Invited Sucker

A colleague from industry is co-organizing a fairly major conference in his field. He invited me to give a talk in the session he’s in charge of. I said sure, mostly as a favor to him. But, it turns out that I am responsible for all the expenses, including registration, and it’s not a conference I would normally go to. Okay, I can live with that, although the money is not trivial and I could have spent it differently. But, being that this is an important conference with considerable industry presence, showing my face there won’t be a total loss, and the networking will hopefully mean better job prospects for my students.

Then, at the eleventh hour, I find out that there is a mandatory paper to write.

I know there are fields like CS, where conferences are the primary mode of knowledge dissemination. In contrast, in my field and many others, conference papers are virtually irrelevant; they get neither read nor cited, yet they persist as a myth of relevance in certain old-fashioned subareas, so I occasionally get blindsided, like I just did, into writing a paper I don’t give a toss about. However, the paper cannot completely suck, since it’s going to be on the web for posterity, so I am now spending my weekend writing a full-length paper for a conference I don’t care about, when I should be working on a proposal or, you know, actually having a weekend off once in a blue moon, like normal people.

At this point in my career, the answer to “Would you come and give an invited talk?” is mostly:

Thanks for the invitation, but before I can respond, please let me know which expenses you plan to cover (e.g., registration, lodging, travel).

Apparently, I now also have to add:

Do I actually have to do any of the following:
— have the talk recorded;
— make slides available to the organizers ridiculously early (i.e., more than 15 min before the talk; have you actually ever met an academic?); 
— make my slides available on the web for posterity; 
— write a paper (that I don’t want to write and that nobody will read)? 


  1. I get invited to give a talk every year at a particular conference that claims to require a proceeding (useless paper). The first time I was invited I wrote one. Obviously I was not going to waste important data on this, so the end compromise was a mix of data and text that was not quite the same but very similar to data I published in a real journal. Needless to say, I felt bothered that I was self-plagiarizing and wasting my time re-editing and re-plotting stuff for a paper that nobody would read.

    So after the first year, I tried a new strategy: I went and gave the talk, but I just ignored all emails regarding the proceeding. There were many such emails and I felt like a jerk at first, but there was no real repercussion. Five or six years later, I am still invited every year and haven’t written a proceeding since the first time.

  2. I got some advice recently that the proceedings paper doesn’t have to have anything to do with the talk. It’s a good place to put literature reviews or lengthy methodology discussions that would normally go in an appendix, but now you can cite the proceedings paper instead in your grant proposal or published paper.

  3. N&M: Agreed. I’m not at a loss as to what to put in a conference paper; my problem is that I have no “slack,” as I think qaz said it — I literally have no time spare to write this paper right now, yet I have to, and it’s pissing me off.

  4. When I get in this situation, I often “give” the paper to a grad student or postdoc to write a short review on their research topic. It gets them a byline on their CV and serves as a writing exercise (there are not enough of those) and an opportunity for teaching the writing process (again, helpful to do on the lesser things first). The trick is to make sure that they don’t blow a major result on it or let it interfere with their ongoing research. I often have a young student who could use the training and the easy byline.

    But I do agree with grumpy on this. Clearly they wanted you at the conference. I don’t think they will care if you skip the paper.

    The other realization that I’ve come to is that not everything has to be a masterpiece. Obviously, you don’t want to write crap or to let garbage out of your lab. But it’s OK to do a weaker piece for a smaller venue. I’ve started trying to titrate my writing effort so that the masterpieces are great and the other stuff is just very good. 🙂

  5. qaz: Yeah, I had a couple of grad students draft the paper while I was buried reviewing a mountain of proposals these past few weeks. Honestly, I am a bit disappointed by what they produced, as I don’t find it as helpful as I thought it would be (and these are not baby students, they are senior, so it’s not their first paper-writing rodeo). I don’t know if they just don’t give a $hit — which is quite possible, as I am vocal about not wanting to write conference papers — or they just couldn’t/wouldn’t do it at the level I expected, because even a decent (not spectacular) paper requires work. It ended up being a review of sorts, but they only focused on a very narrow topic that is tangential to the paper outline, so I still have a ton of serious legwork to do, like hunting down references. I do accept that my expectations are perhaps too high. I am mostly grumpy because there’s a proposal due in two weeks hanging over my head and I have to do this $hit now, and I only do because I promised that colleague who had invited me that I would. *grumble, grumble*

  6. Yes, a thousand times yes! I so agree with your list of things that you really want to know upon getting a speaking invitation. I hate all of the videos, slides on demand, conference proceedings, lives on the internet for eternity crap that so many conferences are starting to do these days.

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