when is a conference paper not just a paper?

Doctoral and early career researchers are always encouraged to present their work in conferences, and often the earlier the better. The reasons usually offered are that the conference paper offers an opportunity to communicate about your research and it allows you to test out your arguments and get feedback .  Another reason that is given is that the conference offers the opportunity to perform, behave like and talk like, assume the identity of expert scholar….

However it’s important to remember that there are generally four or five or even six texts involved in developing a conference paper, not just one! – so the answer to the question above is ALWAYS. The texts are:

  1. The abstract for the conference.
  2. The abstract that is written to go into the conference programme
  3. The conference paper itself; this may or may not be refereed as a discrete text
  4. The powerpoint or other display you might do
  5. A handout
  6. The actual presentation which may last anything from 10 – 25 minutes.

Each of these texts has a discrete audience and audiences will have different expectations of them. It is important to think about what each of these six involves if you are to be ‘successful’.

text purpose issues to consider
The abstract you write to get selected for the conference. Selection by referees


(include me)

  • Address the conference theme
  • Follow the abstract formula provided
  • Emphasise rigour of approach and significance of findings/theorisation
The abstract that is written to go into the conference programme which may be online or in print Selection by conference attendees


(pick me)

  • Title is both seductive and informative
  • A concise statement of the purpose, context, approach and significance ( the so what factor)
The conference paper Peer reviewOr

First draft of potential journal article or chapter


(take me seriously, talk with me, cite me)

  • The best text you can do at this point in time, written as well as you can
  • You may be able to choose to put this into an online conference paper repository if you want to, but check that this doesn’t preclude further publication in the refereed journal of your choice.
The powerpoint Information about paper


(trust me)

  • Not too many – you can’t get through 20 slides in 10 minutes
  • Not too much text – unless you are showing data which you are going to explicitly address, you can’t expect the audience to read in detail and listen at the same time
  • Dreary slides are just dreary; remember potential death by powerpoint is a serious conference ailment…
A handout Provide detail about paper; enticement to follow up to access full paper


(follow me)

  • More information – can be data, findings as bullets of major points. Will not usually be a straight cut and paste from text but edited to  maximise key points you are making
The actual presentation Communicate research; stimulate discussion; get feedback


(listen to me)

  • Usually not a reading of the paper (unless you are a british sociologist of a particular persuasion.) If read, the paper is highly edited
  • Often with paper in hand, but in more colloquial terms
  • Not to be confused with teaching
  • Well timed to allow for discussion and therefore

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, conference papers. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to when is a conference paper not just a paper?

  1. Pingback: Conference presentations, training wheels & learning how to do stuff « theteachingtomtom

  2. I’m writing a conference presentation at the moment, and my instinct is to work backwards (apart from the abstract, which has already been accepted). Since the audience is really only going to get the presentation and the powerpoint, is there any point in writing a full paper until the point you have an opportunity to publish it?


    • pat thomson says:

      Some conferences ask you to bring a paper, and some participants might expect it. Probably good to find out the expectations. If you won’t disappoint people, then you can of course use the PowerPoint as a way to hone your argument and flesh out the points. But you also have to think about whether, in writing a paper for a particular journal, as a first draft, you have actually created the impetus to publish.. rather than waiting.


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