More thoughts on SVPCA 2017

October 13, 2017

This morning, I and the other 156 attendees of SVPCA 2017 received a useful document, SVPCA report_for attendees, which collects and analyses delegates’ feedback on the meeting. It prompted me to mention a few more thoughts of my own.

First, I didn’t like the shortening of the meeting, from the usual three or even four days to two and a half (or just two if you ignore the macroevolution symposium). But it’s apparent from the gathered feedback that nearly everyone disagrees with me on this.

My position may be an artifact of my idiosyncratic status on the edge of the field: SVPCA is pretty much my only physical (non-blog) contact with the vertebrate palaeontology community, so by the time I’ve taken a week off work for it, the more of that time I can use for it, the better. By contrast, people who spend most of their work-hours with other palaeontologists don’t have that incentive, and see a longer meeting as a financial burden. I’m guessing that if the survey had specifically asked for opinions on meeting length and then compared those opinions with people’s career stage, they’d find a strong correlation between amateur and other unusual statuses, and preferring a longer meeting.

Sadly (for me), it seems pretty clear how this one is going to go: the meeting is attended overwhelmingly by professionals of various career stages. Since the majority of those prefer the shorter meeting, I imagine Birmingham’s abridged programme will become the new normal.

Second thing: a lot of people complained that the posters were only up for the dedicated two-hour session, and quite a few didn’t like having a dedicated poster session at all. Once more, I find myself in a minority here. As someone presenting a poster, I very much appreciated having time dedicated to it. And I also liked that it was restricted to a specific slot, so I didn’t feel I had to spend the whole meeting babysitting the poster. Wine was provided for this session, which made it feel like a friendly, bustling session with plenty of science going on, and time to go and physically fetch the people who I specifically wanted to discuss my poster with.

So I would definitely support a dedicated two-hour poster session with wine at future meetings; though I wouldn’t object if the posters remained up in the background for the next day, if that was logistically easy. (It wasn’t in Birmingham.)

The third thing, which I forgot to mention on my feedback form, is that lightning talks need to be all together in a single session. These talks didn’t really work at Birmingham. By tagging two or three of them on the end of a regular session, they simply came across as a lesser versions of regular talks — tail-enders with no particular merit of their own.

But I do think lightning talks can work well: I’ve been in conferences (admittedly in computer science and library science rather than palaeo) where the lightning-talk sessions have been the best in the conference. The key is keeping all of them together in a single, dedicated session, and really keeping the pace up: whizzing through each talk within a strictly enforced five-minute time limit, and leaping from subject to subject. It can be exhilarating.

(There were specific reasons why it couldn’t be done this way at this year’s meeting — paucity of lightning-talk submissions, people’s difficult schedules and unexpected withdrawals all meant that the original plan couldn’t be adhered to. But I would hate to see lightning talks dropped from the conference because of their underwhelming impact this time around.)

The fourth thing is that I was not wholly convinced by the symposium. Given the scarcity of talk slots, their limited length, and the carefully blinded abstract review process, it seems inimical to invite a special anointed class of speakers who get twice as long and don’t have to go through review.

I might have been convinced despite this, had the quality of the talks been uniformly higher. But as one respondent to the survey wrote: “I was alarmed and disappointed to hear one presenter say that they had put their talk together the night before, and it showed”. It really did. Surely if being invited to give a double-length talk is anything, it’s an honour. People in receipt of that honour should either do their job to a level that merits it; or, if they don’t have time, politely decline and let someone else have the slot.

Finally, and least important, the annual dinner. This was a curry, with a good selection and far more food than we needed. But the report says “there have been a few comments […] that more people might attend if the food was more of a meat-and-two-veg type affair, and that some people would like to see a more formal, or more ‘special’ dinner”. For whatever it’s worth, I threw my hat in partly because it was a curry. In my experience, attempts at catering “special” dinners for large groups tend to produce mediocre food tarted up, which is why my group tends to skip the dinner.

But I’m glad I went this year. I liked the sense of being part of an ongoing community, of seeing the handover to next year’s host (Rob Sansom), hearing who the winners of the prizes were, and so on.

4 Responses to “More thoughts on SVPCA 2017”

  1. Hi Mike,

    Interesting post. If I take a step back from my role as meeting host, my own personal preferences are very similar to yours with regard to the format of the poster session and the annual dinner. And I agree that the lightning talks didn’t work well this year, for the reasons you mention (which were largely beyond our control).

    One thing I would pick up though is the macroevolution symposium, where I think the overall community feedback was actually very positive. I think it was, and was intended to be, a significant draw and played a role in achieving the very high registration numbers. Most of the feedback about symposium talk quality was very good, and a number of people specifically said it was their highlight of the meeting. Indeed, >90% of respondents would be happy to see similar symposia in future years, and I think it is likely that we will see something similar (but with a different theme) in Manchester next year.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    You’re right on the symposium: having noted that my own preferences are in conflict with those of the majority in respect of meeting length and poster session, I should have noted the same thing regarding the symposium: as the report shows, most people who commented were in favour, and considered it a highlight. I imagine that this is one more area where my sort-of-outsider status means that I see things rather differently from most attendees.

    To be clear, I didn’t hate it! I just didn’t find it an improvement on more regular talks.

    Is it de rigeur to invite people to speak at such symposia, or could the slots be filled by the same blinded, competitive abstract review process as for regular talks?

  3. The most common approach is to fill such symposia with invited speakers – that is the case for example at the closely analogous half-day symposium that opens the Palaeontological Association annual meeting each year. Our aim was to have a group of world-leading speakers (from a range of career stages) discussing the cutting edge in the research field, and in particular we wanted to include people who would not normally attend the meeting. Of our speakers this year, more than half were new to the meeting or had not attended in many years. Not only did these speakers and this symposium attract higher registration numbers to SVPCA as a whole, but I think it is also the case that the speakers (and their research groups) are more likely to attend the meeting in future years, contributing to the expansion and diversification of the SVPCA community.

    This is not the only model of how such a symposium could be run, although I think for it to be worth doing and effective you would always want to have at least some invited or keynote speakers. One alternative approach might be to announce that there would be a special symposium on on a focused topic (e.g. mass extinctions), and that there would be 2-3 world-leading keynote speakers. The rest of the places in the symposium could then be opened up to regular submissions and would have to pass the peer-review process, perhaps being bounced into the regular meeting as 15 minute talks or posters it they weren’t up to scratch for an extended symposium slot.

    In any case, this is now something for future organisers to make their own decisions about – whether they want to organise such a session, what the topic should be, how long the talks should be, and how to fill those talk slots etc. We’ve provided one example of how it might be done, but there’s no reason that anyone needs to do it the same way.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Richard: this is an interesting alternative model, and one that appeals to me. I am more interested in hearing world-class talks than world-class speakers, so I’d prefer that symposium slots go to those who have something important to say — as determined by abstract review — than those who have said interesting things in the past. (Of course, when those two groups coincide, as they often will, there’s no problem!)

    Anyway: as you say, it’s something for future SVPCA organisers to think about, at least.

    I should close by saying, if it’s not clear from this and previous posts, that I thought it was a great meeting, and I liked and enjoyed far more about it than I disliked. I’ve probably been coming across as over-critical, but if so then that’s only because discussing possible points of disagreement is more interesting than just listing everything that everyone agreed was excellent. Overall, I had a very productive and enjoyable time, and you and your team did a very fine job.

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