What a waste! The coronavirus
pandemic has led to the cancelation of many promising
academic conferences. That is a real shame. Think of all those
carefully planned research projects whose results will not be
communicated and discussed. All those personal meetings and creative
interactions that will not happen.
But what an opportunity! At
the same time, many people, both inside academia and outside of it,
are saying that corona is a chance to try
out new ways of doing things that could mitigate climate change. There
are hundreds of good internet pages on this topic (e.g. this
one). There is also strong
academic support for virtual conferences (also called online
conferences). Are conference organizers
their chance to reform conference culture?
Misleading arguments? Conference
organizers justify the decision to cancel in different ways. Some claim
that a virtual conference would be too hard to organize. In fact, a
virtual conference is easier to organize (see below). Another familiar
argument is that networking and personal contact are a
part of conferences, especially for young
scholars. That won't be possible at a virtual conference, they say. In
fact, a virtual conference makes it easier for young researchers to
make contacts! Read on:
Virtual conferencing: Who benefits?
Lots of people, as it turns out.
1. Young researchersneed exposure and contact with
people doing similar research
-- people with whom they could work in the future. In this
regard, virtual conferences have several advantages:
Virtual conferences are free or
inexpensive. At a
conventional conference, travel,
registration, and hotel add to a large sum of money. Many cannot afford
The technology is familiar.
Millennials have been communicating virtually in all kinds
of ways (not only on social media) for quite a while. Younger
researchers are often more comfortable with new technologies than older
researchers. Virtual conference organizers can take advantage of that.
The participants are approachable.
strategies for finding and meeting people would be similar
at conventional and virtual
conferences. They might start by checking if
people from their literature lists are attending,
or searching for keywords in abstracts. They might then attend the
right presentations, and afterwards
contact the speakers. At a virtual conference, that might mean
sending an email (or using the colleague's preferred mode of
communication) and arranging a virtual meeting. At a conventional
conference, it might mean looking out for someone who looks
like a photo and interrupting a conversation.
2. Colleagues from non-rich countries may not
be able to afford regular conferences either (flight, accommodation,
registration). Their participation in virtual conferences will improve
the cultural diversity of the conference. A virtual conference can
expand disciplinary horizons by reaching out to colleagues in new
geographic regions and new cultural spheres. It can also contribute to
global development (cf. Sustainable
3. Colleagues with caring
commitments may be too busy looking after small children
and/or aging parents to attend a conventional conference. Despite
decades of feminism, these colleagues are
still more often women than men. Virtual conferencing is an interesting
solution. If the baby cries, just turn off the sound.
4. Colleagues with disabilities are
often excluded from conventional conferences. Imagine
being confined to a wheelchair: what would
a conventional conference be like? Even if you could travel, and even
if all rooms were accessible, it would still be
easier to meet the right people and have creative conversions at a
virtual conference. Disabled colleagues can give virtual
presentations and participate in virtual discussions on the same level
as everyone else.
In sum, conventional conferences unintentionally discriminate
against the young, the non-rich, the carers, and/or the disabled. The
underrepresentation of these minorities reduces their visibility, which
in turn reduces their influence -- creating a vicious circle that is
hard to break out of. Virtual conferencing solves the problem at one
stroke by allowing everyone to participate on an equal level.
Is a virtual conference hard
No. It is the other way around: conventional conferences are hard to
Conventional conference organizers have to
the money (a big task, usually)
food and refreshments
dinner, and excursion
a team of volunteers
virtual conference, participants can be
located anywhere, but most stay at home or go to their offices.
Therefore, organizers don't have to do any of the things in the
above list. They can instead focus
on the main aims of the conference:
Talks: high standards of content and
Discussions: clearly intelligible,
fast information flow, focus on issues of common interest
Personal contacts: bringing
together colleagues with similar interests and skills, interesting and
fun, formal and informal
Here is what an organizer of
a virtual conference really has to do. First, some things that happen
at both conventional and virtual conferences:
a regular peer-review procedure for submitted abstracts
a speech at the opening session, creating a friendly
a final discussion
the final session, boast about highlights, make wise observations, and
some things that happen only at virtual conferences:
to technical experts and currently available technical options
with every speaker in advance (test the connection using Zoom or
a student assistant set up diverse formal and informal meetings during
meetings, briefly poppinsg in and out (those that are open to all
the conference, make recorded videos available to all participants
it! Or did I forget something?
