weren’t many in those positions there.

    I’m still hesitant in changing things too much, and I am still not a fan of parallel sessions, but I have been convinced that we need to change something in order to get certain members of the community back. I think that blind abstract review would be a good start, but just to make sure it’s scientifically sounds and novel. The only question I have is what if that isn’t enough? What if we still have way too many abstracts? I had mentioned earlier that making SPPC into a parallel session might be an idea, and I still think that could work, but that would mean they probably wouldn’t do the collections trip as well, so it would need some thinking.

    One last thing I wanted to point out is that the large number of student registrations is not necessarily indicative of people treating it as a student conference, but more of the fact that students are on the rise, and it’s a cheap conference to go to at the beginning of your “career”. There are far more students now than there were 5 years ago with new research groups cropping up everywhere and lots of students use SVPCA as a way to meet the community. I think in terms of giving talks this year, it was probably close to 50-50 students and not, and I don’t know how that compares to other conferences. This echoes what Paul Barrett has said above about student numbers.

    I generally agree with most of what Paul said, except possibly about the lightning talks. Ultimately, I think that would be up to whoever is organising it each year and it will either thrive or get weeded out of people don’t like it.

  59. Richard, I share your concern that many senior academics didn’t attend this year, and there are other names I could add to the list: Tom Kemp, Mike Coates for example.

    But I’d like to know **why **before trying to fix problems which may not exist. Stig and Nick Fraser are up in Edinburgh, and it may well be that it’s simply the distances involved which are an issue. Angela and Andrew Milner are retired. Mike Taylor has given his reasons, and that is something which can be addressed. I don’t know why Paul Barrett, Zerina Johanson (and Lorna Steel) have not attended. Is there some problem at the NHM? Some of those names – Martin Brazeau, Steve Brusatte, Phil Mannion for example – have never been regular attenders. Others have never attended. It would be great if they did. Of course we need to have senior academics at the meeting.

    Dredging through my records, it seems that there has been a drop-off in attendance by senior academics since 2012. I recall that as being a particularly good meeting. I don’t think that it is the scientific values which have put them off.

    How about asking the people you listed what changes to the meeting would persuade them to come?

    Susie: I’m very sorry if you get the impression that I’m “jumping down your throat”. That was certainly not my intention, and I apologise unreservedly if I caused any offence. However, at least some the reasons you give for not coming don’t tally with my own subjective impressions of how the meeting has progressed over the past few years.

  60. Richard Butler Says:

    Richard F: Paul Barrett has outlined at great length above his reasons for not attending. They are scientific and they comment _very_ specifically on 2012.

  61. Mark Witton Says:

    Hi all,

    Very interesting comment thread, and it’s good to see the discussion-lead, democratic approach proposed for running SVPCA in action already, as well as agreement on some key ideas. To add to the opinions expressed here, because I agree it’s worth collating as many views as possible:

    1) SVPCA steering committee: Great idea. This has clear potential to open up SVPCA to organisers who may have been put off previously, as a basic financial framework, assistance and guidance on key issues will be readily available. I can vouch for finding organising a future SVPCA more attractive with this support (I would like to organise one at some point, but this is difficult for someone with only one foot in academia and unstable career – I’m probably not the only prospective organiser in this position).

    2) Conference length: I don’t have an issue with the length of SVPCA as it stands and agree with (sauropod) Mike T’s comment that, as a delegate, the additional day is not much more of a stretch financially. I would actually prefer to keep the conference length for both academic and social reasons – I’m sure a lot of us enjoy SVPCA for the opportunity to see friends as much as networking with colleagues. However, I can see that running costs are increasingly high, and that busy individuals (academic or otherwise) might find committing to attending or running the entire conference difficult. Losing a day is one solution to this, but also the most drastic. It seems like a last resort option to me.

    Instead, I wonder if other points raised here need further consideration. For instance, (Plesiosaur) Mike T has already indicated that the looser order of talk subjects might be affecting attendance. Is it worth returning to a more standardised schedule to permit targeted SVPCA attendance? On the financial side of things, John C has identified that the registration of SVPCA remains low. While we all agree this is a good thing, maybe it’s untenably low? Other conferences, even small ones of short length, charge £100s for registration fees. I’m not suggesting we go that high, but there seems room for increase without making the conference absolutely expensive, and that additional income can only help maintain the length of the conference. There’s enough people attending SVPCA now that an additional £10-20 each will go a long way. Discounts for students can still be offered although – furthering Ian’s point about students already finding the meeting affordable – reports from SVPCA Southampton suggested the Jones-Fenleigh fund was not being fully utilised. Are we struggling with a needlessly tight budget to hit typical SVPCA length?

    3) Reviewing abstracts: Realistically, abstract review is inevitable if subscription to the meeting continues to increase. I don’t agree that students should be denied talks just because ProgPal exists: it seems more sensible to judge abstracts based on scientific content alone. I think we’re all agreed that abstracts merely outlining or proposing studies, or those which superficially introduce new specimens without any analysis, should be lightning talks or posters. It would make life easier if some individuals could/would volunteer for lightning talks as well.

    4) Talk quality: I don’t think those at SVPCA are worse than elsewhere, and some SVPCA talks rank as the best I’ve ever seen. Has talk quality increased? There certainly seems fewer talks outlining work to be done than before, and I think the overall quality of presentation may have lifted too.

    5) A general comment on changes to format: We all seem agreed that the informality and basic format of SVPCA should be preserved. That said, if those with the potential to organise an SVPCA meeting are declining in attendance, or unwilling to host the meeting for other reasons, maybe we should start experimenting with the format more. Richard B is certainly right to be cautious about maintaining tradition because of our personal preferences, especially if they may be putting the long-term health of the meeting in jeopardy. We shouldn’t be afraid of change, basically. If implemented changes don’t work for some reason, or don’t have the desired effect, they can be modified again the next time around – the informality and flexibility of SVPCA is a real strength in that respect. I’m not unique in saying this here, but want my support for necessary changes to be clear.

    6) Closing point: this thread suggests that a forum might be a welcome addition to the SVPCA website if/when the committee is set up. If nothing else, it would be a great place for the steering committee to receive feedback and comments from the wider SVPCA community.

  62. I’m very glad that Paul has contributed and obviously his opinions on the scientific merit of the presentations is worth far more than mine.

    Regarding a forum for the website: I’m rather reluctant to host this because the open-source software I have used in the past for this has allowed my server to be hacked, causing me a lot of headaches and an inordinate drain on my time and resources. I suggest instead that we get together the various facebook pages organisers have created over the years and amalgamate them into a single page and let facebook have all the headaches.

  63. Mike Taylor Says:

    I’ve only attended two SVPs (Austin in 2007, and of course Bristol in 2009), but for what it’s worth I certainly didn’t pick up any sense that the average quality of talks was higher than at SVPCA. The one exception to that would probably be the Romer Prize session: that makes sense, as it’s all talks by people at the top of their game, just finishing their Ph.Ds, masters of their subfields and not yet starting to feel disillusionment set in.

    On a forum: I hate those things. I’d recommend instead a simple blog (which is what SV-POW! is), with the committee members all authorised to post articles. Comment sections of blog posts are a fine venue for discussion, as we are seeing!

  64. Steve Brusatte Says:

    Hi all, I’ve been a little hesitant to post, as I’ve only attended a few SVPCAs and don’t feel comfortable prescribing change to a meeting that many of you have been attending for years. But at the same time, I’m a UK academic now, so it’s people like me who should be attending SVPCA regularly, but aren’t.

    I’ll keep this part brief: I broadly agree with Richard Butler’s suggestions. A democratically elected committee, central bank account, peer-reviewed and published abstracts, more formal poster session, and shorter meeting are all great ideas. This may mean abstract rejections, but that day is coming anyway, as talks have already been cut down to 15 minutes and space in the program is getting tighter (largely because there are so many student talks, which is great, if those talks are of high quality). SVPCA is a unique conference. It’s fun, and has much more of a community spirit than SVP or GSA. But it is ultimately a professional conference, not a family reunion. So we should aim to keep scientific quality high. I cannot see a reason why high quality is incompatible with that community vibe that makes SVPCA so great.

    As my name has been mentioned a few times (which is totally fine me with, you’re all free to take my name in vain if you see fit!), I will give some insight into why I haven’t attended SVPCA over the past few years. It’s not at a very convenient time, as it’s usually held right before teaching begins up in Scotland. SVPCA essentially takes up a whole work week’s worth of time, which is a big chunk of my getting-busier-by-the-moment schedule (and I second Richard’s comment: I shudder to think at the time commitments that our more senior colleagues now have!). Coming from up north, I usually need to fly (or travel many hours by train) to get to a meeting in England, particularly at a place like Southampton. I don’t have much grant money to spend on conferences. And occasionally my wife wants me to be home. So in the grand scheme of things, I prioritize bigger conferences (like SVP) and other travel (for fieldwork, research, and seeing family). At this point in time, I don’t feel like SVPCA is something that I absolutely must cram into my schedule and bust my budget to attend. But with some small changes, maybe it will be.

