Conferences within Borders; Borders within Conferences

Academic conferences are commodities that reflect the insidious spread of Neoliberalism across the Academy. They do so, amongst other ways, by being a marketplace for tools, methods and ideas to be traded (Nicolson, 2017a). However, academic conferences had escaped the empirical gaze until relatively recently (Nicolson, 2016a); and so, there is much still to understand. Travel is a barrier to attendance and knowledge sharing (Nicolson, 2016b); and Border Security has for some become as important a hurdle to clear, as getting their conference abstract accepted. This represents the problem of “Conferences within Borders”.

A subtle but greater threat is that of “Borders within Conferences”. This reflects the hierarchical Academy, as played out at conferences. Based on this taxonomy, borders exist between different conferences, different paradigms, and different professional groups. In my field of work, Health Services Research; there are borders of expertise between patients and healthcare professionals; and these too are evident at conferences.

These are serious problems and they are not going to be resolved any time soon; because of the dominance of Neoliberalism in the Academy. I have voiced concerns about research being a literature and suggested that conferences are a marketplace for knowledge; where research stories are told and sold for their commodity value (Nicolson, 2017b). I therefore do not think it controversial to suggest empirical work is on a par with other writings, when one of Vienna’s finest, Ludwig Wittgenstein, favoured Tolstoy over Classical Philosophy. Like him, we have to work out how we will guide the [conference/research] fly out of the [academic] bottle.


Nicolson, D. 2016a. The last great unknown? The impact of academic conferences. LSE Impact Blogs.

Nicolson, D. 2016b. Conference travel as a barrier to knowledge development. LSE Impact Blogs.

Nicolson, D.J., 2017a. Academic Conferences as neoliberal commodities. Springer.

Nicolson, D.J., 2017b. Perspectives: Do conference presentations impact beyond the conference venue? Journal of Research in Nursing, 22(5), pp.422-425.


Donald J. Nicolson began in Health Services Research in 2001 when he received his Master's Degree from the University of Aberdeen. He has worked on a range of high profile multidisciplinary and multinational projects and published in key journals, including British Medical Journal, the Cochrane Library, and Health Technology Assessment. In 2009 he was awarded his PhD from the University of Leeds. In recent years he has sought to broaden his experience and skills in writing. He has written travel publications on Berlin, Rome, and Utrecht, in a national daily; The Scotsman. In 2017 his first book, Academic Conferences as Neoliberal Commodities, was published by Palgrave Macmillan. Taking a novel approach, this acclaimed work has begun to shed light on the usefulness and challenges of academic conferences.

The review of Donald's book in @LSEReviewBooks was the most popular review of the year - please find it here


Dr. Nicolson's speech will be introduced by Dr. Laurie Trautman.