Conferences, Covid, Climate

by John Q on July 28, 2022

As borders reopen and Covid-related restrictions are relaxed, lots of academics are celebrating the return of in-person conferences. I’m not one of them. Although I miss a lot of aspects of conferences, I’ve tried to avoid indoor meetings since the pandemic began, and there’s no reason to change that yet. And with the climate disaster getting worse all the time, I want to minimise, or at least reduce, air travel.

Another problem, raised by Chris on Twitter recently, is that it’s become much more difficult for researchers from Africa and Asia to get access to conferences held in Europe and North America. One possible response would be to move the conferences to more generally accessible locations, but there aren’t many without problems of some kind.

At least for the moment, the most compelling argument in support of in-person conferences is that they provide junior researchers with the opportunity to establish contact with potential co-authors, future employers and so on. But, as with the “water cooler conversations” advanced as a reason for going back to the office, this is a serendipitous by-product of a costly process, rather like the non-stick frypans supposedly delivered by the US space program. Could we get the same benefits more directly.

The contact problem doesn’t really arise for established researchers. If I want to make contact with someone doing related research, I send them an email and suggest we open a discussion. That doesn’t always work (people are busy, and have different interests) but the same is true if you approach someone in person at a conference.

The difficulty for junior researchers is one of social convention. It’s much more socially acceptable to chat to a more senior colleague at a conference where you are both presenting than to cold-call them with an unsolicited email. But social conventions aren’t set in stone. As the social cost of in-person conferences goes up, and the benefits (relative to remote presentations) decline, it’s time to think about alternative ways of delivering those benefits.

Suppose we were starting from scratch, with today’s technological possibilities and constraints, and thinking about how to start and sustain collegial contact between researchers from different locations. How would we go about it? The first requirement, I think, would be an explicit norm that participating in an online meeting includes an obligation to be available to talk to junior researchers. One way might be to replace the current model of talk+discussant with something like talk+panel discussion. Perhaps presenters could nominate preferred discussants and a matching algorithm could be used.

We could also think about changes that could be made at the university level, such as explicit acknowledgement of interaction with developing country colleagues. This seems like it would be easy to sell to university administrators – no cost to them, and it would look good on the annual report. The harder bit would probably be to get academics to treat it as more than another exercise in box-ticking.

Note: Oddly enough, as I was writing this, I received an invitation to attend a conference in Perth where PhD students present their work, and get comments from established researchers. That encapsulates many of the difficulties I’ve discussed above. Still thinking about it.



Matt 07.28.22 at 10:59 am

The norm changes you mention would be welcome and are not unreasonable, but even if fully implemented wouldn’t really come close to replacing in-person contact, I think. I think of two different events I “took part in” in Oxford, for examples. One recent one was a workshop for a book about internally displaced persons. This was meant to be a hybrid event, but ended up being mostly on-line, with basically only people very local to Oxford “in person” and everyone else (including me) on-line. Papers were shared beforehand. The other event was for a workshop for papers on a volume on the philosophical foundations of family and childrens’ law, also in Oxford. (This took place several years earlier.) Here, the large majority of the authors met in person in Oxford, and some other researchers from Oxford came as well. We also again read the papers before meeting in person. There were very major difference, that the norm changes suggested here wouldn’t really change.

To start from a fairly banal point, given that I was in Australia, I could take part in only a very small percentage of the workshop because of the time difference. This was a problem (though somewhat smaller) for some others, too. So, it was impossible to take part in most of the discussion. No norm changes can overcome this.

Next, in the earlier case, discussion went on well beyound the sessions. We spoke between papers, at lunch, at dinner, at breakfast, etc. Of course, in person discussion is also easier, but in these cases it could go on much longer. This is perhaps especially important in cases where we might want to think over points, discuss them, reflect, and repond. This is, at least, much harder on-line than in person, especially given the sort of fatigue that comes from extended on-line time. I don’t see the difference in quality of discussion as mearly being a matter of trying.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do more things on line than we have in the past, or try to change things to make on-line interactions better, but it seems pretty clear to me that in-person events have imporant advantages that just can’t be replicated on-line, and we also shouldn’t pretent that that’s not so.


SamChevre 07.28.22 at 12:48 pm

We are dealing with possibly-related challenges in the business/professional world. As someone who has been trying to figure out what tends to happen in-person but not remotely since well before COVID, here are a few observations for which I do not have fully-complete responses.

The overall theme is that clear, well-aligned work goes well virtually; the kinds of informal, “O, that’s interesting–I wonder if it’s aligned with XYZ” conversations that sustain a common culture, and lead to synergistic insights and work, are the more challenging part. If I’m working on project X, and so is Jo, I can call her up easily. If I’m working on project X, and Rajiv is working on Project Y, and if we worked together we could avoid problem Z–those cases seem to come up naturally when we’re all in the same building, and to require a lot more deliberate planning and time when we’re both working remotely.