  65. Zerina Johanson Says:

    I’m in agreement with Susie and Paul. My last SVPCA was in Edinburgh. As I mentioned, SVPCA is slipping down the list of meetings that I want to attend, for all the reasons that have been outlined above. This is despite the fact that I want to support the UK vert palaeo community. Next year’s meetings include Euro Evo Devo and ICVM, both stiff competition for SVPCA for me. Why wouldn’t you want the best talks for your meeting? Other abstracts could be accommodated in poster sessions after the day’s talks, a great opportunity for a drink and discussion. As Susie says, if you’re abstract isn’t accepted as a talk, take the poster, promote your research, and write a better abstract next year. We’ve all been there.

  66. Paul Upchurch Says:

    I haven’t been to SVPCA since 2011. This is partly because of fieldwork and teaching, but to be honest I could have worked around these to get to the meeting if it had a higher priority (I manage to get to SVP most years even though it is in the middle of my busiest time. I really enjoy SVPCA, but I have found that the talk quality is very variable. In my experience, there have been too many talks from students saying what they will do, rather than what they have done, and there have been too many talks from more senior colleagues (both professional and amateur) that I think could have been shorter or even best presented as a poster. We get far less of this sort of thing at SVP because of the abstract review process – certainly you won’t get a talk slot unless your abstract presents some clear and justified conclusions. So, I’d like to see a steering committee, abstract review (ideally blind review if possible), 15 minute rather than 20 minute talks, but keep the single sessions. Reducing the length to 2 or 2.5 days would also help. No one should be afraid of abstract review (especially if blind review) – it is reassuring to know that one’s work has passed a review process. If your work does not pass such a review, you should ask yourself whether it is really ready to be ‘inflicted’ on the sVPCA audience. So, I pretty much agree with Richard B and Paul B with regard to what’s wrong with the meeting now, why I have not attended recently, and how the meeting should change. As i have said before via an email exchange, informality of the meeting is not the same thing as informality of scientific/professional standards. We want an exciting professional meeting with a friendly atmosphere that encourages all participants to make the most of their work. As far as I can tell, the informality of the meeting stems from the single sessions, its small size (~120 attendees), longish and rather civilised coffee and lunch breaks, and the friendly attitude of the participants. It does not stem from having 20 minute talks or allowing substandard talks. In fact, the latter tends to work against informality/friendliness when they prompt harsh but valid questions – I can think of several examples from SVPCA, but it would be divisive, unfair and impolite to name names.

  67. A question addressed as those who don’t attend the meeting, for whatever reason:

    It’s no good having the most rigorous review process imaginable if there are not enough submissions to review, and the danger is that if people stop submitting their abstracts we end up in vicious cycle of decline and end up with paltry numbers of substandard submissions.

    So, what changes to the SVPCA would make you think again about submitting an abstract or just attending?

  68. Paul Upchurch Says:

    I think the answer to Richard F’s question can be found in the various responses above. Many of us want a higher standard of talks, an organising committee, abstract review, shorter talks and a shorter meeting, while retaining a friendly and informal atmosphere. If I knew that I could do the meeting in 4 days (two travel, two meeting), that I could catch up with colleagues, and that the talks and other presentations had been through some form of quality control, I would be more likely to attend.

    I also don’t think that Richard F’s scenario of spiralling abstract decline is likely. Attendance numbers are still healthy at the moment – the issue is about the representation of busy, senior professionals who have constraints relating to admin and teaching and have to make some difficult choices about how they deploy their time. Even if Richard’s doomsday scenario happened, there would be scope to extend submission deadlines, extend talk lengths, bump the best lightning talks and posters up to talk slots and so on – but I really don’t think we should worry about such hypothetical situations at this stage. We can imagine all sorts of positive and negative scenarios and should not make policy based on the less likely ones () in my view). The steering committee would have the job of monitoring the impact of their changes (which could be phased in gradually, ensuring that we do not rush ourselves into a problem we can’t get out of). Finally, I would argue that VP has never been more healthy in the UK in terms of both numbers of students and academic posts etc. and the quality of the research – I can’t imagine how we would end up with too few high quality abstracts provided we made the meeting attractive enough. SVP has had abstract review for years and has gone from strength to strength in terms of attendance and offered talks/posters.

  69. Mike Taylor Says:

    Just for clarity, Paul, when you say you want “shorter talks”, do you mean shorter than the current 15 minutes? Or just that you wanted shorter than the previous 20 minutes, and the new 15-minute slots suit you?

    For me, a two-day meeting would be a significant decrease in utility, for a marginal decrease in cost. Part of the problem here is that SVPCA is different things to different people. For professionals who work in palaeo and spend lots of time with colleagues, the social aspects of a meeting like SVPCA are probably not a big deal. For people like me, on the other hand, it’s quite possible that I could go a whole year without speaking face-to-face with another palaeontologist outside of SVPCA. In effect, that meeting is my face-time with colleagues. Losing 33% of my annual time would be a big deal.

  70. Paul Upchurch Says:

    To clarify, yes, I would be happy with 15 minute talks.

    Re the length of the meeting (and I guess other possible changes) – well, we can’t please all of the people all of the time. We’ll have to decide which formats suit the most people – and by ‘we’ I mean a steering committee. I would point out, however, Mike, that it might be more useful for you to have two days interfacing with more of us than a three day meeting we’re fewer of us turn up.

  71. (and again without the weird paragraph breaks)

    As Susie and others have requested that there is more input from the segment that was missing at this year’s meeting (and increasingly over several past meetings), I’ll throw in my two pence, reiterating in part comments that Richard B has already incorporated from lengthy email discussions. I attend SVPCA occasionally, every three years or so (most recently last year in York). I really enjoyed the meeting in York, even though I didn’t stay for the entire meeting; there were some very interesting talks, and I was able to speak with a variety of people who I don’t necessarily see regularly. I really appreciate being able to attend non-mammal talks (something I rarely get to do at SVP, and so I am also in support of avoiding parallel sessions in the future).

    This year I was in the field, and it was the only time we could schedule the trip (although I do schedule fieldwork around other meetings, more on that below). I attended last year. The year before that, I was on maternity leave (although, again, I did make it to other meetings around the same time). I could leave it at that and promise to attend more regularly. I do encourage members of my lab to attend when possible (and we almost always have a presence at the meeting, as we did this year), but I honestly can’t claim that I will attend more regularly in the future if SVPCA stays in its current form. I’ll be blunt: it’s too long and there aren’t enough “highlights” in the schedule that I won’t see a month later at SVP. I feel the same way (or more so) about PalAss, which I only attend when there is an interesting, interdisciplinary symposium, and I’ve never attended EAVP.

    Like many others, there are a lot of pressures on my time and, as much as I enjoy attending when I can, SVPCA has never become a top priority for me in my 10 years as a fellow, new lecturer, and now “senior” academic in the UK. I don’t have the fond memories of Paul and others of attending SVPCA as a student, so my judgement is based entirely on what I’ve gotten out of my attendance of four meetings, evenly spread over the last decade, versus what I get out of other meetings that are competing for my time. As Zerina noted, a lot of us are attending 3-4 scientific conferences a year (4 for me this year), which is essentially a month out of our calendar, and I select those meetings based on the breadth and relevance of topics, the likelihood of meeting people who are potential collaborators, potential lab members, and potential employers for my current lab members, and the opportunity to learn something completely new that I could translate to my own research. The truth is, SVPCA in its current form offers little to no benefit on those points over SVP. I attend SVPCA when I can because I like the laid-back atmosphere and the time to talk to colleagues and students in the UK/Western Europe at more length than at other conferences, but scientifically, it doesn’t have a USP. Because of that, I don’t schedule other plans around SVPCA; I attend if other plans don’t conflict with it.

    As others have noted, academia is a really tough field. To succeed, we have to have a presence in a large, international, interdisciplinary community, and that means that my meeting schedule has to prioritise not just SVP, but ICVM, SICB, and the European evolutionary biology and evo-devo meetings. As some of those meetings occur in the mid-late summer, and SVP is always in the autumn, there just isn’t time to squeeze in another 3-4 days unless it’s going to be really exciting. This view may come across as selfish, but keep in mind that vertebrate palaeontology survives because we convince granting agencies and academic institutions run by non-palaeontologists that it is relevant to broader fields and issues. My lab members will get permanent jobs by being selected by panels of biologists and earth scientists, and, if there is a palaeontologist on the panel, they will probably have met them at SVP.