Options. Several two-way
audiovisual communication systems are available. Skype is the
best-known. Others include Zoom,
Jitsi, Skype for Business, WebEx, BlueJeans, Whereby. Each has
its own advantages and disadvantages.
Zoom has security issues (see
below) but also the following
high AV quality.
easy to use (intuitive).
option of sending computer sound from a Powerpoint file (when sharing
ppt, click on "share computer sound" in the lower left corner).
free version of Zoom is limited to 40 minutes, which is enough if your
timeslots are 30 minutes, although the number of participants
is also limited. You will probably need the cheapest Zoom
upgrade. At the time of writing
(2020 April), it cost than
20 Euros a month.
Rehearsal. Test the
electronic connection with all
confererence participants individually before the conference. Make sure
they are wearing a reasonable headset (cheap mobile phone headphones
may be good enough) and that they can turn the sound on and off. During
the rehearsal, both you and they should be using
same computer, headset, and any other equipment that will be used for
the conference. Both you and s/he should be in the same room,
using the same internet connections. Insist on that! For these
make a special program with 5-10 minutes per person. Everyone should
participate including those with
experience giving virtual talks, because during the
conference there will be no time to address technical problems.
AV quality. This depends on
internet speed at the sending and receiving end (not on the distance).
It may also depend on the number of streams happening in parallel in
your program, so you might need IT advice about that.
I recently enjoyed a Zoom
session with over 10 participants. I was in Europe
and the others were in Australia and Thailand. Both
sound and video were fine throughout. At other times I have had trouble
communicating with Australia, perhaps because the internet is slower
there than in Europe. Perhaps the internet is faster in some places
than others, or there is more traffic at certain times.
Security. Zoom claims to
be secure. In fact, there are
For that reason, some universities are not allowing it to be used. If
you use Zoom, remind all speakers to present as if their talk
was public. That includes avoiding copyright issues with images and
recorded sounds, and personal comments of any kind about anyone. But
they should do that anyway, because in truth no publicly available
AV communication system is completely secure.
Live streams. If a participant
from a country with especially slow
internet chooses to send a YouTube live stream, they will have to
do some extra work, but the organizer will not. Just rehearse in the
usual way. They will set up the
stream using OBS software as described here. If they
want the stream to be confidential, they will make it "unlisted"
(but again, you can't be sure that it will be secure). You
and other conference participants will simply watch the talk in a
browser. Two-way acoustic communication will not be possible, but
audience members can send written feedback and questions
time. They can do that in the chat area on the right side of the
YouTube screen provided they have a Google account. The
speaker will reply to these written questions acoustically. There
will be a time delay of 10 to 60 seconds.
Pre-recorded videos (more)
can be useful for people in countries with slow internet. Videos
can be followed
Q&A in Skype, perhaps using a telephone connection.
Otherwise the discussion can be written only, or a mixture of written
and AV. Every
participant can be offered the option of creating a video instead of
giving a zoom/skype talk. Perhaps videos should be submitted early so
organizers can check quality and make suggestions. A mixture of
different talk formats (live, delayed, recorded) makes for variety in
the program. A conference that comprises only videos might also be
interesting. After all, people attend festivals of short films,
while others watch strings of videos in Facebook and comment on them.
Requiring participants to make videos means the organisers don't have
to rehearse the connections for live talks. The downside is that many
will be either unwilling or unable to make a good video. The recordings
will be big files but participants can upload them to DropBox.
Organizers might decide to show them once only at a given
time, two times for people on both sides of the globe, any
time in a given period of days or weeks, or permanently on YouTube.
Cloud storage. Ask your
office to help you set up a password-protected information-storage
system such as Moodle or Microsoft Teams with a separate page for each
presentation. Participants should be
able to store information of any kind about themselves and their
presentation, including links to their live presentation and
video recording, plus contact details during the
mobile phone, skype). For smaller conferences, cloud storage may
not be necessary: just send the information to the participants by
It's always good to have a technical assistant. But if your conference
is relatively small, you might not need one. Technologies
like Zoom and Moodle are easy to use and the workload is
socializing happens in
coffee breaks at virtual and semi-virtual conferences. Any
participant can contact any other participant. In open meetings, anyone
any conversation. If people want private meetings, they can organize
Technology. At a fully virtual
conference in which participants are alone at home
or in their office, virtual socializing is easy. Just use Skype or one
of the alternatives. At a multi-hub conference that is spread
across hubs in different regions, virtual socializing needs to be set
up. It may involve a
separate conference room with many computers at each hub, each with
three sets of
headphones and one microphone.
conference program might include
discussion groups on specific topics
that anyone can join by clicking on a link
meetings between senior and junior participants
sessions where people can meet at random in groups of any size
a good idea to put someone in charge of virtual socializing. This
person might ask all participants for confidential information that
will help her or him match up people with similar interests. If people
don't like that, publicly available information can be used.