One item my teams have found invaluable is some amount of deliberately unstructured time: every 2 weeks, we’re going to spend a half-hour chatting about what’s going on in general. This doesn’t fully fill the role of running into people over lunch, or coffee–but it definitely helps.


Brett 07.28.22 at 3:39 pm

I figured the main reason for shifting back to in-person conferences was to get people to just show up for them. Stealth vacation and all that.


Sashas 07.28.22 at 5:28 pm

I support reimagining academic conferences, and I think what you’ve written here is basically on target.

One question I have is how would you want matchmaking done if it had to be done by hand? Any matchmaking algorithm is going to replicate the biases of its creators while providing at best the illusion of objectivity.


John Quiggin 07.28.22 at 7:04 pm

Sasha @4 I wrote a bit about algorithms and “algorithms” a while back

Matching algorithms are real algorithms with well-defined mathematical properties, unlike the “algorithms” that are now in vogue.

That doesn’t mean that they are “objective”, in the sense of being independent of the designers wishes. After all, the input data is people’s wish to meet each other. But the goal being maximised is explicit, unlike with “algorithms”


John Quiggin 07.28.22 at 7:07 pm

Matt @1 “To start from a fairly banal point, given that I was in Australia, I could take part in only a very small percentage of the workshop because of the time difference.”

That’s true, as I’ve experienced also. OTOH, the number of in-person conferences Australians can go to is very limited.


faustusnotes 07.28.22 at 11:32 pm

Speaking as someone who has attended a lot of conferences, I think they’re a scam that entrench inequality, which I had hoped the pandemic would end.

First I think they were introduced by a clique of white male academics at a time when grant funding was loosely monitored and easily available as a way of burning public money on travel to fancy places. That generation could bring their wives, fly business, stay extra days and take side trips. Now that generation are in senior admin roles, grant money is tighter and more carefully monitored, and we the gen that follow them are not allowed any of their luxuries but still have to go to conferences. I am not allowed even one day off after the conference, have strict rules on hotel and flight purchases, and I know my Chinese colleagues have it even worse. The generation who invented and enjoyed conferences are making sure they don’t let those who follow enjoy them, while keeping them as a fixture in the academic calendar.

For junior colleagues it’s true they offer opportunities, but junior faculty also have much more restricted grant access (or none) and for them the cost of conferences now competes directly with open access publishing costs (another scam, obviously). Japan’s grant system is fairer than some countries so junior faculty have a good chance of getting funds but they will be small – perhaps a million yen a year or less. From this they have to somehow finance open access publications + conference + sundry gear. Previous generations of academics got their equipment supplied by the uni and didn’t have to pay open access fees. THe balance is different and the opportunity cost of conference attendance is higher.

While it’s true that the personal contact of conferences can be a benefit it’s highly contingent. The kind of “networking” that is done at conferences is the sort of interaction that is easy for the privileged white children of academics who’re used to marching up to strangers to talk under the belief that the whole world wants to hear what they have to say, but for those of us who entered academia from lower backgrounds it’s painful. I’m not shy, I can comfortably break the ice with strangers in settings as diverse as kickboxing gyms in a foreign language or role-playing groups, but I find networking in conferences extremely painful and low reward, and I think this is because of my background. Of course conferences are also sexual harassment and discrimination zones, where there is very little accountability (since you’re meeting people outside of your employer’s site, so you have no recourse against handsy people), and this was part of their charm to the older men who established the system but very offputting for junior colleagues who don’t have the ability to push back against aggressive panel behavior, octopoid tendencies at receptions, or late night room invitations. We all know the stories, and I think they’re hard to stop in such uncontrolled settings.

Finally, visa privilege is a huge issue (not first raised on twitter by Chris!) that researchers from low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) have been complaining about vocally. We are seeing this play out now with the International AIDS Society conference in Canada. HIV predominantly affects countries in the “global south” but researchers from those countries have failed to get visas for Canada and won’t be there to discuss the disease that mostly affects their countries. It can take >1 year to get a visa processed for the USA for people from these countries, so they realistically cannot register or present at conferences. I have a Bangladeshi colleague with a full-time academic position at Japan’s most prestigious uni who was refused a visa for a conference in Oz before the pandemic. Global health researchers from these countries have been demanding that global and public health conferences never be held in Europe, the US, Canada or Australia, but of course they keep being held there.

So now we have the situation where conferences about diseases affecting poor countries are venues for researchers from rich countries to speak; and open access journals which researchers in poor countries can read but can’t afford to publish in have become a venue for people from rich countries to tell people from poor countries what to do.

I have attended a couple of conferences and training courses online since the pandemic began and a few noticeable points about them are that a) they attract more junior faculty and students, b) they have larger attendance c) there is no harassment, bullying or sexual harassment. Plus of course you won’t get infected with a disease that kills you and your grandparents, and you won’t have to burn your grant funds on a trip to a foreign city you won’t have time to see.