    It is hard to be a narrow, local meeting in an age of global, interdisciplinary science, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. I do think SVPCA has great value for amateurs, students, and, yes, established academics. There is a large VP community in the UK/Western Europe, and we should be meeting regularly to share our work, promote our field, and discuss issues of regional relevance to VP, and doing so in a way that benefits all of the members of the community. However, to be that organisation, SVPCA has to attract the sector of VPers who are putting in 60-70 hours of work a week to both attend the meeting regularly and to occasionally host it. To do that, there has to be some change, beyond just setting up a committee to smooth the organisation of each meeting. Here are my suggestions, which have become stronger after reading the, in some cases, disheartening comments in the blog and while writing this reply.

    1) I often set aside a day for an interesting symposium or workshop, or an afternoon for a interesting lecture. An interdisciplinary symposium and plenary lecture would do a lot towards boosting my interest in attending SVPCA regularly, and would potentially draw in a broader audience.

    2) There are plenty of good talks at SVPCA. There are also plenty of good posters being given as talks, and plenty of boring 20 minute talks that would be good 10 minute talks. We should have a regular poster session that is viewed as a highlight, and we should have (blind) peer review of submissions. We should also have at least some shorter talks, and consider playing with variation in talk format, where people could perhaps request 10 or 20 minute talks when they submit their abstracts (and we could even ask for justification for a longer talk slot requests).

    3) Obviously, we need a committee for continuity and organisation.

    4) I think three days total is the absolute maximum length that can be justified for a meeting of this size. Given that the venues are in a relatively limited geographic area, three days can be just that – it does not scale up to a week for many of us, and suggestions to make it even longer will kill this meeting for any of us that are already struggling to justify our attendance, not to mention making it an absolute nightmare to organise. A three-day meeting is entirely possible with shorter, competitive talks and multiple poster sessions if necessary. If we opted for a symposium and a three-day meeting, I’d suggest that the symposium be on the middle day, so that if people only can make two days, we get the maximum people overlapping and reduce die-off of attendance on the last day. I don’t have an opinion on SPPC, as I’ve never attended, but anything that makes the meeting longer and harder to organise needs to be justified by more than tradition.

    These suggestions are redundant with many of the previous comments, but hopefully they will serve to support Richard B, Paul B, Susie, and others with the similar view that SVPCA needs to evolve to better suit the needs and constraints of the academic community that will ensure its continued survival, while still serving the needs of the broader VP community. On a final note, I agree that SVPCA shouldn’t become a mini-SVP, but many of us who are not attending SVPCA regularly, and are reluctant to organise one, are volunteering huge amounts of our time to the running and growth of SVP. This is not due to the “glory” associated with a large, international organisation – truthfully, my head of department stares at me blankly when I mention SVP; rather, for me at least, it does feel like we are doing something really important to progress VP on an international stage, expand its outreach, mentor students, provide opportunities for important interactions, and promote the scientific rigour and interdisciplinary relevance of the field. I think many of us would feel more inclined to volunteer our time for SVPCA if we felt it was doing more of that on the national/regional level, without sacrificing its inclusiveness and intimacy.

  72. “higher standard of talks” – That depends on getting higher standard submissions. Whilst positing a “spiralling decline” was offered perhaps somewhat flippantly, unless we get those submissions in the first place we can’t improve the standard.

    “an organising committee” – No issue. We all seem agreed that there is a need.

    “abstract review” – Again, not an issue. Abstracts have been reviewed in some previous meetings, and there would be advantage in having a more formal process.

    “shorter talks” – Not an issue. We had shorter talks this year. It worked well. Peter Falkingham is talking about lightning sessions, special poster sessions and other new ideas for Liverpool. Let’s see how that works. The meeting did rather settle into a very predictable rut for a number of years, but it can and has changed over recent years.

    ” and a shorter meeting,” – which seems to the the biggest point of contention. Some comments here argue for, others against. Whilst a shorter meeting suits some at least of the community, others are opposed to it, and in this respect I agree with Mike (dino) Taylor. I don’t work in an academic environment, and greatly value the time I get to spend with other palaeontologists. I don’t know how the SVPCA compares to other paleo meetings – I don’t have that information – but a significant portion of regular attendees are not in any formal academic position, yet make a valuable contribution both in terms of the science and general atmosphere – which is one of the strengths of the meeting.

    ” while retaining a friendly and informal atmosphere.” – which is up to the community.

    We still don’t have any bench-marks to compare the SVPCA to other meetings in terms of that rather elusive quality “success”. Do we measure success in objective terms as the number of delegates, the proportions of senior academics vs. students vs. unattached academics vs. non-academics? Are presentation standards improving elsewhere more quickly than at the SVPCA? Other than personal opinions, how do we evaluate such standards? Do other meetings have falling, or rising attendance? Are more or fewer students attending? Are more or fewer academics attending? What changes have other meetings made to meet real or perceived problems?

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not just throwing out chaff. I’m very much in favour of making some changes to the meeting, and very grateful to Richard B for challenging the community by raising issues over which we have been somewhat complacent. To use dreadful “business speak”, let’s not become victims of “boiling frog syndrome”.

    But we have several different types of delegate (and I’d hesitate to try to classify them in any objective way), all of whom expect something different. Whilst the most important constituency is very clearly the academics, changes made exclusively to cater for them may put off others to the detriment of the meeting in general.

    It’s worth adding that as we make changes, we’d better make damn sure that the wider academic community knows about those changes so that they can be persuaded to come to the SVPCA rather than other meeting. Some of the reasons given for not attending are things which have already changed.

  73. Gareth Dyke Says:

    Interesting points raised over the course of the day: I agree with RF’s last comment – perhaps it’s *not too late* to put some kind of committee in place in advance of the Liverpool meeting, give Peter some help and make some changes in line with the consensus we seem to be converging on? What do people think about changes sooner, rather than later?

    If changes are made (and I for one hope they are) then the onus would then be on those members of the community who have not turned up to recent meetings because ‘change is needed’.

    Lets move on this as a community and hope for a bumper attendance (including what I’d term the AA – Absent Academic – group) at Liverpool/Birmingham (I need to check my map as I rarely personally go north of Watford …!)

  74. Just briefly, in reply to Richard F, success is certainly hard to quantify, but it seems that this discussion opened in part because SVPCA is failing to attract a key constituency that is, probably, vital for its survival, let alone its success. Early to mid-career academics will organise most of the future meetings and will fill the audience and programme with their students and postdocs. We are still going to other meetings, so it does seem the SVPCA is falling behind. I would argue (although I’m a certainly biased by serving as programme committee c–chair for the past five years) that presentation standards at SVP have improved markedly over the last decade (I would not say the same about PalAss). SVP is growing, especially in student numbers, and the meeting size generally is as well, although location does affect it from year to year. Professionals at all career-stages attend in large numbers – I at least have not noticed any particular gaps in attendance. SVPCA is more inclusive, and should remain so, but I think some of the suggestions that we’ve discussed here are absolutely necessary to bring back the MIA early- to mid-career academics.

  75. David Hone Says:

    Some interesting and important views here and hopefully I can add my 2p to a fair few of them. I’ve numbered the below points to help break it up and also make it easier for other people to refer back to this if they wish.

    1. I’m broadly in favour of the idea of a committee that can help bridge the various conferences and bring some continuity to organisation. That should very much help each individual conference get organised and hopefully spread the workload a bit.

    2. With respect to the length of the meeting I think it is fine. I don’t really buy the argument that it’s too long – one day here or there over a whole year is really not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Everyone is rushed and has tons of commitments but one more day is not a major hassle even at busy times of the year and plenty of people still come but take breaks to work online etc. and keep on top of things – it’s easier now that it was even 5 years ago now everywhere has eduroam. Still I’d also agree with Ian Corfe’s point that we could easily extend the meeting to 5:30 or 6 pm daily which would increase the number of talks possible. I’m also with plesiosaur Mike Taylor on having (as far as possible) days dedicated to specific subjects, no need to go back to the predictability of fish on the first day and mammals on the last day of old, but having say all the dinosaurs together is helpful for those who can make only one day and might encourage those who do feel that pressed for time to head over, and if the days themselves are extended, then that should also help make it more worthwhile and attractive.

    3. The 15 minute talk slots worked better than I think anyone expected this year and can easily be extended for the future, though as Paul U notes, the long lunches and breaks do help with the flow of the meeting and it does help if things don’t run to time etc. The idea of lightening talks is a good one, and one obvious suggestion would be to have a session set aside for them where people could volunteer. It might be especially good for some students giving their first talk but I’m sure even seasoned researchers will occasionally have a very nice project but one that can be summed up effectively in 10 mins and would welcome the option (note this might have to clash a bit with the idea of themed days).

    4. I think the posters can be better used. We can try to have more posters and also rotate them too by having different sets on the first two days vs last two days (both of which could increase numbers of abstracts accepted). At a couple of conferences I’ve been to there have been no formal poster sessions with people instead encouraged to take coffee breaks / lunch etc. in and around the posters thus being able to dip in and out of them and find time to speak to the authors in breaks. This can mean posters still get plenty of an audience but can reduce / eliminate the need for formal poster sessions, and lots of people are doing this anyway.

