The '58 sound

CSUNs in the shade


Excitement is growing amongst people who work in accessibility, as the CSUN 2011 conference in San Diego draws closer. As probably the longest and most well established conference on disability and technology, CSUN attracts a great number of people working in the web and software accessibility and inclusive design area. This year is no exception, judging by the chat on Twitter and the CSUN Tweetup roll-call. But I’ve never been, and I’m unlikely to attend unless my circumstances change. Here’s why.

The prospect of escaping cold and wet northern Europe to spend a few days enjoying the early spring sun in southern California, hearing about developments in inclusive design and access technology, while networking with some of the brightest and best people in the field, seems unbelieveably appealing! (Especially if combining the trip with a visit to SXSW, as many are doing).

But for those of us in academia, in the UK, and likely elsewhere outside North America, right now it’s difficult to justify attendance at CSUN on academic grounds – which in turn impacts on whether we can afford to finance a long and expensive trip. Like higher education around the world, research impact drives funding in the UK. For those of us without healthy conference budgets, we need to be able to justify the impact of presenting a paper at a particular international conference, compared to alternatives, or saving our work for presentation in a journal paper.

‘Impact’ is a constantly changing metric; as of now we’re still unclear as to how impact of our research will be measured for the next assessment under the UK Higher Education Research Excellence Framework – the mechanism under which core research funding is allocated to universities in the UK…although given today’s difficult financial climate and the political battleground that is higher education, who knows what will drive future research funding?

What helps us in gauging the impact level of a conference is a rigorous peer-review system for submitted papers. We need to know there is strong competition for paper acceptance, that our work has been scrutinised by our peers and that the work in the papers presented meet the highest standards of academic rigour. I took part in the CSUN review system this year for the first time, and found the review system much less thorough than for other conferences I’ve reviewed for, that  also seek to attract good accessibility and inclusive design research.

Let me be clear that I’m not saying here that the review system means the papers presented at CSUN are likely to be poor – far from it, from the schedule, there look to be some terrific sessions planned. I also want to be clear that I’m not questioning the value of the conference. It’s enduring presence seems to me to be a testament to its ability to attract great people and influential talks.

For researchers, CSUN should be an opportunity to make influential accessibility advocates in industry, government, the non-profit sector (and indeed others in academia) aware of their work, receiving feedback, entering into dialogue that hopefully leads to greater impact of the research being presented. As to impact beyond the accessibility community, that’s not something I can judge from afar, but I assume the conference has great appeal to those new to the field and seeking to learn about accessibility.

The problem is providing evidence of impact of presenting work at CSUN to those who decide how to measure impact and influence of our research. Accessibility and inclusive design research, like much of HCI research, seems to have a tough battle in demonstrating impact within our parent field of computing science where other subjects are dominant (have a look at this list of high impact factor CS journals reported by the Times Higher Education Supplement).

So we have to be careful about our publishing strategy. Budgeting to attend conferences is increasingly tricky, making those with comparatively high publication ratings obviously more attractive. CHI is the daddy, but there are other good places to publish, such as W4A (disclosure – I’m on the steering committee), ASSETSICCHP and Interact. With that in mind, CSUN unfortunately has difficulty competing.

I try not to get too driven by impact factor numbers – for me, the real value of a conference is a place to meet peers and friends, present and receive feedback on my work, and find out – and be inspired by – what others are doing. But when finances are driven by someone else’s definition of impact, how do we persuade research funders outside the US of CSUN’s high impact levels on the accessibility community? What could the conference do – if indeed they should do anything? Are you a UK academic who’s been to CSUN (and I know there are several), and found it rewarding?

Or maybe I should just quit moaning and get on with my work? 😉