The Hidden Conference Cost of doing Interdisciplinary Work

Hello blog!

Long time no chat. May was entirely lost in the black hole that is the end of the semester and the start of “academic conferencing.” In the past month, I attended the International Communication Association’s conference (ICA 2019; what I would consider the “main” conference of my primary field, Mass Communication) and a workshop at the the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics conference (NAACL NLP+CSS 2019). I have a nice break through the remainder of June and July, and then in August I have one more conference (Association in Education for Journalism and Mass Communication, AEJMC 2019).

Which brings me to my topic of the day: the cost of attending conferences to stay up to date on interdisciplinary scholarship.

Realistically, I work in three intersecting fields (four, if you include my computational stuff separately): Mass Communication, Political Science, and Linguistics. Removing a component of the trifecta is not possible; it would mean fundamentally misunderstanding my research agenda.

There are a lot of benefits and problems to doing interdisciplinary research, which many other scholars have spoken on. I love interdisciplinary work, personally, because that’s where all the enjoyable little questions are. And, as valuable as specialization can be, most research questions can be studied in many ways, depending on the department/discipline you end up in. A question about political language may produce different results if studied in Sociology, Psychology, and Political Science. So, to me, the rigorous thing would be to do interdisciplinary research—to be specific in your question, broad in where you look for theory, and concrete in your study’s operationalization and methodology.

But there are substantial professional costs to doing interdisciplinary work. A Google Scholar search of “interdisciplinary research difficulties” will yield more than enough articles to give you a sense of how much the academy has struggled to deal with interdisciplinary scholars (I choose the word “deal” carefully… rarely do I feel as if the academy “supports” interdisciplinary work).

One of those weirdly silent struggles is the cost of attending oh-so-many conferences. In an ideal world, I’d like to submit to conferences for all the fields I participate in (ICA/AEJMC for Mass Comm, LSA for Linguistics, APSA/MPSA for Political Science, NAACL/CoLing for Computational Linguistics). There conferences are important for many reasons. They help you connect with others to find jobs (a super important thing for any graduate student), they expose you to the latest studies and results in the field, and they help you connect with other people who are doing similar work to you.

But each conference can cost a substantial amount of money to attend. Below are the registration cost of the seven conferences I noted above, and a few others:

Conference 2019 Location Regular Reg Student Reg
AEJMC Toronto $ 215 $ 125
APSA Washington D.C. $ 160 $ 125
CoLing Santa Fe $ 715 $ 500
ICA Washington D.C. $ 300* $ 165
IC2S2 Amsterdam 345 € 195 €
ICCSS Amsterdam 450 € 350 €
LSA NYC $ 86 $ 90
NAACL Minneapolis $ 595 $ 295

(* ICA has tiered prices depending on where your institution is located. These are U.S. prices, Tier A.)

For each conference, you also need to account for hotel and airfare, at minimum. The best conferences are the ones that are proximity close (the location of NAACL, in Minneapolis, was a huge reason why I submitted a paper to begin with), but you are typically looking at between 300 and 500 dollars for a round-trip flight to somewhere-in-the-U.S. (aka: Chicago or DC). Conference hotels usually charge between 175 and 250 per night (graduate students bring down the cost substantially by staying with other graduate students). If you are a lucky young scholar like I am, you will have tt professors who will assist with food and drink for a good portion of the trip, but this is obviously not always the case.

All in all, you can be spending somewhere between 500 and 1000 dollars for each conference you attend. This cost increases considerably for non-(U.S. and European) scholars, who have to not only fly in from another country ($$$ international flights anyone?!) but also apply for visas, an increasingly daunting task (most of my conferences are in the U.S., which makes me double-privileged as a scholar in the States).

If you’re a scholar working in two disciplines, that’s twice the conferences you may need to pay for. Or, you’ll have to sacrifice attending certain conferences in one year to attend another. For a young scholar, particularly one doing interdisciplinary research, not attending a conference means missed opportunities to meet people, connect about research, and find future avenues of collaboration.

Given this, we need to start thinking about the conference model, and how that limits young scholars who cannot normally afford to attend so many conferences. Alternative ways to participate, cheaper locations (and cheaper hotels), and having more included in a registration can go a long way.

Yesterday, I was a footnote in history!

Yesterday, I received exciting news! A piece that I had written with Chris Wells for Columbia Journalism Review was cited in the Mueller Report, which was released a day ago.

The piece that we wrote for CJR focused on news organizations that embedded tweets by Internet Research Agency (IRA) handles into their news stories. We’ve increased the number of outlets analyzed since the CJR piece (it was about 40 when we started, but over 100 now), and our finding still holds: a majority of news organizations cited an IRA account in at least one story.

Contrary to popular opinion, these IRA accounts were not sharing “fake news” (as in: false information). Instead, IRA tweets were often quoted for their salient, often hyper-partisan opinions. For example, one tweet advocated for a Heterosexual Pride Day as a way of inciting LGBTQ activists. Another called refugees, “rapefugees”. These accounts would often portray themselves as American people (e.g., @JennAbrams portrayed herself as a “typical” American girl, as shown by research done by my colleague Yiping Xia), or as groups (like @ten_gop, an IRA account pretending to be Tennessee GOP members, and @blacktivist, an IRA account pretending to be BlackLivesMatter organizers).

This has important implications, and speaks to Muller’s earlier indictment of the IRA, which noted that Russia’s campaign goal was “spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general” (p. 6). Ironically, the discovery of the IRA campaign in the summer/fall of 2017 probably fed into this distrust (especially since news organization were as likely to be “duped” as American citizens).

The (underacted) part where we are referenced focuses on this specific issue—journalists embedded these tweets thinking they reflected the opinions of U.S. citizens. This is incredibly problematic, and something that both academics and journalists want to find solutions for. Following our publication in early of 2018, several news organizations reached out to us regarding the specific articles i which they had unintentionally quoted IRA tweets. The research team was particularly excited by these exchanges because it shows that journalists care, and want to avoid doing this in the future.