    5. I am ambivalent about the idea for needing peer review of abstracts, though I can see it might become necessary. At the least I strongly agree that we need to try and cut down on basic reporting of things like fieldwork excavations, of ‘what I will do’ type talks (posters might be a different matter). One thing I would really try to eliminate is anything that is a talk on something that is already published – the talk or poster is utterly redundant if the actual paper is out (or even in press). Reducing some of these should increase the overall quality of presentations and reduce the pressure on abstracts (especially talks).

    6. John Conway’s point about cost I think is well made. SVPCA really is very cheap and if costs for venues are going up that much, we might well just have to suck up the extra and make it a bit more expensive – travel and accommodation generally far outweigh the actual cost of the meeting so I don’t have an issue with the price going up. I do sympathise enormously with students on a budget, but this is still far cheaper than almost any other meeting going.

    7. Finally, this has been rather overlooked in the subsequent discussions but Richard B mentioned early on the idea of a keynote talk. I think that would be an excellent addition and a 30 minute segment each year for someone would be a very welcome addition (I’d suggest on whichever day the conference dinner is).

  76. Matt Friedman Says:

    Sorry about the late entry to the debate, especially as I’m one of the guilty ones who has been absent of late.

    I should begin by saying that SVPCA is significant to me in that it was the first meeting at which I presented (a pretty awful poster in Cambridge in 2002 fresh out of undergrad). I’ve attended fairly regularly since despite being in the US for about half of the intervening years. I liked SVPCA as a student because it was inexpensive, and the small size gave me at least a fighting chance to corner established people over coffee. I like SVPCA as a supervisor/mentor because it gives my students/postdocs those same opportunities, although perhaps the second aspect is fading away. In any case, I’ve always appreciated the difference from SVP on both counts, and I don’t see any of the proposed changes altering either of these nice features.

    I was pretty burned out after organizing Oxford. I can certainly sympathize with Richard and others at a similar career stage who are wary of taking on the burden, particularly when it seems like non-trivial aspects of organization are re-invented year-to-year. I limped to Edinburgh, but spent most of my time catching up with colleagues and didn’t see many talks (although I caught some grumbling about uneven quality). I didn’t make York or Southampton. My no-show for those two is less to do with SVPCA than it is with conferences generally, and where they’ve fallen in my list of priorities. Between teaching and family obligations, it often comes down to a choice between research trips and conferences. Without the former, I don’t have much to say at the latter. As a consequence, conferences tend to lose out unless I can double things up with a museum visit. Hopefully as wiggly toddlers become more manageable, my schedule will regain some flexibility.

    In terms of suggestions that have already been made, I agree with no more than 3 days, with 15 minute talk slots (I also apologize for setting a ‘new normal’ for the meeting by lengthening it when it was hosted in Oxford!). In terms of review of abstracts, a higher bar is not a bad thing, but I think it might be useful for whatever steering committee is formed to outline some simple guidelines. Nothing elaborate, just a line or two setting out the ground rules for what is and is not acceptable.

  77. Richard Butler Says:

    A couple of things very quickly:

    – I’m happy to lead the setting up of a steering group/committee. Richard F, I will be in touch about emailing the community to ask
    people to stand.

    – I think this committee should be set up ASAP so that it can meet physically at the SVPCA in Liverpool, and also so it can help support Peter with logistical issues. I would stress however that I think Peter should be allowed to run the Liverpool meeting utterly as he sees fit irrespective of the conversation here – he volunteered to hold the meeting before I opened up this debate, and I apologise for dropping this on him!

  78. Marc Jones Says:

    To continue what I began earlier:

    Keynote talks?
    ASH Yes
    CAVEPS Yes
    SVPCA No
    Keynote talks are a great idea. It would give a least one (or three with one perday) early-mid career researchers a greater incentive for attending (and bringing their students). Anjali make a good point that some of our lords and masters are impressed no more by SVP than they are by SVPCA but an invited talk or keynote address is something that early-mid career researchers tend to need at least one or two of on their CVs and promotion applications.

    Published abstracts?
    ASH Not to my knowledge
    CAVEPS Yes, at least on some occasions in Alcheringa
    SVPCA No, although they are posted online
    Having the abstracts published in regular and respectable venue would likely give SVPCA greater exposure and international identity (at least a little bit more). For some it might also attract presentations of greater quality and presentation topics of greater importance. It seems that the majority of the community are in favour of reviewing the abstracts, and that this has already been carried out with success in the past, so why not also get them published.

    At present there seem to be a number of early-mid career researcher who would prefer the following format:
    – a standing committee
    – peer reviewed abstracts
    – a single session
    – 15 minutes for standard talks
    – a dedicated poster session
    – keynote speakers
    – no more than three days in duration
    – published abstracts

  79. Mike Taylor Says:

    What exactly do we mean by “publishing” abstracts? (Funny how much of this blog seems to be discussing what “publish” means!) For the meaning of the word that we intend here, do we consider the SVP abstracts to be “published”? Is it because hard-copies of the abstracts book are delivered along with issues of a journal? (But that’s not even true for SVP any more, is it?)

  80. Zerina Johanson Says:

    I think Marc has just summarised the discussion very succinctly at the end. I agree with Richard that it’s up to Peter to decide how he wants to run the Liverpool meeting, but if we could implement some of these changes, I would definitely commit to coming to Liverpool

  81. Regarding publishing of abstracts, something which has been talked about in previous years is buying a series of ISBN numbers so that the abstracts volume acquires and a more formal status. This is one of those issues with which a committee could deal.

    I’d also like to add that ultimately that the format will be the decision of any future organiser. The committee will be there to provide continuity, guidance and support, not to dictate. However, it is very clear from this very lively discussion that there are some important changes which need to be made to attract the key academics whose contribution provides the core of excellent science which lies at the heart of the meeting.

  82. Marc Jones Says:

    Mike Taylor is right that the word “publish” should be clarified.

    In it’s broadest sense publishing is “the process of making information available to the general public”.Therefore, simply posting the abstracts online could be seen as a form of publishing. Dave Peters would probably endorse this definition

    Nevertheless, I agree with Richard Forest that, at least for the present, it still means having an International Standard Book Number (ISBN).

  83. Mike Taylor Says:

    Is that what “published” means now? “Having an ISBN”?

    Wow, this is easier than I realised.

  84. Mark Wildman Says:

    Obviously there are many good points raised by everyone here so there is no need for me to discuss them further. However, why is there such antipathy towards concurrent sessions?

    I think a lot of issues here could be sorted if one concurrent session was run, at least as a trial, since this would open up a number of options currently not available. Why not have a specific student/postdoc session or particular symposia running in tandem with regular sessions? To be honest I like concurrent sessions since then there is always something of specific interest going on and then you would also introduce something you don’t currently have – a choice.

    I think some of the comparisons with SVP are strange. SVP is a giant that gets bigger every year – SVPCA is miles away from a meeting of this size but SVP does a lot of things very well. It is madness to discount concurrent sessions or any other option purely because SVPCA does not want to become like SVP and lose the “local” feel to the meeting – why on earth would it?

    I strongly support a steering committee and dedicated poster sessions.

  85. Marc Jones Says:

    Mike Taylor, we could switch the discussion to the myriad definitions of the word “published” but I think it would be better to make it the topic of a separate blog post. At least as far a grant awarding agencies and University Staff Evaluations are concerned, rightly or wrongly, it generally involves an ISBN (or ISSN if it’s in a magazine/journal).

  86. Susie Maidment Says:

    I’m just throwing this out there without really having thought it through, but at SVP, I think a lot of people would agree that the Romer Prize session is always one of the best sessions. This is the session where final year PhD students present the results of their PhD research, and the best presentation gets a cash prize. The talks are generally of an extremely high standard, and the prize is extremely competitive and well-respected in the community. How about we did an SVPCA version? We could dedicate a session (half an afternoon, perhaps) to final year PhD student talks, and offer a prize (we’d have to think about where this came from, but could perhaps ask people to donate to it when they register). I think this might be beneficial because it would (a) cause everyone to raise their game in terms of talk quality (b) offer a venue for final year PhDs to communicate their research to the whole community and get themselves ‘known’ and (c) give future potential employers (the senior academics we’re trying to attract) a chance to see a pool of potential postdocs ‘in action’.

  87. Marc Jones Says:

    A very excellent and constructive comment Susie!

    Would it be judged by a vote or by a panel? For the LERN conferences we asked the keynotes to make the decision but a one vote for all would probably be more consistent with the aim of maintaining a community feel.

  88. That’s an excellent idea, Suzie. Having such a forum might also discourage early-stage PhD students from wanting to make presentations about what they plan to do rather than what they have done. I think most of us hear will agree that the “this is what I’m going to do” presentations are the ones we want to weed out.

