An appeal to fairness

“I'm asking conference organizers who claim to have a fair talk selection process to be transparent when any speakers are invited outside of it.”

A chuckle, followed by, "I haven't responded to a CFP in years."

That was the response to my question, "what do you think of the recent trend of conferences issuing blind calls for proposals?" which I had posed to a somewhat prominent speaker while I was at Øredev. It wasn't the first time I'd heard a variation on this line—the subtext being, of course, that the aforementioned speaker is a Big Enough Deal™ to garner direct invitations to speak from conferences.

I speak at a few conferences a year, but I typically have to stomach about a dozen rejections for every acceptance (and my sense is that my batting average is actually pretty good!). I'm sure regularly-invited speakers enjoy the privilege of not needing to compete for the opportunity to speak at conferences, but it certainly doesn't feel very fair from the perspective of us plebeians who must risk discouragement by submitting proposals.

Is it an outrage that a conference's speaker selection process doesn't feel very fair? Not necessarily! Most conferences are regional community events put on by small groups of incredibly passionate, worrisomely tireless individuals. It's the organizers' show for most intents and purposes. If the organizers are going to put in a Herculean effort to pull off an event, it's certainly their right to assemble a speaker lineup however they see fit.

Fairness should be demanded, however, when a conference suggests that they use a fair and inclusive process for soliciting and selecting talk submissions.

In recent years, many conferences have increased the formality of their talk selection processes; one trend has been to begin anonymizing talk submissions in the first round of review. While the intended benefits of anonymizing submission reviews are numerous, my understanding is the primary intention is to encourage participation by members of traditionally marginalized groups. Another benefit of open and anonymous submission processes is their apparent fairness—even as a white male, I'm more likely to submit a talk when it's clear the organizers are doing more than inviting their friends and heroes to speak.

Meanwhile, I'm regularly hearing from organizers that they've been swamped with talk submissions—typically more than ten times as many submissions are received as there are slots available.

Those two trends—anonymized review and an uptick in submissions—should be resulting in an explosion of new speakers hitting the scene. So why is it that the same dozen-or-so community celebrities are regularly showcased on the websites of regional and national conferences around the world? I literally spent about a year marveling, wow these folks must write awesome abstracts, before I realized that they were being extended direct invitations, bypassing whatever fair-and-open talk selection process the conference might be touting.

In the same way that it could be argued that competing for limited positions by taking a standardized test is imperfect, the merits of our current regime of selecting live presentations based on written abstracts deserves to be scrutinized. However, when the game itself appears to be rigged, the effectiveness of the game's rules are beside the point. When a certain class of individuals is not required to submit their talks along with everyone else, it doesn't matter whether abstracts are good predictors of great talks or whether anonymized review inhibits holistic judgment—the process is no longer fair.

Think about it this way: suppose a single-track conference has 12 speaking slots, has handed out 6 of those slots to well-established speakers, and is then bombarded with 500 submissions competing for the remaining six slots as part of a purportedly fair submission process.

What does an appropriate rejection letter look like in that case? If the organizers admit that the rejected submitters were only competing for six spots because the six other spots had been awarded to people of a higher caste, any illusion that the process is a fair one would be lost, and participation from marginalized groups would probably decline. Moreover, if the conference advertises the fairness of their selection process to attendees, shouldn't the program indicate which speakers were invited unfairly?

The only argument I've heard against the above idea is that it sends the message that there is a two-tier system of conference speakers: celebrities and the rest of us. But since that's exactly what exists at most conferences these days, what harm could come from acknowledging reality?

After all, it's a poorly-kept secret that most conferences host two tiers of speakers. More than once, I've had my nerves rattled at a speaker's dinner upon realizing that I'm the only one at my table who wasn't invited to be at the conference. Worse, I've declined to speak at a couple conferences because the organizers were only willing to reimburse the expenses of their invited speakers (a group that generally is of greater financial means than the rest).

I love that so many conferences are trying to do a better job of including speakers and attendees from marginalized groups by leveling the playing field and establishing fair, inclusive policies. But it's duplicitous for a conference to tout a fair process without disclosing when it breaks its own rules. Therefore, I'm asking conference organizers who claim to have a fair talk selection process to be transparent when any speakers are invited outside of it. (I'd also ask for them to disclose which speakers are specially reimbursed or compensated, but I won't get my hopes up.)

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