Monday, October 24, 2011

More Conference Etiquette: Can you bow out?

Today, I received a query in the comments section of this older post on conference etiquette, and I thought it was relevant enough to deserve a post of its own:
While we’re on the subject of conference etiquette, I was wondering whether there is a lead time in terms of declining to attend a Conference after they give you a favorable acceptance letter based on the abstract you submitted? Or is this NOT an option at all and considered academic suicide?
Okey-doke. I'm going to give my take on this, but with the usual "your mileage may vary" caveat, and a request for my readers to chime in.

The short answer is: Try not to do this. The longer answer is: it varies. Here are some of the variables (and please note that these are based with my experience with U.S. conferences; other countries may have other unspoken rules):
  1. If you have a serious medical situation, then people will understand. Or at least they should. Explain the situation, and be profuse with your apologies. If the conference rules allow, and you know a willing person, offer to provide a proxy to read your paper for you.
  2. Some conferences have rules that specifically state that if you bow out after the program committee accepts you, you are barred from presenting for the next X number of meetings of that conference. Check that, and factor it into your decision.
  3. If you bow out, it may not be "professional suicide," but you could get a reputation as someone who shouldn't be counted on (unless, of course, #1 applies), and you'll have to work to rebuild that reputation.
  4. If your reasons are that you can't prove the thing you said you'd prove in your abstract, then write the paper that you can write. You won't be the first person to begin a talk by saying "My title states that I'd be talking about X. However, in the course of my research..." But if you do this, give the panel organizer & chair a heads-up (and an alternate title, if necessary) well in advance, so they don't look foolish.
In the end, it's all about professional courtesy. A cancellation (especially after the programs have been put together) will not doom a panel. But it will inconvenience the organizers, and if it's a competitive position, you may have taken up a spot for someone who could have used the opportunity. It is a thing to be avoided, if at all possible.

Readers?

22 comments:

Dr. Crazy said...

I agree that it is to be avoided if at all possible, and I have done this a total of once (and I've been going regularly to conferences since 1996). The one time when I did this, it happened because the conference abstract was due a full year before the conference, and within the span of that year, the economy tanked (2008) and then the travel money that was supposed to be there for me to attend this conference (which only would have been partial, but still) was gone. It was going to be a very expensive conference, and it was entirely unrealistic for me to pay for it entirely out of pocket (think more than 1500 bucks when all was said and done). As it was, I took a hit for the registration fee, which I'd had to pay early on as well. I felt badly for bowing out, but if the timeline on the abstract had been different (say, within 6 months of the conference) I wouldn't have submitted anything in the first place. As it was, I did bow out as soon as I knew what the situation was, and I know that I wasn't the only one who bowed out of this conference for exactly this reason.

Having some knowledge of how conferences work, every conference has people who bow out. Life happens, circumstances change between when you submit an abstract and when the conference happens. It's part of how conferences work, and smart organizers plan for this to happen with some people. And it's not professional suicide, as long as you don't make a habit of it and as long as you give people as much lead time as possible. There's a difference between bowing out three months before and bowing out three days before. Three days notice? You'd better be in the hospital or have a sudden death in the family. Three months notice? There's more leeway for your reasoning.

I will say this, though: there's a guy whom I accepted to an MLA panel that I was organizing a couple of years ago. He bowed out at the last minute because his wife went into labor earlier than expected. Totally understandable, and I wouldn't have expected him to do otherwise. But then, this summer I was involved in another thing (competitive) to which he was also accepted.... and once again, he backed out at the last minute for "personal reasons." Now, stuff happens, and this could just be a fluke, but I would probably think twice, all else being equal, in accepting that guy over somebody else if he were to submit an abstract to me for something. Now, part of this is because I haven't seen him around at other conferences either - is he just constantly submitting abstracts and not showing up? Does he not show up to the few things that he does submit abstracts for? I don't know because I've never met him or seen his face. (We're in identical fields, so this is weird in the extreme.) I don't know that he committed "professional suicide" by backing out of these things, but he did make *me* question his reliability, and so *I* might choose somebody else over him the next time an abstract of his shows up at my door.

Curt Emanuel said...

Related to number one, particularly if time is short, suggesting a replacement or two who can speak on a similar or related topic and even offering to make the contact can help. This shouldn't be him/her repeating a paper he/she has given two weeks ago somewhere else.

I had to do this once when I took another position that moved me halfway across the country.

nicoleandmaggie said...

If you are going to have to do it, do it as early as possible. And, like previous posters say, suggest a substitute.

(Though so far, the only one I've missed was because I was stuck in the damn airport. I (now) HATE New Jersey and hope never to use its airports ever ever again.)