  89. As an afterthought, I wouldn’t limit it to final year PhD students, but to PhD students who think they have something useful to communicate, endorsed by their supervisors. A boost in confidence part-way through a PhD project which can get very tedious at times could be very encouraging.

  90. Susie Maidment Says:

    Exactly, Richard F. We could even have a rule that to be eligible it has to be the first time they have done a presentation at SVPCA.. or is that going too far?? Marc – Perhaps the committee could judge, or we could have an invited panel. I think the details don’t need to be worried about right now..

  91. Mike Taylor Says:

    Mark Wildman asks: “why is there such antipathy towards concurrent sessions?”

    Because that means missing some talks. It also means balkanisation of the wider group into a bunch of narrower groups. In the present format, I learn a little bit about fish and mammals every year. That is never realistically going to happen if the fish session is up against a dinosaur session, and the mammal session is up against marine reptiles.

    “Why not have a specific student/postdoc session or particular symposia running in tandem with regular sessions?”

    Because I want to see the students’ talks and what you term regular sessions.

  92. Mike Taylor Says:

    I would be in favour of a “Romer Prize” session. What would it be in the UK? An Owen prize? A Darwin prize? Or we could go more recent and have (say) a Cruickshank prize.

    Richard says: “I think most of us hear will agree that the “this is what I’m going to do” presentations are the ones we want to weed out.” I think we all agree that such presentations are dispensible — but I would say they already have been weeded out: I don’t recall hearing a single one in Southampton.

    On “publishing”, Marc writes: “At least as far a grant awarding agencies and University Staff Evaluations are concerned, rightly or wrongly, it generally involves an ISBN”. Ah, OK — then that is a good, pragmatic operational definition. For what it’s worth, getting ISBNs is easy. Costs £120 for a batch of ten, IIRC, so that seems a very worthwhile outlay.

  93. Wot Marc says.
    If a vote for all is held at the end of the session, it could also add a bit of theatre.

  94. saurian Says:

    Mike Taylor states: “Because that means missing some talks.”

    But you would have a choice which is something you do not have now. While I appreciate that there are those of us who wish to see every talk – not everybody does. Otherwise there would not be people chatting out in the corridors, looking at the posters or working on their laptops.

    “Because I want to see the students’ talks and what you term regular sessions.

    I do too but, again, that’s a personal choice and may not be the choice of others.

    To be honest about I am very relaxed about this either way but we should not discount the possibility of specific changes simply because it has always been done a certain way at SVPCA.

    Also note that I said perhaps trialling a concurrent session (or anything else for that matter). If it did not work out then you don’t do it again but at least we would learn. I am just concerned that no idea should be disregarded purely because of the “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Obviously something is amiss otherwise we wouldn’t be having these discussions.

  95. lizgmartin Says:

    I am against concurrent sessions because even though chances are you wouldn’t have two sessions on that you’re interested in at the same time, it could happen. I don’t want to have to choose between two talks I really want to see that are on at the same time. I think that would be the same reason why others don’t want concurrent sessions.

    I think Susie’s idea of a prize would be perfect, but I think it should be open to all students regardless of previous presentations or what year they are in. We have it in the Canadian Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting as well. It’s open to any students, and is meant to be solo author, and is called the Carroll Award for Robert Carroll. Personally, I don’t like the solo author thing because there are other problems associated with that, however, that’s not the major point here. I think it would increase the quality of student talks substantially and would motivate students to submit things. The only thing would be figuring out about the prize money. Maybe it could be something small coming out of the Jones-Fenleigh Fund or something.

  96. Mike Taylor Says:

    Liz says: “I am against concurrent sessions because even though chances are you wouldn’t have two sessions on that you’re interested in at the same time, it could happen.”

    I am against concurrent sessions for the more fundamental reason that I can’t tell which session are going to be of interest to me. They are often not the ones I expect.

    (Also: there is simply no need for them, at least as things stand.)

    Liz continues “I think Susie’s idea of a prize would be perfect, but I think it should be open to all students regardless of previous presentations or what year they are in.”

    Although I do like the Romer Prize rule that you can only go up for it once — you can’t just keep trying your luck.

  97. lizgmartin Says:

    Reply to Mike (sauropod) Taylor – That’s fair, you can only enter once, but I don’t think that means that it has to be your first SVPCA talk as Susie suggested. You take your pick of when you apply, so it’ll mostly be 3rd and 4th years, but it doesn’t have to be limited to them.

  98. Richard Butler Says:

    PalAss have a prize (the President’s Prize) for students/early career researchers and I think all student/ecr presentations are by default considered for it. They are not clustered together like they are at SVP, and you can be considered multiple times (but I think only win once, unless your name is Maria McNamara!). PalAss also have a poster prize. I would support the introduction of either or both. A poster prize would help raise interest in the poster session. Cost of prizes could be covered by slightly highly registration costs (probably only a few extra £ each), or through sponsorship.

    Publishing abstracts – should be easy, and we should do it if we can. We just need them to be formally citable basically.

  99. Mike Taylor Says:

    “Formally citable” is a slippery concept. I cite SVPCA abstracts all the time — in fact I did it in my new preprint which came out yesterday. I know I’m not alone in this. (That’s not to say I have any objection at all to shoving ISBNs on future abstract collections. We could also pretty easily make hardcopies available using a print-on-demand publisher like Come to think of it, they even supply the ISBN.)

  100. Richard Butler Says:

    Sorry Mike, but if I’m writing a report for a grant agency, citing an SVPCA abstract as evidence of a scientific presentation of the grant in the way you do in your pre-print is not going to cut it.

  101. Marc Jones Says:

    Student talk prize?
    ASH yes
    CAVEPS yes
    SVPCA no

    Student poster prize?
    ASH yes
    CAVEPS yes
    SVPCA no

    SVPCA seems to be unusual in not having a prize for either talks or posters. At ASH and CAVEPS, like PalAss, all students are considered for the prizes and similarly the student talks tend to be scattered about program. However, I like the idea of a dedicated session as Susie first suggested.

  102. To throw something else into the pot: public outreach.
    Vert Pal is possibly the scientific field with most public interest (and least public funding). During the 2011 conference I included a series of three lectures in the evening open to the public. I’m not sure how well they went, and of course the venue meant that we had a ready-made audience, but something worth considering.

  103. Richard Butler Says:

    Richard F: Good idea. At Birmingham I am thinking about an evening icebreaker talk before the first day of lectures. This would be open to the public and conference participants and thus less technical than a conference talk, and badged under our existing “Lapworth Lecture” series of hour-long public talks on geoscience by leading UK academics (Emily Rayfield, Susie Maidment and Rob Sansom are all contributing to this series this year). It might be followed by an icebreaker reception, but the latter perhaps for conference participants only.

  104. Gareth Dyke Says:

    If this has been mentioned, then apologies but we DID have a series of student prizes this year at SVPCA (sponsored by Frontiers in Earth Sciences):
    -Free publication fee waiver
    -£200 cash
    -Solar charger

    I’m sure that Frontiers would be ok to do this again for us in future years; future organisers can get in touch with me and I’ll pass on the contact details.

  105. Marc Jones Says:

    Gareth, sorry I wasn’t aware that happened this year but it sounds like a good precedent.

  106. Dean Lomax Says:

    Sorry, I’m late to the party. It seems there has been a phenomenal response to this, which clearly shows the interest in SVPCA itself.

    For me, I’ve always felt that SVPCA is a great conference that certainly is a lot less intimidating than others, e.g. by comparison with the likes of SVP. It is also much more ‘personal’ and, least I think, great for students/experts presenting their research for the first time – no pressures. Personally, I don’t think there is any issue with the conference itself. With regards to professionals not attending, I think this is simply due to a). other events at the same time and b). cost, in some cases. Sadly I, along with a few other colleagues I know, couldn’t make it this year for the reasons above.


  107. Mark Young Says:

    Hi everyone,

    Some interesting discussions. I agree with the formation of a panel/organising committee. I have some experience this year of things going wrong, that really shouldn’t have (everyone who got my emails a few months ago knows what I mean). We need to make sure it never happens again.

    Finance-wise, yes a committee must oversee this in future.

    But, one thing must be addressed. What is the ‘aim’ of SVPCA? Is it to be an ‘informal’ meeting? A British “SVP”? A conference for academics and ‘amateurs’ to interact? What? Without that, this is all circular.

    And what of SPPC? I’ve forwarded this thread on to the Geological Curator’s Group as they need to have a voice in this too. We need to include the GCG to determine what is the future of SPPC. It needs to be front and centre along with SVPCA in order for it to survive.

  108. Richard Butler Says:

    Right now the UK vertebrate palaeontology community is stronger than it’s ever been. There are more people in permanent university positions, and more PhD and Masters students than ever before. I think this debate has shown that most of us, particularly potential hosts and research group leaders, want that to be reflected with a scientifically excellent national meeting. To suggest that scientific excellence and an informal friendly atmosphere are somehow incompatible is clearly a false dichotomy, as well articulated by Paul Upchurch above.

