Finding Optimism in Online Academic Conferences
Updated: Jan 31
Academic conferences are central to advancing scientific knowledge as they support networking opportunities, collaborations with other researchers, and the co-production of knowledge needed for addressing today’s multi-layered environmental challenges.
Virtual academic conferences are gaining more attraction because of the inherent accessibility and affordability that comes with an online event. At the same time, virtual conferences can have less of an environmental impact, particularly in the area of air travel where international participants must fly to conference locations. Taking into consideration the direct and indirect drivers of global change and their potential effects on future scientific conferences, the following article presents three potential benefits of switching from a traditional to an online academic conference for future conference-goers to consider when searching for their next academic conference opportunity.
One of the main barriers to attending an in-person academic conference is the cost. High registration fees and additional expenses like air travel and accommodation put a wedge between researchers from developing countries, scholars with limited institutional funding, students, and other stakeholders from sharing their knowledge and being a part of global discussions on today’s prevalent environmental topics. For instance, the Society for Conservation Biology will meet in Kigali, Rwanda this year and its early bird registration for non-members is 650.00 USD. The cost of registration does not include airfare, hotel, and food, and it’s worth noting that additional visa and passport-related fees will apply to international travelers which can raise the cost of attendance even more.
Students and scholars that do not have institutional funding are excluded from the conference experience- meaning that their research contributions, knowledge, and networking will be missed. Likewise, online attendance is typically more affordable as it does not include the extra costs associated with the in-person experience. Additionally, many online conferences are free for audience members, meaning that non-presenting individuals can listen and participate in post-session discussions and networking spaces at no cost.
Often financial barriers to international gatherings aggravate the already existing gap between the percentage of researchers from developing countries and the percentage of researchers from western countries present at academic conferences. This results in an uneven distribution of research being communicated to other scholars, scientists, and the public. What is more, the issues discussed at environment-themed academic conferences are often related to the environmental impacts in non-western countries where the researchers studying these effects are located. Therefore, by not having these scholars present at such meetings, inclusivity is at risk, and the voices most affected by global change lack representation.
In contrast, online conferences can meet global diversity targets, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to ensure everyone’s voice is being heard and that learning opportunities are inclusive. For instance, students who are on a budget and early-stage researchers that are hungry for exposure may find an online conference more advantageous than traveling to an in-person conference because its lower price means that they can present their research at more than one conference. Moreover, online conferences can reach more people outside of the academic space and provide opportunities for the public to listen to sessions, participate in workshops, and access educational resources from their laptops. This is especially important for communicating scientific knowledge to broader audiences.
The online space can prove challenging for meaningful connections, however, with more online conferences happening, innovative ways for making connections that are more human and natural will take place. For example, the online conference platform HopIn has a speed networking room that randomly matches participants to another attendee instigating a conversation in the same way as bumping into an attendee at an in-person conference. What is more, there’s a greater opportunity to network with people from diverse geographic backgrounds that normally would not be represented in an in-person space because of travel and its related costs.
Attending an in-person conference has environmental drawbacks, particularly on attendees’ carbon footprint from long-haul flights. For instance, a 2013 study on the carbon footprint of conference papers found that the annual C02 travel emissions were 0.003% for trips made to present at a scientific conference. While this is a relatively low percentage, the same study found that 7% of an individual’s carbon footprint can be contributed to a single conference trip. A more recent analysis of the carbon emissions of conference-goers at the 2019 American Geophysical Union, AGU, revealed that 75% of their emissions came from intercontinental flights with 17% of attendees from India, Australia, and China accounting for almost 40% of the total conference emissions.
What is more, a life-cycle assessment for a series of sustainability conferences in Europe found that air travel most affected the environmental impact of attendees followed by food and catering, accommodation, and energy consumption from meeting sites. There is a growing concern to confront the environmental realities and carbon emissions of traveling scholars. Groups like Flying Less circulate a travel petition encouraging higher education institutions to include all university-related flying in their environmental impact assessments and develop strategies to reduce air travel from faculty, staff, and students. There is also literature calling for the implementation of environmental policies at scientific conferences.
The virtual space is becoming increasingly popular for academic conferences and has the potential to transform how traditional in-person conferences run to reflect the environmental and social realities of today. Virtual conferences tend to be more affordable and accessible, which aid in inclusive knowledge-sharing and greater geographic representation. The environmental incentives of online conferences align with global initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and while a physical connection is valuable, having more virtual conferences can lead to innovative ways to connect in the online setting.
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