Definitely don't be the guy who gets a reputation for backing out.

gritty grits said...

I've had to bow out of three (!!) conferences because of visa problems that prevented me from leaving or re-entering the country. It was very unpleasant each time, and once I even received a postcard from the other panelists.

Susan said...

As a conference organizer, it drives me crazy when people discover two weeks in advance that there is no funding for their travel. On the other hand, I do understand that stuff happens, and I've had people pull out because of medical crises for themselves, parents, partners and children. I've pulled out of only one or two conferences, both when my husband was ill. I like Dr. C's sense of the way in which the timeline on conferences makes a difference. When people have pulled out of conferences I organize, I've never had people suggest replacements.

I do think that some people -- especially grad students and junior people -- send out lots of abstracts and then panic when too many are accepted. So my etiquette advice as someone who has been and will be a program chair many times is this: if you sent in an abstract, and when you get informed that your paper is accepted you decide that you don't really want to go to this conference, write a polite note to the program chair immediately. Hey, if you want to present at two conferences this spring, once you've been accepted at two, you can pull your abstracts from consideration from the others, unless you are waiting for a better date...

I'm currently thinking of pulling out of a conference at the end of March just because I have another meeting at that time, and a bunch of other obligations that I have that will make writing the paper -- already pulling me back to an old project -- really difficult.

Dr. Crazy said...

Susan- it's insane to me that grad students or junior people send out a lot of abstracts and then pull out at the last minute! Seriously? If that's the case, what the hell was I doing as a grad student? Or a pre-tenure faculty member? I was afraid to submit to conferences that I wanted to attend! But, yes, if people are doing what you describe, then they should so follow your advice about backing out when they've got their two acceptances!

historienerrant said...

I agree with everything that has been said here, but there’s one minor caveat I’d like to add regarding number four on your list…

As far as I can recall, there has been at least one panelist who backed out at every single conference I ever attended. However, as an audience member, even as a co-panelist at some of the conferences, I don’t remember who those people were because, even if their name was already on the program, by not being present in person they simply didn’t impress themselves upon my memory. So, in my experience, if you bow out there may be a chance that the conference organizers will put you down as unreliable, but most of the conference attendees won’t remember you at all.

If, on the other hand, you turn up and present a meaningless paper you may be pretty sure that everyone *will* remember you – but you’ll be remembered as the person who gave that *lousy* talk at that conference in Wherevertown. And that definitely comes close to „professional suicide“.

Hm, I guess the crucial point here is that you probably shouldn’t go for option four unless you’re absolutely sure that there’s still something for the audience to be gained from your paper even if it’s not the brilliant masterpiece you envisioned when writing your proposal.

Historiann said...

Excellent breakdown of the issue, Notorious and other commenters. I have not heard of the trick of banning participants from future conferences, but as a past and perhaps future program chair of a major conference, I'm really seeing the wisdom of that policy!

For the most part, I think people understand that stuff happens, and that as Susan says, backing out earlier (say when you hear of your panel's acceptance) is better than backing out later (near or after the deadline for sending your fellow panelists your paper.) Be the colleague you want to have, IOW.

Clio Bluestocking said...

I knew two people who had to back out at the last minute due to travel problems. One was stalled in the Atlanta airport for weather reasons and the other was coming from out of the country and immigration was giving him trouble. In both cases, however, they forwarded their papers and someone else read them. They weren't there to answer questions, but their research was presented as part of the panel.

Anonymous said...

I also think that being en route and having travel problems is different perception than backing out at the last min. and simply choosing not to come for whatever reason.
Katherine

Digger said...

I've had to back out of one conference (two papers) because of $$ situations. Like Dr. Crazy, the abstracts had to be in almost a year ahead; flights at the time were a few hundred bucks. Once I found out when I was presenting and was ready to book appropriate flights, tickets were over $1k. I was extremely fortunate to have a colleague attending who offered to read the papers for me.

Clio's post reminds me how important it can be to have that paper WRITTEN, and not just sketched out. I personally work best from sketeched out, but holy crap, what if someone needs to step in last second?

Curt Emanuel said...

re Susan and Digger, I should have been more clear in my first comment. I am not in the humanities. For me (and most of my colleagues, apparently) putting together a presentation is a very different animal from putting together an academic paper. If I know my topic I have no qualms about putting together something in a couple of weeks, so long as I'm not absolutely swamped at the time. I can't imagine even trying to write a paper in that period of time.

At the same time, there's no question of getting a replacement if you get hung up at the airport the day before. You can't get someone else to talk about the charts, tables and methodology in your slides.