    My personal view on SPPC is that it should continue to be part of the meeting if it is clear that it is truly valued by the community. I think the steering committee should look into this and get community feedback. I’m aware that the GCG know of this debate, as their Programme Sec is a close colleague of mine. Why does the meeting struggle every year for speaker numbers? Can it be delivered in a different way – a poster symposium? It makes no sense to continue to organise a meeting purely because of tradition.

  109. The SPPC is very different in the nature of its contributors from the SVPCA. In general, preparators and conservators have a very different academic background from palaeontologists and anatomists, and are much less comfortable in making formal presentations. I think that this one of the reasons why the SPPC struggles to find speakers, and with a few exceptions – notably those from the NHM – contributors are not very experienced in creating posters. It’s not the nature of the disciplines. I don’t think that a poster symposium is a good idea.
    It would be good to have more input from the GCG on this. The SPPC is small – generally around 20 people – informal, and doesn’t need large and expensive lecture theatres. I can’t see any particular problem in running it the day before the SVPCA and it is not demanding in terms of administrative time if run in conjunction.

  110. Mark Young Says:

    The “false dichotomy” argument is a straw man. Has anyone argued that SVPCA can’t be informal and scientifically rigorous?

    Again, what does the community want of SVPCA? That is the key question.

    As for SPPC, I let the GCG know about this thread some days ago. A commitee member told me they are preparing a response, so perhaps we should await their comments?

  111. Richard Butler Says:

    Mark: have you read the comments above? There is clearly disagreement over some issues, but I would repeat that fundamentally we all simply want a scientifically excellent meeting that appeals to the entire UK community, and not just to students and non-professionals. And as for “straw men”, your post contrasted an ‘informal’ meeting with a ‘British SVP’, a phrase that a number of people in this discussion have conflated with more rigorous review and talk selection processes (i.e. with higher scientific standards). So again, I think that we can have a scientifically excellent meeting, with an informal atmosphere (which happens almost by default with small meetings), that appeals to professionals and non-professionals alike.

    I would be delighted to hear from GCG and from SPPC regulars to hear that it is valuable and something that a segment of the community wants to see continue and will participate in. At present I have only heard this from Richard F and (Scottish) Mike Taylor. As a potential host, I am happy to organise it, but _not_ if it means scrabbling around to try and find speakers – people need to engage with it. Regardless of everything else, as a host I will absolutely not organise a SPPC/SVPCA meeting in Birmingham that lasts more than three days in total: if SPPC is to go ahead then we are probably looking at a morning symposium followed by 2.5 days of SVPCA, so the length of SVPCA will inevitably be shorter than people have been used to.

  112. Richard Butler Says:

    Can I note that _even_ the website of the SPPC says:

    “Over recent years the number of talks on offer has been in decline, and there is a need for discussion on the nature and identity of this event.”

  113. With respect, that website is very much in limbo and hasn’t been updated for several years. I just don’t have the time to look after as well as the svpca web site.

  114. Richard Butler Says:

    So, is that comment no longer true? There was a severe struggle for talks again this year wasn’t there?

    I’m not saying that we should no longer organise SPPC. But all aspects of SVPCA are up for debate, and with respect, the relationship with SPPC has to be part of that.

  115. The other Mike Taylor (plesiosaur one) Says:

    Rather than lose SPPC altogether (which I would hate), you could simply lump SPPC in with SVPCA with a flexible partition – nominally at the first day lunchtime. But treat it as a taxon just before the conodonts (so to speak) at the start of the meeting. If few/no papers, there’s more time for SVPCA (sensu stricto). If more good ones, then fine. Collecting, prep and preservation are still valid parts of VP (and are seen at SVP).

    The issues here then become

    1. organising the usual museum visit (which is probably something one should have when there is a good opportunity, maybe on the 0th day afternoon before the icebreaker’d get fewer SPPC-ites because the separate fee for SPPC is not applicable, and they’d have to pay the full fee. Unless you offer a ‘first day only’ fee.

  116. Richard Butler Says:

    Hi Mike T (plesiosaur one),

    That’s a great suggestion and a model that could work well. But I’d still like to hear that positive affirmation for SPPC from a broader range of people!

  117. Mike Taylor Says:

    My doppelganger suggests: “Rather than lose SPPC altogether (which I would hate), you could simply lump SPPC in with SVPCA with a flexible partition – nominally at the first day lunchtime. But treat it as a taxon just before the conodonts (so to speak) at the start of the meeting.”

    I would be on board with that.

  118. Phil Cox Says:

    Hi all. Great discussion so far. Thoughts from a fairly recent organiser:

    1. A steering committee is imperative before anything else happens. Without one, the SVPCA is nobody’s responsibility and nothing will happen.

    2. Most people are against the idea of parallel sessions anyway, but I would like to point out that, in any case, it would be almost impossible financially. It cost me £1350 to rent the lecture theatre in York for three days, and the same again for teas and coffees. I don’t know where I would have found a venue with more than one lecture theatre, or how I could have rustled up enough PhD students to run the AV.

    3. I know many people have outlined reasons above for their SVPCA attendance dropping off, but I think what hasn’t been explicitly stated is the domino effect this has caused. I think we’re now in a situation where large groups of researchers aren’t attending because their friends and colleagues won’t be there. It may be difficult to come back from this and will require a group of people deciding collectively that they do want to see the SVPCA survive and making the commitment to attend. A special symposium or important keynote speaker could be a useful attraction in this regard.

    4. It was utterly draining running the meeting in York. For the sake of the organisers, SVPCA cannot be any longer than it already is. I was initially opposed to the idea of 15 minute talks, but they worked out quite well this year in Southampton. I’m also in favour of abstract review and selection, but I think this should be taken out of the hands of the host committee and given to a panel appointed by the steering committee. The host committee have enough to deal with, without having to field emails from irate academics who didn’t get a talk.

    5. Why has the SVPCA historically been so ambivalent about posters? Most other conferences make a feature of them, and it’s a great way to get to chat to other researchers one-on-one about your research. We should definitely be having dedicated poster sessions, with poster prizes (as Southampton did this year).

  119. Mike Taylor Says:

    On dedicated poster sessions: I would prefer not to. If we’re talking about the total length of the meeting (including SPPC) coming down to three days, then I don’t want to sacrifice even one of those dozen sessions to posters which I can look at during the breaks. Talks, please!

  120. Regarding the SPPC:
    Perhaps we should treat it as a sort of “fuzzy boundary” to the SVPCA? Run talks on the afternoon rather than the morning of the day before the SVPCA so that people can travel to the venue without incurring the cost of an extra overnight stay. In a sense we have a fuzzy boundary at the end of mosts meetings (depending on tides for some, of course – something beyond the power of even the most prestigious committee to control) with the field trip on the following day. Put the conference dinner (if there is one: the cost of this can be an issue, especially when it’s an Oxbridge college) bang in the middle and use the auction as an icebreaker on the first full day.
    Of course, this is something for the organisers to consider rather than a diktat from a committee, but it could address some of the issue which have been discussed

  121. Paul Upchurch Says:

    Apologies if these points have been covered already – it is increasingly difficult for me to keep up with everything as this post becomes longer. However, I’ve read some fairly unsympathetic comments concerning meeting length. In response, Richard B and at least one PhD student have put forward cogent arguments about why shortening the meeting has some advantages. What I’d like to do is give you a quick idea of the time pressures we academics are under. This is not me saying that the conference needs to be specially tailored for my personal needs – I just want to explain why meeting length is an issue and why it is one of the factors that influences whether or not some of us can or cannot attend.

    In September each year, two major issues loom for me, First, there is the preparation for the start of term, with Induction week and teaching usually starting in the last week of September. This often involves meeting new students, revising webpages, lectures handouts etc., and taking part in Induction week activities. About 10-20% of these items could be moved to August, but this would then cut into one of the few times in the year when I can do some uninterrupted research. Second, as Director of an MSc programme I have to ensure that dissertations are submitted on time by Sept 1st, distribute them to markers, then oversee the marking process and the preparation for the exam Board. Then, in the third week of Sept. I have to attend the student poster session and chair the exam board. Additional time can also be taken up by extenuating circumstances committee work, and other one-off issues. Many of these tasks require me to be physically present at UCL, so sitting at the bakc of an SVPCA session and doing my emails just wouldn’t hakc it. So yes, in September every single day is precious and it is very difficult to get away for a chunk of time to attend a conference. I don’t claim to speak for others but I would imagine that many other mid-career aND senior colleagues are under similar pressures. So, I don’t think this attitude is ‘baffling’ at all and I don’t think anyone here is suggesting that attending a meeting like SVPCA is some kind of ordeal to be endured. Actually, I’d much rather attend SVPCA than carry out my admin – but I have constraints imposed on me by my employer and by my desire to do the best by the students under my care. One reason why I am in favor of shorter (15 minute) talks is to fit in as much science as we can into the few days of the meeting I might be able to get to. One reason why I am in favour of abstract review is because it is somewhat frustrating to carve out the precious time to attend the meeting and then sit thrugh something that is too preliminary or too poorly thought out. And this in turn means that posters and perhaps lighting talks are needed because they provide a stepping-stone for presenters who need to engage with an informed audience but who are not yet ready for a full talk slot (an given the work that can go into such presentations, I think we owe it to those concerned to have a dedicated session where we pay proper attention to the work). So, let me stress again that this is not me saying the meeting should be shaped to meet my needs and ignore the needs of other communities – I’m more than happy to abide by any majority view that emerges. But this whole debate has been sparked by why people, like myself do not attend or find it difficult to attend, so let’s be clear about the pressures that people like me are under (I’m a case study at least).