I do agree that in-person interaction is important, and navigating this in our day jobs has been a challenge, but I really think an alternative to in-person conferences is a benefit for everyone. The time zone is an issue, but I think it’s no more of an issue than the fact (as John points out above) that a junior researcher can’t afford to travel across time zones. For me, for example, in Japan, conferences in south america are out of the question – it’s an enormous journey, and I simply am not interested in sitting on a plane for 18 -24 hours to attend a 3 day conference and then have to come straight back. Even more so for Aussies attending conferences in Europe, what a drag.

One solution would be to hold all such conferences in a few convenient cities – Dubai and Addis Ababa spring to mind – but that would mean releasing the stranglehold the old white men have on academic progression, so it won’t happen.

Until it does let’s just bin the whole thing!


Sashas 07.29.22 at 4:34 am

@John Quiggin I think we’re on the same page about the differences between algorithms and “algorithms”, and I agree that we’re talking about the former in this case.

That said, the well known and well defined common matching algorithms were actually what I had in mind when I made my initial comment. If I understand your proposal correctly, you’re suggesting that junior researchers nominate senior researchers that they would like to have a (structured?) conversation with, and then the algorithm is applied. So far so good, but even the best senior scholars only have so much time to talk, and so what happens when more people want to talk to Mark Guzdial than he can possibly talk to is a policy choice that we would have to write into the algorithm. (Using Mark as a real world example here because as far as I can tell he already goes out of his way to be available to junior researchers in my field, and indeed runs out of hours in the day as a result.)

Here’s a possible framework that I might pursue: Primary goals are to (A) help junior researchers network for possible job and collaboration opportunities, and (B) help strengthen the community by ensuring introverts doing related work actually talk to each other. Junior scholars may flag senior scholars that they would be interested in having a conversation with, may rank a preference order, and may also indicate senior scholars that they would not want to have a conversation with. There is an expectation that each junior scholar will have a conversation with somebody through this mechanism. (If significant numbers of junior scholars flag a particular senior scholar as a “no way”, this should automatically trigger an investigation of that scholar’s conduct.) They would also indicate a discussion topic and format they’d be interested in. Options for format would be 1-1 conversation, 2-person panel discussion, larger panel discussion (which if accepted they would collaboratively recruit the rest of the panel), and some flavor of “please attend my talk” probably with a 1-1 afterward. Senior scholars should indicate how many of these conversations they have the bandwidth for. The matching proceeds with the junior scholars as the “offerer” side and the senior scholars as the “responder” side. Since the line between junior and senior can get blurry, I would actually allow junior scholars to select anyone they want to nominate, and I would allow any scholar to submit such a request.

I hope that provides enough detail to start picking apart. I can already think of questions to raise about my own proposal, but hopefully this provides some ideas to chew on.


Neville Morley 07.30.22 at 8:02 am

One immediate thought: how much are we talking about any sort of academic get-together, and how much about the big (sometimes enormous) meetings of professional organisations with hundreds of papers on scores of themes? The latter seem very vulnerable indeed to the sorts of issues faustusnotes raises, not least the accusation of self-indulgence; smaller events focused in a specific topic for people working in that specific area might be more defensible – but are arguably much worse for junior researcher networking opportunities, as to some extent you need already to be networked to know about such events or get an invitation.

This is an important question, which I’m worrying about a lot at the moment as I’m coordinating a project proposal for a funding scheme that is expressly about international cooperation – which immediately raises problems of what events are needed and how to manage them. One of my collaborators is from West Africa, and for multiple reasons it makes sense to organise a meeting there; it’s interesting that this feels like something that is more environmentally costly than doing it in the UK, presumably because I’ll be doing the travelling, whereas I think we can at least make it no worse than that. But clearly this will be completely inaccessible for most ECRs, even if (as I’ve done in the past) I make an effort to advertise it, offer travel bursaries etc.

For what it’s worth, I wrote a couple of blog posts on related topics over the course of the plague, here and here.


novakant 07.30.22 at 8:25 pm

Whenever I hear about academic conferences I have to think of“. Nice work if you can get it and no way I would give that up.


novakant 07.30.22 at 8:35 pm

But more seriously, yeah, the climate – maybe there’s a way to offset the emissions. In the grand scheme of things a few academics flying around the world is no big deal and where do we stop? Should academics not study, teach or research abroad and stay in their countries? Of course there is the problem of equal treatment, but the value of international cooperation (not only in academia) and cultural exchange might outweigh the problems caused.


John Quiggin 07.30.22 at 8:37 pm

@Novakant I’m a big fan too


Alex SL 07.30.22 at 9:18 pm

How quickly it has become a tradition:

1) People celebrating “finally we can see each other in person again!” both on social media and in the opening speeches of a conference.