Virtual poster sessions are another
opportunity to socialize while at the same time getting to know new
research. Here's how a virtual poster session can be organized:
participants create posters in landscape format with computer-screen
proportions and space in the corner for their talking head.
poster authors 1-2 minutes each to talk live about their poster to
audience. During the talk they
should be able to zoom into different parts of the poster. (How can
that best be done?) If they prefer, they can
present a short video.
that, split into parallel discussions, one for each poster or small
group of posters. Any conference participant can join any
Beer. The beer at the end of the day
one of the nicest things about a
conventional conference. You can do it virtually, just as you can
have virtual coffee breaks with actual coffee. Create an evening
session called "Beer" and people will bring their beer. After a short
silence, someone will explain why she prefers the beer from her region.
Someone else will disagree, and after that the discussion will never
stop. If someone starts smoking, no problem.
Conventional conferences often have them. At a virtual conference,
willing participants can present virtual tours of their local city
region, showing images and talking about them.
Regional versus global conferences
Regional. A regional virtual
conference happens in usual working hours in a given
time zone. Participants from
outside that zone have to adjust accordingly. For example, a North
American conference could be organized relative to Central US Time. The
Californians would get up early; New Yorkers could sleep in. A European
conference could be organized relative to Central European Time; in
that case, the British and Portuguese would have to start earlier.
distance, participants in other time zones may find themselves working
at odd hours.
Global. Another option is a
24-hour, round-the-clock program, with participants or
locations spread around the globe. The main conference program can be
confined to the morning
and late afternoon or evening at each location, with a long lunch break
(siesta). Participants will communicate toward the East in the
morning and toward the West
in the afternoon/evening. That way, each participant can communicate
of the world in real time.
In the following 24-hour program sketch, the day is divided into
six 4-hour timeslots. The start of
each time-slot is marked in UTC, which is the same as GMT. For example,
(0) in the top left corner represents a timeslot lasting from 000 to
400 UTC, which is 1am-5am in London if the conference happens in
the Northern summer. The red timeslots
are for the regular conference program. The blue timeslots are
free time with no organized conference events. At each location, people
are active in two of the three red timeslots.
Working hours. The dark green
are working hours at each location in local time. In this plan,
London work from 9am to 1pm and from 5pm to 9pm (17-21h) daily.
to 5am, they miss the interesting things happening
on the other side of the world, but if all presentations at the
recorded, they can watch that content at other times. In general, those
who start at 7am will finish at 7pm, those who start at 8am will finish
at 8pm, and so on.
zones. This approach
divides the world into three broad time zones with the following
& Pacific: UTC 0 to 4 and 8 to 12 (Beijing +8, Tokyo +9, Sydney
UTC 8 to 12 and 16 to 20 (London +1, Vienna +2, Tel Aviv +3)
Americas: UTC 16 to 20 and 0 to 4
(Seattle -7, New York -4, Buenos
Timing ups and downs. Timing would
more convenient at some locations than others. In Mumbai and Buenos
Aires, according to
this plan, participants could
choose between an early-rising schedule
of 5-9am and 1-5pm daily or a lie-in schedule of 1-5pm and 9pm-1am
daily. If it's any comfort, no location in the world would be worse
than that, and the daily timeshift (whether forward or backward) would
be less than jetlag
after a typical long flight. Timing would be better, but still not
terribly convenient, in New York (-4) and Honolulu (-10).
The Pacific rim. The location
of these inconvenient local schedules is determined by the Pacific
Ocean. It is very wide, so locations on the Pacific rim are crucial.
The time difference between Sydney and Los Angeles is 7 hours in the
summer (if we ignore the International Date Line), which approximately
determines the entire program grid.