    Well, this will be my last post I think – not that it hasn’t been fun and informative. However, having spent so much time pointing out how busy I am, it would be somewhat ironic if I continued to find time to write these long posts (while students hammer on my dor demanding my attention).

    I hope the rest of the discussion proves to be constructive, and I look forward to the next steps re forming some kind of provisional steering committee.

  122. Paul: Would it be helpful if the meeting were a week or two earlier? Last week in August?

  123. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Paul, that’s a helpful perspective.

    It all leaves me wondering why we have SVPCA in September — isn’t it something close to the pessimal time of year for more academics?

  124. Susie Maidment Says:

    I’m not sure we’re ever going to find a time of year that is optimal for everyone, and moving into August could cause clashes with fieldwork. However, September does seem particularly bad, and moving it earlier in the year would move it further away from SVP as well. What often seems to happen is people present the same things at SVPCA and SVP, so that if you want to see a particular person’s research it is not necessary to go to SVPCA to see it because you know you’re going to get another opportunity at SVP. Moving the conferences further apart might help with that too.

  125. I would definitely be in favour of moving SVPCA further away from the autumn term, as it does pile on to an already very busy time of year. As Susie says, moving into the summer is difficult because of fieldwork, not to mention many of the big biological conferences. Would it be crazy to suggest spring? Between Easter and exams, for example. I may be forgetting something obvious here, but I can’t offhand think of a major conference between PalAss/SICB in Dec/Jan and ICVM/EuroEvoDevo/EuroEvBio in July. An March/April meeting might be a great time for catching up and discussing research that is quite different from what we see at SVP or elsewhere. Signing out from left field…

  126. Mike Taylor Says:

    Quick procedural issue. This thread now stands at 126 comments, and it’s discussing many things: not just Richard’s original (universally liked) proposal of a standing committee, but also: meeting length, meeting date, parallel sessions, abstract review, etc. Would it be helpful to make three or four new posts on more specific issues, and continue the discussions within the comments on those posts? Or would it just create more confusion? I can do it easily enough if people want it, but I won’t make new posts if people are happy to keep everything in one place.

  127. I’d prefer to keep it in one place – I probably won’t check multiple threads.

  128. Susie Maidment Says:

    I was wondering about Spring too, Anjali. I think it would be better to keep it out of term time, to avoid clashing with taught fieldwork, which at least for us often takes place that term, and exams. But perhaps Easter?

  129. lizgmartin Says:

    Easter is when a lot of undergraduate field courses happen that many students demonstrate on, or staff have to teach on, so I would not recommend Easter. ProgPal was during Easter last year and it affected a large number of PhD students (all of Southampton group was in Romania, and it clashed with field courses in Leicester and other unis as well).

    I think that all times of year are going to be a problem for someone unfortunately. I don’t know what the best plan would be.

  130. Marc Jones Says:

    Like Anjali I’d prefer the thread all in one place but, at least on a phone, it’s becoming a bit laborious to scroll down. Mike, it would be great if you are able to add in anchors of some kind so that it’s possible to jump between days or every 10th post?

  131. Mike Taylor Says:

    Marc, there are anchors on every comment — for example, the one of yours that I am replying to is

    Just click on the date under a comment to go to its own URL, then you can bookmark that and use it as the address to return to later.

    (Better still, click the “Notify me of new comments via email” checkbox and just get all the comments emailed to you. That’s how I keep up.)

  132. Marc Jones Says:

    Thanks Mike. I guess I was suggesting maybe a list of links to the anchors at the top (maybe on the left) to the anchors. Just an idea. I’ll click the “Notify me…” although I thought I had been doing that.

  133. Susan Evans Says:

    As another of the ‘senior’ people who didn’t attend this year, I have been biding my time before pitching in (and am doing so only because I have been encouraged to do so).

    SVPCA is a meeting that – until fairly recently – I had attended fairly regularly ever since my student days in the late 70’s. I did go to the York meeting last year (some very good talks) but missed Edinburgh the year before that. Thus, for me, SVPCA has gradually changed from being a meeting that I prioritise, to one that I think about attending depending on what else is ongoing. As many of my university/museum colleagues have said, increasing demands on both time and budget (especially the former) make it difficult to prioritise a meeting that can be very variable in terms of scientific content and/or interest. As Paul U. wrote, institutions make higher and higher demands of academics in terms of grant income, high-impact publications, lecturing, research students, administration etc, not to mention the grant and manuscript refereeing, editing, committee membership etc that is expected. That leaves precious little time for organising (or attending) cosy meetings for the sake of it. The stark reality is that without some changes, SVPCA is likely to steadily haemorrhage its academic component – which would be a pity both for the meeting and for the health of the UK VPCA community as a whole.

    Basically I am in agreement with the views expressed by Richard B., Paul B, Susie, Anjali, Marc, and others: a shorter meeting with fewer talks (of 15 minutes), achieved by more rigorous selection and a dedicated poster session. That poster session could easily be in an evening so as not to cut into talk time. Some of the responders to this discussion argue that anyone who offers a talk should be given a programme slot – even if it means making the meeting even longer. I disagree. Complex new cladograms; faunal lists; preliminary results; that ‘bit of vertebra/partial femur which represents the first record of group X from Little Hogsbottom’ etc. are all better as posters than talks. Those of us who regularly attend international meetings are well used to the idea that a) you first ask yourself – ‘is anyone going to be interested in this topic other than me?’, b) you don’t have to speak/present speak at every meeting, and c) not everyone who requests a platform talk will get one. By all means have a prize session, as Susie suggests, devoted to those who are completing/have just completed a thesis (MSc or PhD: with competitive entry). The SVP Romer Prize talks are often the best at the meeting. Moreover, you get a session with a complete mix of topics/groups. Personally, I’d prefer that we get away from the conodont to mammal format, and just schedule a nice balance of good talks – whatever the topic – over a couple of days. The suggestion of starting the first day in the afternoon (and then following with two more days of talks) is worth considering, provided that first afternoon is not narrowly topic/group based.

    Anyway – as Richard proposes – I support the idea of setting up a steering committee – representative of each part of the community – to see if we can find a format that is acceptable to a majority.

    That’s my contribution. I don’t intend to add anything else.

  134. Cindy Howells Says:

    Various ramblings follow – sorry, little time this week…

    As a fairly longstanding attendee, and member of GCG as well, I think that there are a lot of useful points being raised here.
    Personally I am only funded for one major conference each year, which is usually SVPCA, and once I’ve taken into account the registration fee and travel, then an extra day of talks (ie one night’s accommodation) doesn’t add too much extra. SPPC/GCG is an optional extra day, as is the field trip. Basically if you only want to come for 3 days then that’s perfectly possible – and that could be squeezed to 2 and half, possibly if SPPC was just the first morning. SPPC/GCG doesn’t have to have a site visit, but if one was offered, then it could run the first afternoon, concurrently with the first talks for SVPCA?

    I think that the shorter talk slots this year were a good idea and perhaps meant that speakers had to focus more on the message than the minutiae. Concurrent sessions as in SVP or Pal Ass are not easy to administer and involve a second lecture theatre. Perhaps if too many talks are submitted, then voluntary 5 or 8 minute slots should be set up for one or more sessions? This might be less daunting for some students, and may also be long enough for other researchers to give updates of a work in progress.

    SPPC/GCG is a valid extra aspect of the meeting, and I think perhaps if we in GCG can get more involved formally then we can assist with the running of this. Certainly an ‘informal’ committee to run over several years to take each meeting forward is always going to help rather than hinder !

    I think one of the best strengths of SVPCA is the informality and the chance to network with so many others. Possibly the meal could be during the week, rather than the last night, as someone else suggested, hold the auction as an icebreaker.

    Basically each year has been run slightly differently and that is another of the strengths of the whole thing. I look forward to Liverpool next year, and hopefully Birmingham after that. If any of the organisers would like more involvement from the GCG committee then just ask !