2) Perhaps a quarter of the delegates wear masks.

3) Two days after the conference, the email from organisers to all delegates that says somebody was there who, it turns out, had Covid at the time. Please monitor for symptoms.

4) Three to four days after the conference, the social media posts and emails from individual delegates who say, “after avoiding Covid for 2.5 years, I now got it at this conference”, plus photo of positive RAT.

Maybe it is my lack of perspective, because as a mid-career researcher I don’t feel a lot of trepidation contacting others where necessary and I have no problem whatsoever with ECRs contacting me, but the main problems IMO are, first, that people just enjoy in-person conferences so much and, second, that several important meetings in the last few months that I just had to be part of didn’t provide a virtual option. Reasonable organisers can do something about the latter (and wouldn’t it be nice if they at least implemented a mask mandate?), but the former would require an enormous cultural shift.


Alex SL 07.30.22 at 9:27 pm

For the record, by the way, the main conference in my calendar is an annual, regional one (Australasia), organised by a society, and it used to have 100-120 delegates when held in-person before the pandemic. The first virtual instance last year had >200 delegates.

The organisers used a software that allowed a lot of virtual interaction in small groups, visualising break-out rooms as little tables where you could see the portrait photos of the people at a table and join them. Not cheap compared to merely using Zoom, but much cheaper than renting a conference centre and having everybody fly in.


Michael Cain 07.31.22 at 9:32 pm

Sigh… It’s been a very frustrating 2.5 years for me. Not for the same reasons generally quoted, but because almost 30 years ago I was doing in-house research on multi-party multi-media real-time communications over IP protocols. I was interested in how different media could/should be used, and the kinds of signaling protocols necessary. Academic-style conferences was one of the mental models I worked with. Two things that came out of the work: lots of stuff was much easier if IP multicast was available for the transport, and the really interesting problem was the added signaling protocols needed to make the interactions work properly.

It wasn’t ever going to be as good as the real thing, but it could be pretty good. What I really find frustrating is that (a) we’ve let the commercial internet service providers avoid deploying multicast and (b) 30 years later online conferences should be enormously better than what we have.


Moz in Oz 08.02.22 at 2:46 am

novakant: In the grand scheme of things a few academics flying around the world is no big deal

Counterpoint: if academics who by their profession live at the bleeding edge of what’s possible can’t do it, what hope for the rest of us? I still recall a few years ago Yol Strengers flew from Australia to Europe to present a paper on using videoconferencing to replace in-person presentation at conferences. When I asked why it was impossible to present it via videoconference she made some weak excuse then blocked me (on TheConversation).

Someone has to lead by example, and we have obviously ruled out political leaders, business leaders, and climate activists. And now academics in general. So my question is really: who should reduce their emissions, if anyone? And if not by eliminating unnecessary flying, what?


Moz in Oz 08.02.22 at 2:56 am

I’ve never really been an academic, and when I was studying it was email and newsgroups rather than any of this modern kerfuffle. But I still somehow managed to connect with people I’ve never met, and publish a paper with someone who had no idea who I was but thought my ideas were interesting. An Australian academic recently invited me onto their podcast on the same basis… apparently that still happens.

I find that online communication is something you can learn, and for many of us it’s preferable in many ways*. As faustnotes points out, it’s easier to defend yourself against bad actors online, and easier to complain about them when you have a record of every interaction. But it’s also easier to think through what you’re saying, and re-read what’s said to make sure you’re not missing something important. It’s also easier to ask for 30s of someone’s time to present an idea, and have them ignore it if they’re so inclined… but also to have them dash off “tell me more” much more easily than trying to track them down at a conference and find space for a two minute chat with exchange of contact details.

With video calls I struggle to see the point. But since I rarely look at faces and video calls generally don’t show body language I would say that, wouldn’t I. OTOH I watch recorded video at 2x speed and find real-time, unscripted waffling and mumbling boring in the extreme. Even 2x is far inferior to reading unless the emotional content is a key part of what’s being conveyed (AFAIK this would be extremely unusual in an academic context).

I’d also like to take the opportunity to throw the “better communication skills” back in the faces of those who complain that I don’t make eye contact or pick up on social cues… “what’s wrong with you that online communication is so bafflingly impossible?”


Michael Cain 08.03.22 at 2:07 am

…video calls generally don’t show body language…

:^) One of the things that we found in the research we did almost 30 years ago was that in several settings, users quickly relegated the video medium to a body-language signaling channel. Relatedly, from an implementation perspective, you could do almost anything to the video quality so long as it remained crisp and ran at 13-15 frames per second. Because of the hardware limits of the day, at one point I had quite small video windows that used only black or white dots but managed 15 fps. You could push an amazing amount of body language through that. The human vision system is wonderfully adaptive.

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