Another option. If the
above program was shifted to the left by one hour (everything
happening 1h earlier everywhere), colleagues in London would work 8-12h
and 16-20h local time, while colleagues in New York would work
11-15h and 19-23h. That would be better for them, but all of China
would now start at 7am. Chinese colleagues might nevertheless like
the idea of finishing earlier, at 7pm. Taking everything into
consideration, 1h earlier might be the best option, depending on
where participants are located.
An early start? At a virtual
conference, morning sessions can start earlier because people don't
have to have breakfast or travel to the conference venue
first. Similarly, evening sessions can end later because people
don't have to go home afterwards. That allows for a bit more
flexibility, and you don't have to worry about public transport
stopping in the evening. Summer time. I
have assumed that the conference will happen
in the summer in the Northern hemisphere. Times in the above figure
have been adjusted for
summer time using timeanddate.com. In the Northern winter, things look
a bit different. Note also that the time in Mumbai is 30 minutes
later than shown.
There are two kinds of break at a virtual conference:
social breaks for virtual
computer breaks, during which
everyone is encouraged to take a break from looking at their computer
each four-hour block, both kinds can be
scheduled simultaneously everywhere to maximize virtual contact
time and encourage
virtual socializing. Perhaps like this:
each 4-hour block into two 2-hour blocks.
2-hour block into 60 min work + 30 min social break + 30 min computer
60 minutes of work could be:
talks of 20 minutes in parallel sessions,
of 30 minutes in parallel sessions,
opening or closing session, or
A six-hour working day. The above
plan is for two 4-hour blocks per day at each location. But each block
would include two half-hour computer breaks, so we are talking
about 6 hours per day sitting in front of a computer. That might
seem like a lot, but many of us are doing more than that anyway. So it
is a matter of putting other stuff on hold -- as one does at a regular
conference. Those who
still have energy left after those six hours can check out AV
recordings of the interesting talks and other sessions they missed. The
truly keen will get up in the middle of
the night and explore what's happening on the other side of the
Recording and electronic
However the timetable is organized: If all talks are streamed
can be watched either in real time or later on as videos. That will
participants more access to content than they have at a
This will change the way we think about academic
literature and documentation. Traditionally, conference
documentation is confined to the program, abstracts, and proceedings.
In future, researchers will increasingly rely on recorded videos to
learn about the research of others and interact with each other.
Conference videos will also become an increasingly important resource
for students. After that conference, participants will put their videos
in the internet or link them to their homepages,
Why should we change? And what if there are disagreements?
Academic privilege. Academics can and should be social leaders,
inspiring others to try out
new perspectives and new ways of thinking. But many of us are still
stubbornly insisting on our “need” to meet
face-to-face over coffee, pretending that we are doing it for
“young scholars” when in fact we are talking about academic
privilege. Our real motivation, if we are honest about it, is the
enjoyment we get out of flying to
I certainly enjoy flying to conferences, or at least I used to until I
gave up in 2016 for environmental reasons. Since then I have
attended all kinds of interesting conferences by train and bus. At
those conferences I am still enjoying chatting over coffee.
There is nothing wrong with fun. But fun is not the main goal
here. The main goal is to do good research, and do it together. Still,
certainly helps to have fun, and there is no reason why it can't be fun
to communicate virtually. We have to be creative and try out new
Environmental ethics. Global
politics seem to be going downhill. Are academic standards also
slipping? Are we academics justifying our conference-culture
conservatism with logical fallacies and climate denial? Are we
willfully ignoring the devastating environmental consequences of our
emissions for young people?
To anyone who has read the main academic literature on climate change,
or at least the main IPCC summaries, or perhaps merely an everyday
independent newspaper, the answers to these questions are obvious. It
is obvious that climate change is an unprecedented global crisis and
that fundamental changes are urgently needed. It is obvious that
regular academic conferences are not important enough to justify
the amount of CO2 they generate. It is obvious that drastic changes in
conference culture are urgently necessary. Anyone who disagrees with
these claims is not expressing an opinion. He or she either uninformed
or lying. That, too, is obvious.
The fact is: we
can only afford to use fossil fuels to the extent that we can extract
the CO2 from the air. But first the CO2
concentration has to fall back in the direction of 350 parts per
million -- from the current level of over 410. This is the biggest
challenge that humanity every faced, which is why it is also the most
From an ethical viewpoint we may ask if we have a
“right” to chat with international colleagues at
conferences. If so, is that “right” more important
right to life of children in developing countries?