  135. Roger Benson Says:

    Much of what I agree with has been covered by Richard Butler, Susie Maidment, Paul Barrett, Paul Upchurch, Anjali Goswami, Zerina Johanson, Steve Brusatte, Marc Jones and others. I am convinced that the diminising attendence of established academics is a serious problem that needs addressing. However, what I have written below applies regardless of my views on the specifics of meeting structure and organisation.

    Currently, there is no mechanism for implementing changes to the format of SVPCA. This is a big problem. In my opinion, previous discussions of the future of SVPCA have been dominated by a small number of vocal individuals and a general notion that change is bad. This form of (mis)management is negligent.

    We need a democratically chosen committee to (A) Hand-over, provide continuity, and assist the meeting’s organisers each year with past experiences and (B) Review possible changes in duration, abstract review and other features fairly and transparently by consultation across the wider body of SVPCA attendees. This will allow the meeting to evolve dynamically to fit the needs of our community.

    I sense that there is broad agreement about the need for such a committee.

  136. The other Mike Taylor (plesiosaur one) Says:

    Some very good posts – particularly but not only Susan Evans and Richard Benson.

    I wonder if there is confusion about what the cost of attendance means – or rather that people are using different measures. It’s true that the added marginal cost of an extra day is smaller than the cost of having one day alone there, because the one- off cost of travel is smeared over more days of papers.

    However, this argument assumes that money is the criterion in question. It falls down if it is the _total time away_ that is the true measure of resource cost here, which it evidently is for the established academics in question.

    That means that travel must also be an issue for those people. If the meeting begins at a lunchtime then most of us can at least get there in the morning – or have a good chance to do so – without having to travel the day before and stay overnight. (But there can be an event such as a local museum visit in the morning – some of us would be happy to come down the day before for that.)

    I’m increasingly impressed by the logic of having a tight 2.5 day event of 15 min talks plus field trip. That way (and ignoring the optional field trip) one could see all papers at the total cost of 3-4 days (5 if one was really unlucky with travel schedules from a distant location). The equivalent cost at present is around 5-6 days. That’s a real difference for those people – and also those of us who have to book early to get cheap long distance travel when applicable. At a shorter meeting, it doesn’t matter what order the papers were in, if one sees the lot.

    But Roger is quite right about the need for a committee. Such questions need to be gone through in the ways he suggests. ).

  137. Enid Cruickshank Says:

    I appreciate that the organisation of the annual conference is a real labour of love (watched Arthur, Richard and Mark in Leicester). But I do agree that there ought to be some loose management structure that carries forward the expertise – treasurer, secretary – perhaps as office holders for a maximum of 5 years.
    Then why every year? The PSSA (Palaeontological Society of South Africa) runs biennial sessions – based largely on the SVPCA structure – with a big poster section for new research and if I remember rightly an evening session for anyone who wishes to discuss these further. Well attended by students and full blown academics, it seems to work well.

  138. Simon Wills Says:

    I’ll stick my oar in as a part time PhD student who’s been to two SVPCAs – Lyme Regis and Oxford. I haven’t been to one since mainly due to pressures of outside commitments and fieldwork. I need to prioritise the time I take from my outside job to attend VP conferences and the like, and unfortunately SVPCA has become a casualty of this as I cannot not justify the time spent for the gain obtained. I enjoyed both conferences I attended at the time (Lyme especially so) and would like to be able to add a UK based VP conference into an annual ‘must attend’ so would support anything that moves SVPCA to this. The fact, as others have noted, that there is a drop off in attendance by established academics in the field surely means something isn’t right.

    A lot of this has probably already been said, so apologies …

    I did not realise until speaking to colleagues that there was no formal structure around SVPCA and essentially each conference is a stand alone venture dependant on the host organising committee for the year. Whereas this may lead to the individualistic and informal nature of the conference which many enjoy it also has the potential to allow each conference to go down it’s own path in terms of structure, content and quality. I agree with others and strongly support Richard (B’s) suggestion of a committee. I would have thought that the committee needs to have some continuity from conference to conference – with maybe one or two members of each year staying put for the following year or two. As well as giving some continuity around organisation, it would also allow any lessons learnt to be passed from host to host.

    As far as the length of the meeting is concerned, if it becomes more relevant and standards are maintained (and yes there should be a review process) then the length becomes less of an issue – but for purely selfish reasons I’d prefer it to start earlier in the day and finish a bit later to shorten the conference length a bit.

    Posters – at both conferences I attended the posters got essentially lost. You could see them during breaks etc, but those are more often than not taken up by the general melee for coffee / cake / nicotine. I’d be happier with a dedicated poster session, and would much rather have that than flash talks. There has been some discussion around SPPC – why not have an SPPC session running at the same time as the poster session?

  139. Speaking as a PhD student fast approaching (hopefully) early career academia, I agree with points made by both “camps”, but I do not feel that the proposed committee is sustainable or democratic.

    Before I discuss the statement I just made any further, I would like to present an idea that has come to me whilst attempting to cut through the vast array of opinions. This may not be the best format to present our ideas. Now that the basics have been hashed out it’s possible to summarize the ideas. Given that, it would be possible to make an on-line questionnaire. The categories discussed could be used to group the data i.e. undergraduate; graduate; post-graduate research student; up to 10 years post-PhD; over 10 years post-PhD. The data that could then be collected to compare each group and to view general trends that relate to the summarized points in this thread. Strongly agree; agree; neither; disagree; strongly disagree can be used to gage peoples reactions to the points made here. I think whatever happens, these ideas will be provide us with a framework of what we expect and want from SVPCA (SPPC should probably be considered separate). Maybe from this, regardless of the outcome regarding committees, a manifesto could be drafted. A manifesto could act as a guideline for a general committee or annual local committee, depending on the decided outcome. Part of the manifesto could be that it evolves, much like the unwritten rules of SVPCA have done already. This would be democratic and would guide us in the direction we want to go in.

    As for my statement at the start: I think some of the people whom hold SVPCA dear are justifiably concerned. There is no way that the proposed changes could be made without it impacting on the format, fees and indeed charm of the conference. These are the answers I would give in a questionnaire! To have an established general committee would mean a lot of time out of their lives and expense. Although at the start such a committee might be philanthropic, eventually they would want some level of reimbursement or the committee would become despondent and effectively dissolve. With centralized bank accounts etc. and the possibility of committee expenses you require treasury, book keeping and more expense. This is a very simplistic view, but it’s very easy to see how the expense of the conference can gain a lot of momentum. One of the reasons we go to SVPCA is its affordability, along with networking and the chance to present in a friendly environment.

    As for democracy: people are getting to have their say now and it is probably long since we should have formalized what is expected of the meeting. However, the system proposed by Richard Butler is not strictly democratic, nor is the way in which it has been presented (Not to be taken as a criticism of Richard: next sentence). Without having a society with an AGM, minutes from the meetings and financial reports from the treasurer it is not really possible for a conference to be democratic because you can’t be informed or vote. So, you see it’s ALL or nothing, and I think very few people want ALL. Not only that but there is no need for ALL, we’re a small community which already has SVPCA, EAVP and PalAss. The niche may be oversubscribed.

    I was on the organizing committee of a very similarly organized (to current SVPCA) conference recently, Flugsaurier 2015. We are planning on maintaining the website, and even centralizing it to pass that legacy onto the next committee in LA. I will be putting all of that on a CV and I’ll use a co-organizer as a referee. Sure it’s not very formal, but so what, it tells an interviewer what they need to know.

    I too played around with the idea of having a central fund, a sub-committee etc. for Flugsaurier. In the end I came to the conclusion that it was unsustainable without a lot of time investment, a constant source of revenue, or increased fees etc. Added to that, no one seemed to want it. Exactly the same situation as here. Even if it was accepted, we would have had 3 years to organize and formalize the details. I think a 1 year time frame to change the established organization structure of a conference is not realistic.

    I really hope someone puts a questionnaire together and analyses the results appropriately. Because if anyone can actually get a sense of what everyone is thinking from reading all of the above and soon, below, they’re better than me!

  140. […] on from his recent, and extensively discussed, offer to host SVPCA 2017, and a plan for the future, Richard Butler is now circulating his update, soliciting volunteers for the committee that […]

  141. […] The Symposium of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy is often referred to as the friendly conference. Not just palaeontology, the conference also covers comparative anatomy and thus attracts a natural history audience as well. However the guise under which the conference is going to continue into the future is currently under debate, and those with an interested are being invited to comment. […]

  142. Kate Riddington (on behalf of GCG) Says:

    The Geological Curators’ Group have previously had positive discussions at our committee meetings about our involvement in the organisation of SPPC. We would like to suggest Cindy Howells from our committee as someone to help with the organisation of this part of the SVPCA meeting. We had also agreed that we would be able to promote the meeting via our website and other social media streams. We have followed the discussion with interest as we acknowledge that a long term solution is needed, particularly with regard to the relationship of SPPC to the main meeting. Please involve us in any discussions on this matter.

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