By Casimer DeCusatis
Despite all the advances in telepresence, video distribution, and webinars, technical conferences remain one of the fundamental ways that our profession shares information. In fact, the value of a face-to-face conference has become even more apparent in this age of virtual, always-on communication. A good conference gives us an opportunity to get out of the office, lab, or classroom, and interact with a cross-section of the technical community in ways that electronic communication just can’t match (until someone invents a way to share a cup of coffee or a beer over the Internet). Smart phones are fine for staying in touch while we’re traveling, but it’s also nice to turn them off for awhile and really listen to what’s happening at a good conference.
Notice that I said "a good conference". Unfortunately, not all technical meetings are worth your time. While thinking about my recent experiences with OFC, I came up with a short list of features that make for a truly outstanding conference. I’ve also had some personal experiences with, shall we say, less than optimal conference venues; while they shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, I’ll borrow from my real life experiences to illustrate some of the things that can go horribly wrong at a conference.
Pick a sponsor with some street cred. There are literally hundreds of technical conferences to choose from, and since you can’t attend them all, pick the ones with the highest impact on your field. There are far too many venues that aren’t attracting high quality, peer reviewed work. OFC has been around for decades, and there’s a reason why people keep coming back year after year. OFC has some major street credibility, with sponsorship from OSA, IEEE Photonics Society and IEEE Communication Society. That’s not to say that smaller conferences or those that haven’t been around for years are a bad thing. I recently attended an NSF conference on Enterprise Computing which has been running for 6 years, and just keeps getting better; it’s become one of my “must attend” events because they consistently deliver excellent speakers and timely, relevant information. The best conferences focus on content that’s meaningful to you, delivered by subject matter experts who have actual experience working in the field. If all the presentations sound like marketing pitches or product placement, or there’s no leading professional society involved, it might be better to skip “The First International Conference on Insert Your Favorite Buzzword Here”.
Organization is your friend. This past year, OFC had 600 contributed papers, 115 invited presentations, 14 conference tracks, and ran 11 parallel sessions, serving over 13,000 people. While some scheduling glitches are inevitable, it’s been my experience that a lot of people make a tremendous effort to keep OFC on track. Worried that your last minute, cutting edge research won’t make the deadline? Just submit your work as a post-deadline paper. OFC even has its own mobile app available for free download to help keep you organized before, during, and after the event. By contrast, if you’ve ever had a paper rejected from a workshop that you never applied for in the first place (yes, this once happened to me), then you can appreciate the value of a dedicated conference staff.
Good peer review makes for a good conference. This sounds simple, but surprisingly few people know how to write a good peer review. In my experience, the best reviews point out constructive ways to improve my work in a professional manner. I can tell that the reviewer actually read my paper, not just the abstract, and I don’t mind getting papers rejected if they come with this sort of review. OFC has always done a great job in this regard, and I feel that my work has become stronger as a result of the feedback, both positive and negative. On the other hand, I’ve submitted papers to (ahem) other venues with less than desirable results. I once had a reviewer comment that the mandatory template used by the conference made their eyes hurt because the margins were ragged right. Personally, I think this kind of rejection is totally unjustified (Get it? Wasn’t that clever? Come on, didn’t anybody else watch Helvetica? Simply put, if the call for papers uses Comic Sans font, it’s time to look for a new conference. While I’m on the subject, OFC has given me the opportunity to fix minor formatting issues in my submission, without letting this get in the way of reviewing my technical content. Other conferences may not even review your paper if the submission isn’t formatted correctly; this is especially a problem when papers aren’t checked for formatting at the time of submission, but several weeks later, when it’s too late for the author to make changes (yes, this has also happened to me). If someone can’t be bothered to even read your paper in standard IEEE manuscript templates, then you might consider sending it elsewhere.
Professionalism is key. Treat the authors the way that you’d like to be treated if you were in their place. When you’re deciding which conference to attend, working with professionals makes all the difference. OFC has a simple mission – bring you the highest quality technical content available in the optics community. And the community pitches a big tent, including everything from telecommunications and optical Internet to biology, computer simulation, patent law, and more. A professional venue is inclusive, and tries hard to deliver both breadth and depth for your conference-going experience. Unlike some other conference I could name, that prefer to act like a filter rather than a funnel. If the conference is urging you to withdraw your paper because their online review system doesn’t have any other way to turn you down (again, this really happened to me) then you can probably do better elsewhere.
Or, you could just skip all the fuss and plan to submit your work to OFC in the first place. It’s not too early to start thinking about topics for the 2015 meeting in Los Angeles, so whether you’re an OFC veteran or a first-timer, come and see how much difference a good conference can make.
Did anyone else ever get a rejection notice from a conference that they never applied for in the first place? Or is it just me? Share your peer review horror stories with @Dr_Casimer on Twitter, and maybe I’ll use them in a future blog.
Posted: 22 July 2014 by
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