Is it more important than the survival of humanity? We might also ask
if anyone has the right to cause the death of anyone else, except in
urgent self-defence. Those might sound
like extreme comparisons, but they are
no surprise to climate scientists, or those who read the findings of
climate science and take them seriously. Carbon emissions really are a
matter of life and death for a billion people. And the answers to
questions of this kind really are blatantly obvious.
Life expectancies in developing countries are much
shorter than in industrialized
countries. That is a polite way of saying that even in the
absence of climate change
most children in developing countries will die early due to poverty.
Every year, three million children die of hunger. Climate
change means most children now living in developing countries will
die even earlier. We may be
reluctant to talk about this for fear of exposing our guilt. But if we
care about human rights, it is the main problem. Lest we forget.
billion children in developing countries will be existentially affected
if we academics fail to
our emissions and encourage people in other sectors such as
business and tourism to do likewise, and
that basis, push for urgent reductions in all fossil-fuel sectors
leading to the permanent closure of all coal mining, all oil drilling,
all tar sands, all fracking, all natural gas.
should we academics do that? I can think of several reasons:
academics enjoy an extended education that costs society a lot of
money. We have a moral obligation to give back to society.
extended education of academics helps us to understand climate
its consequences. We have a moral obligation to help others
access to big networks of researchers and students, which we can use
to inform the public about important issues.
belong to the top few percent of people worldwide in terms of financial
resources. We have a moral obligation to use those resources for the
belong to the top few percent of people in terms of personal carbon
emissions. Our moral obligation to reduce personal emissions is
flying has deadly consequences. For
every 1000 people who fly to an academic conference, burning a ton of
carbon each, one future person dies prematurely (more).
The total lifelong emissions caused directly or indirectly by an
average person in a
rich country are causing the suffering and perhaps premature death of
one or two future people in a
poor country (more).
Very approximately, the average person in a rich country (one of the
richest billion people in the world) is causing the future premature
death of one person in a poor country (one of the poorest billion). The
implications are even graver for those who fly more than average or
have more money than average, and most academics with reasonable job
security fall into both categories. Perhaps the most shocking thing
about this situation is the current failure of almost all academics to
acknowledge the deadly consequences of our activities.
time to turn this around. Virtual conferences during the
pandemic may be just what the doctor ordered. So let's take advantage
of the opportunity.
Conference organizers may be confronted with a tough choice
between canceling a conference and going virtual. But they are seldom
position to decide alone. Instead, they have to negotiate with
colleagues involved in the conference. Often this includes the
executive committee of the academic society presenting the conference.
Decisions by committees tend to be conservative. The average committee
member is naturally cautious when it comes to trying out new things.
Conference organizers who are convinced that a virtual conference is
the right path to follow may have to patiently and respectfully talk to
colleagues -- again and again, if necessary. With the
best of intentions, those colleagues will often seem to be ignoring the
facts or pretending not to understand.
A famous person once said that democracy is the worst form of
government except for all the others. Often responsibility for the
success of a conference rests heavily on the shoulders of one person
who has volunteered or been appointed to organize it. When that person
plausibility takes responsibility for a decision to go virtual, it may
be possible to do so even if a majority of responsible committee
members disagree. Those who disagree may consent to an
"experiment" provided the organizer takes responsibility for
Progressive organizers can always advance the following arguments:
difficult to evaluate a new conference format without actually
experiencing it. Therefore, we need to try out new formats to find out
what is best for the future. After that, evaluate. If we don't try it,
we'll never know.
times they are a'changin. The conference after the next one will be
different again. We don't yet know if a new "tradition" will emerge.
Meanwhile, it is more important to respond to the needs of the present.
conferences often appeal to colleagues who cannot attend conventional
conferences for financial and other reasons. Those colleagues are often
not represented on committees that make decisions about conferences. In
this situation, democracy means considering the needs and wishes of:
colleagues from non-rich countries
colleagues with caring commitments, and
colleagues with disabilities.
conference organizers can be sure of getting long-term
support from these four groups. When they experience the
advantages of virtual conferencing and ask for more, there will be no
Climate change and academic conference culture is a big
topic. I have only scratched the surface here. For further information,
check out the large and growing
literature in Google
Scholar. I recently published twopapers.
There are also campaigns for academics to flyless.
The opinions expressed on
this page are the
opinions. Readers who know and care about this topic are asked to
contact the author with suggestions for
improving or extending the content:
parncutt at gmx dot at. Back