How a conference changed the way I thought about science (and why you should attend, too!)

To say that I was a ‘Negative Nancy’ when it came to academic conferences during grad school might be an understatement. I hated small talk and was horrible at networking. I was tired of getting mansplained to at poster sessions.  Sitting through talk after talk made my short-attention-span brain very sleepy.  And while conferences may have been satisfying on an intellectual level, sometimes I would step back to take a bird’s eye view and marvel at the ivory-tower-ness of it all.  It didn’t change much depending on the conference: I’d either be an acoustics researcher in a room full of acoustics researchers, a music researcher in a room full of music researchers, or a psychologist in a room full of psychologists.  Science, which had been at one point glamorous and romantic, had turned into something frustratingly insular, elitist, and inaccessible to the general public; and my average conference experience merely encapsulated this sentiment.


So I surprised myself in November 2014 when I voluntarily applied for an academic conference in Washington, DC. I was just over a year into my Master’s when my university library made a call-out for applications to OpenCon - the first conference to convene students and early career researchers from around the world to discuss open access, open data, and open educational resources.   I was interested in the systemic problems that existed in science, and was curious to see what addressing these issues could look like in practice.  I wanted to learn more about what avenues were available to make academic information more freely and immediately accessible to the general public. I applied, and was lucky enough to travel to DC a few months after I submitted my application.  



For someone who previously had an aversion to academic conferences, it feels hyperbolic to say that a single conference changed my life, but I would be lying to say that it did not.  There was an energy at OpenCon that I had never felt in other contexts.  Instead of drowsy, I felt captivated and moved during each talk, which were given by a wide range of speakers, from Patrick Brown, the co-founder of the Public Library of Science, to Jack Andraka, the teenage citizen scientist who was able to develop a potential method for detecting pancreatic cancer, relying primarily on openly accessible papers to conduct his research.  OpenCon was also refreshingly inclusive: attendees came from across disciplines and continents, and those who could not join physically were encouraged to join online or through various satellite meetings that were held around the globe.  It was inspiring to meet students, who, like me, were frustrated about the way research was conducted and disseminated - but unlike me, were channeling their frustrations into doing amazing work to address these issues.  I learned about initiatives like the Open Access Button and Content Mine.  OpenCon taught me that science could be better, and that scientists could do better. It was a conference with a big heart, and I left having formed some amazing friendships (as well as the beginnings of the OOO Canada Research Network!)

After my experience at OpenCon, I wrote a series of blog posts about science being ‘broken’.  But at my new job, we often talk about how a system is never ‘broken’; a system is always built in a purposeful way to produce the results it currently gets.  It is no accident that most taxpayers cannot read the majority of taxpayer funded research.  It is no accident that most researchers are not incentivized to publish their data openly.  It is no accident that undergraduate students have to pay enormous amounts for their textbooks.    So if academic culture, as it stands, is not broken, I would like to think that the OpenCon community - the next generation of scientists and researchers  - is working together to build a new set of academic standards that promotes transparency, accessibility, and collaboration.  For any student or budding researcher who wants to be a part of this community, I urge you to apply to OpenCon, which will take place in Washington, DC this November.  Applications open in June 6 - keep your eye out for them! 

This post was written by Lorraine Chuen, who attended OpenCon in 2014 as a psychology graduate student. Currently, she is currently a Studio [Y] Fellow at the MaRS Discovery District, an innovation hub in downtown Toronto. 


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