At my first Kalamazoo I was astonished by the entire concept of reading a paper for a presentation. Apparently I'd led a sheltered life.

Miriam said...

I've only done this a couple of times. Once at the MLA of all conferences--and, ironically, I was already there. But I'd come down with what turned out to be a nasty bout of the flu (the only time in my life I've ever been truly bedridden), and there was just no way. (I somehow don't think the panelists would have appreciated catching my flu, either.) Luckily, I was also there as part of a search committee, and one of my colleagues kindly took my place at the last minute. (Also luckily, the MLA was about ninety minutes away from my parents' house that year. Thanks, mom!)

However, I also bowed out of a conference that was shaping up to have some...issues. Without going into detail, the organizers were handling things badly enough that I felt considerable trepidation about committing the $ to go. This was a decision I talked out with a number of other people. But otherwise, I agree that once you've submitted, you should assume that you've committed yourself, barring serious emergency.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

I've pulled out of one thing ever, which a friend had persuaded me to sign up for. I didn't really have any new work and was going to float some old stuff the audience hadn't seen, and then three months beforehand it became clear that the faculty deadline for exam marks was going to fall into the middle of that conference. In other words, there would be meetings I might have to attend at the same time. So, already uncomfortable with the lack of a real paper and not wanting to be the bad colleague, I pulled out. I don't know if they were able to replace me, though I don't think they lost much. I was rather relieved at the time but subsequently, when the marking came round, I discovered that basically everyone who might have been at that notional meeting had done their marking and reconciling of marks early because they were away at conferences... I have some learning to do.

pika said...

Here's another perspective: this summer I attended a conference where three presenters could not attend, because they were not able to get the UK visa in time. So in the morning coffee break of the first day, the organisers were circulating among the participants, asking if anyone would be willing to volunteer to present their work to fill the three empty spots. It just so happened that I gave a local seminar the week before and had slides which I could cut down into a 20min presentation, so I volunteered. So did my friend and someone else and in the end it turned out to be really good: my presentation got a really good discussion going and I got lots of useful feedback. I just pity those people who could not attend because of visa issues - same happened when I organised a conference in 2007 in Ireland and these are always the same countries: Iran, China, etc.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I hate hearing papers read by people other than their authors and don't think that should be allowed. If you can't be there, you can't be there (weather or whatever), and the session should run with whoever is there.

trishag said...

I agree.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Well, Hey there, Miss Trisha! Welcome! You may find us occasionally dull, but we will never abuse apostrophes.

Daniel Goldberg said...

I realize the peril in suggesting this, but as a junior faculty member whom this recently happened to (travel funding for expensive international conference was withdrawn), this can be a case where technology can assist.

I informed the conference chair about 3 months prior to the conference that I literally could not afford to attend, but my public university has pretty good A/V resources. So I suggested that I give the paper and record it in a high-quality format, in a professional setting, and just send it to the panel chair on a thumb drive. It could then be played on the laptop being used for the other panelists' presentations. Plus, it would still be me giving the paper as opposed to it being presented by proxy.

The chair liked this idea very much, we did it, and as far as I could tell, it went off without a hitch. The panel chair was kind enough to forward me some of the questions and comments raised -- although I certainly agree this was supererogatory and would have been more than prepared to assume the cost of not receiving such feedback as a consequence of my withdrawal.

Better technology made this possible, and though I hope not to withdraw from conferences in the future -- indeed, I am planning very very carefully which I submit to in the upcoming year(s) -- it helped to make the best of a bad situation to the relative satisfaction of myself and the conference organizers.

(Admittedly, it also helped that I am traveling near the conference venue in the future and offered to come and give a talk at my own expense at that time).

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Once I was chairing a conference symposium that was starting at 9AM. At 7AM, I got a phone call from the second of the four presenters that he was feeling very ill and wouldn't be able to give his talk. So I feverishly look for the chair of the conference program committee, and finally find her at about 8:45AM. I go, "Dude! What the fucke do I do?" And she goes, "I don't give a fucke, dude, but you have to fill that half-hour slot!!"

So I look on my laptop, find a few slides with new data I didn't even understand myself, and decide I'll just give a couple minutes background, put up the slides, and invite the audience to come up with ideas. It ended up being really fun!

The usual norms for conference presentations are so fucken stultifying, it was a relief to both presenter and audience to do something totally different, given the perceived freedom of the last-minute absence of the scheduled speaker.

Anti Money Laundering said...
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Anonymous said...

I have a question... What are the unspoken rules about accepting a PhD program and backing out last minute? I got offered a position at a University which wasn't my first choice; I am afraid to walk away and I wanted to accept and let them know for sure closer to when the program starts. How bad would that be for my career?