If there is one thing that seems to unite all conference attendees is the frustration provoked by attending paper sessions. It appears that this frustration and the rather well accepted nagging about paper sessions has spanned from the origin of the scientific conference to this very day.
What did this complaining sound like? To start off, let us hear what American geologist John James Stevenson and his colleague H.F.O had to say of the sessions they attended as part of the International Geological Congresses of the turn of the 20th century. While Stevenson regretted that “The reading of memoirs was somewhat perfunctory, or rather the listening was so”, H.F.O added that “the papers presented were not of high order” before nagging that “the time arranged for discussion was insufficient”. Generally, the paper sessions were also trashed as poor acoustics, crammed and stuffy rooms made them unbearable. But no one seemed to really care, not least congress organizers like Hugo Munsterberg who, in 1904 fully dismissed critiques claiming that “the reading of papers was non-essential” anyways. Fast forward, to the 1940s-1950s, when as conference life resumed to pre-war standards, complaining kicked in again. The ever more crowded periodical conference and its multitude of sessions sparked anguish. As the motivator of the cybernetics conferences, Frank Fremont-Smith claimed, the standard that is “the reading of a series of papers with scant time for discussion” was not just pointless but, in the words of American physicist Philip Abelson “down right depressing”. Needless to add more contemporary examples as one may have easily recognized similarities between these past critiques and those one may have heard or, as likely, uttered against the post-COVID online sessions.
Taking frustration seriously
So paper sessions tend to be unanimously depicted as dull, frustrating or worse agonizing. Now, what does this frustration actually tell us about the conference and its purpose? Although frustration seems at first sight kind of similar overtime, the practice these critiques depict is not. For the period 1870-1910, the rejection of the dull paper sessions was usually the backdrop against which attendees celebrated the rich social intercourses the conference offered. What mattered was to be there, have time to see and hang with others, to feel part of a community. As Stevenson, whose critique of the paper session I quoted earlier, put it: “the true work of the congress was done not so much in the sessions as in the huge lobby.”
Some twenty years later, however, the same critique against the paper session pointed to other purposes. Rather than trashing the session itself, Bernard Hesse, the secretary of the 8th international congress of applied chemistry, rather deplored the quality of its content. For him, “men did not bother to attend such gatherings merely to hear papers that would reach their library desks automatically”. It appears that in the 1910s and 1920s, being together was not enough anymore to justify a conference. The paper sessions were in turn criticized not because they took time away from socializing but because they did not offer knowledge novelty and qualitative exchanges. Rather they were seen as spoiling the unique opportunity that the conference offered to collectively debate new ideas. Not unlike Hesse, German chemist D. Holde feared that such dull sessions “would eventually bring colleagues to turn to special congresses smaller in scope”. His premonition was eventually confirmed. Rejecting the paper sessions, a new genre of conferences like the Gordon conferences and the so-called Cybernetic conferences appeared in the 1930s and 1940s. These buried the paper session in favor of informal and free discussions which were thought to be the best way to fuel new scientific breakthrough.
The paper session is dead, long live the paper session
And yet, the good old paper session survived, not only it went on but eventually colonized its nemesis, the frontier conferences like the Gordon conferences. With it, complains kept on coming undiminished, as illustrated by the volley of critiques thrown at today’s new standard: the post-COVID-19 zoom conference. Observing this state of affairs, past and present, one cannot help but wonder:
- First, despite its historical bad publicity, why and how did the paper session survive so long?
- Second, and again in view of this unflattering track record, why when COVID disrupted conference life, did the architects of online solutions went straight to re-enacting this criticized format?
- Finally, what does our nagging about the online paper session then tell us about the purpose of conferences today?