Academic conferences in the year 2020

A rant on academic conferences and how they could be revolutionised to better fit this ever-changing world.

March 8, 2020

I am not travelling to any conference outside of Sweden this year (for a variety of unrelated reasons), but the recent news on the global outbreak of COVID-19 and the ongoing discussion (especially on Twitter) on how this affects academics made me think.

The initial trigger was actually listening to episode 368 of the ATP podcast, where they discuss large shows and tech conferences (e.g. SXSW, Google I/O) being cancelled as a precautionary measure. The main point emerging from their conversation is simple: paraphrasing, conferences benefit most young professionals that need to create their network of connections with industry and peers. Seasoned attendants, on the other hand, are likely to already have an established network; as the ATP hosts discuss, this group of people ends up hanging out with their friends and colleagues, not having to worry about nurturing their social network.

Notice any parallel with academia?

I certainly do. As a junior academic, I always found that sharing my current work, networking, practising my dissemination skills are the key aspects of attending conferences. And let’s not forget the it looks good on your CV aspect: we all want to have the had oral presentation at big conference line on our resume.


Here’s the catch: I believe that the current system is fundamentally flawed and stuck in the past.

The world is rapidly changing, academia itself is rapidly changing. Conferences need to keep up and update their format to stay modern and relevant.

The words of Marco Arment in ATP 368 translate very well to academia:

“If you think about it, that whole system is incredibly inefficient and exclusionary.”

– Marco Arment

We have the opportunity (and the responsibility) to fix this.

Let’s talk inefficiency.

Forcing hundreds (if not thousands) of people to converge to a single location is clearly not sustainable, it’s just not good for the environment. I love seeing conferences trying to be more carbon-neutral and trying to quantify the environmental impact of such large gatherings of people (e.g. useR! 2019), and I see an ever-increasing awareness among attendants trying to forgo air travel whenever possible.

Unfortunately, this is not the panacea we are desperately looking for: it can mitigate the carbon footprint, sure, but it just cannot be enough on its own. And of course, embracing alternative transportation methods is not always feasible. Sorry, Australia.

Not too long ago I was discussing on Twitter about optimising the location of the conference. The idea is neat, but unfortunately, this is not a travelling salesman problem. It is really hard to find the place™ that would minimise the distance that attendants would have to cover, and on top of that, wouldn’t this turn Iceland into the promised land of optimal conferences given its location between the two large masses of people in Europe and North America?

This would be extremely bad in terms of inclusivity: good luck getting people outside of those two continents to attend any conference.

Let’s talk exclusivity then.

Attending conferences is an expensive business!

Generally speaking, travelling and accommodation contribute most to the overall cost. I have been lucky enough to always have funding and bosses paying for my travels, but I reckon this is not the case everywhere. Let’s be realistic: if I had to pay for any of the conferences out of my own pocket, I probably wouldn’t have been able to attend any.

I am very glad to see reduced rates and financial support often available for students and participants from developing countries, but once again: this is not enough. And on top of that, I am sure this contributes to the inefficiencies that we talked about before. We can do better than that.

The solution™

Here it goes: I think we should aim to have distributed conferences.

Imagine local conference hubs where people converge, with keynotes being streamed over the internet (we have the technology for that!) and local events for people attending conferences in person. Once again, the R community is leading with the useR! 2020 European Hub; I did not do my research, so I might have missed some other examples.

This year we should be observing what big tech companies (such as Apple and Google) are going to do, as they still have to run their conferences for developers. And we should try to copy it: streamed sessions, keynotes, and all that goes with it.

Let’s talk about the benefits of such a system. I can see several:

  1. Less travelling for everyone involved;
  2. More opportunities for local sponsorships, and no need to rent massive conference centres anymore (which means less costly conferences!);
  3. You get to network with people geographically close to you (and one could argue that is the most relevant people to network with anyway);
  4. Last but not least, it would allow more and more people to contribute to the bleeding edge academic discourse. In other words, increased inclusivity and representation.

Small conferences are awesome (and generally cheap): think about EuroCIM and SAfJR, for instance.

Of course, there are issues: logistics, time zones, and so on. But think about it: pyjama parties to watch keynotes at academic conferences, wouldn’t that be cool? I would totally be up for that, and I am only partially joking.

Another issue I see is strictly connected to the local nature of distributed conferences: you don’t get to network with people from other hubs, at least not in person. That does not have an easy solution, at least nothing that comes easily to my mind. Online networking helps, but cannot fully replace in-person interactions, not in these settings.

Ellie Murray happened to talk about this yesterday:

I do feel that way (having moved around quite a bit for studies and jobs), and always enjoy meeting fellow students and friends that I do not see often at conferences. I recommend checking out the whole thread on Twitter, there are several excellent replies that I am not going to summarise here.

Anyway, time to wrap up.

I am sure that organising distributed conferences is not a perfect idea, somebody else would have already done it otherwise. I am no genius here, and I am surely missing something.

I am also sure that my point of view is flawed by my area of research, but nevertheless, I think several other areas might benefit from this revolution. The goal here is to spark a discussion: we shouldn’t be afraid of challenging the established system, and we all should feel free to discuss how to improve our field (academia) as a whole.

Apologies if I missed something obvious, this turned out to be a bit of a rant with not much structure. I am eager to hear your thoughts, and I am going to summarise this post on Twitter. Join the conversation!