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News Feature: Knowledge Diffusion at Academic Conferences

July 25, 2023, #47

Misha Templitskiy, Soya Park, Neil Thompson, and David Karger wrote an Impact of Social Sciences blog post on the topic of “Does anyone learn anything new at conferences? Measuring serendipity and knowledge diffusion at academic conferences”¹. Specifically, they ask: “What are the benefits of conferencing and are they worth it?”¹ Finding a scholarly answer is, as they admit, not easy. “One area where evidence is accumulating is on the networking function of conferences. For example, in an experiment at a medical school Boudreau and colleagues² found that placing two scientists in the same room for a networking event – a common occurrence at conferences – increases the probability that they’ll co-author a grant proposal by 75%.”¹ How much people learn at a conference is a complex issue, since accessibility to information has increased internationally. The authors ask: “[i]s serendipitous diffusion common enough that individuals should take it into consideration when deciding whether to attend a conference?”¹ They claim to have “unusually strong evidence that conference attendees really do learn a lot in presentations, and that a sizable fraction of the diffusion is serendipitous, i.e. the attendees did not plan on learning the ideas. … Compared to papers presented in timeslots that individuals could not attend due to scheduling conflicts, they cite papers in presentations without conflicts about 50% more often.”¹ The method relied on “liked” and “not liked” markings in the scheduling tool confer to determine whether people listened to a presentation and how they valued it. The authors conclude “[u]sing this ‘scheduling conflicts’ research design, we find that the diffusion function of conferences is substantial. … To our knowledge, this is the first time that the contribution of serendipity to diffusion has been quantified.”¹ Ultimately they ask “are the in-person conference benefits worth the costs, particularly when taking into account accessibility?”¹ Cost is an issue that every organisation running a conference ought to consider, which is why the iSchools routinely offer virtual conferences for those with insufficient travel budgets, but whether these research results also apply to virtual conferences is an unanswered question. The evidence is valuable but needs further confirmation.


1: Misha Teplitskiy et al., ‘Does Anyone Learn Anything New at Conferences? Measuring Serendipity and Knowledge Diffusion at Academic Conferences’, Impact of Social Sciences (blog), 19 July 2023, 2: Kevin J. Boudreau et al., ‘A Field Experiment on Search Costs and the Formation of Scientific Collaborations’, The Review of Economics and Statistics 99, no. 4 (1 October 2017): 565–76,


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