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Is this the end for academic conferences?

The coronavirus crisis has proved traditional academic conferences are no longer essential – and that’s a good thing, argues Professor Craig Jackson

The traditional academic conference, typified by a few days overseas in a venue where experts of varying levels present their work in time-limited and parallel competing sessions, is flabby and past its best.

Being charitable, conferences were once vital in the dissemination of knowledge, but now represent a relic of a previous privileged academic system, used as a badge of importance by those types who ‘play the game’.

The coronavirus pandemic and the cessation of international travel has highlighted that traditional conferences are no longer essential to the research agenda of academics and may become but a sideshow. We seem to be managing without them, thank you.

Conferences might be fun for some (certainly not all) and attendance at such can be about reputation and reward as much as anything else, but they are weak vessels for the sharing and dissemination of ideas. Conference (scientific) panels are more concerned in securing speakers who will definitely turn up than about ensuring the quality of their contributions.

Conference attendance is something academics may feel is due to them from their host university, as part-reward and part-acknowledgement of how clever and special they are

We operate in a research world of small incremental gains and changes, and rarely will any of us be at a conference to witness the modern-day equivalent of atom-splitting. Conference attendance is something academics may feel is due to them from their host university, as part-reward and part-acknowledgement of how clever and special they are. This may become more pronounced in seasoned senior academics and the overlap between professor and diva may, yet again, be quite substantial.

This view is not that of an envious outsider, having attended dozens of international conferences in my academic career, all paid for by other people (as there is always a budget for health and safety).

While there is nothing as glamorous as traveling the world, staying in hotels and dining out on somebody else’s peso, everything has to be atoned for. Conferences are wasteful of money, resources, time, effort and talent.

Many early career academics are led, thanks to crafty conference marketing, to the unrealistic beliefs that attendance at the ‘right conference’ could make or break their careers. They can be divisive and inequitable, and may prevent true collaborative work from happening within academic laboratories and departments.

In defence of conferences, many may remember their own feelings of enthusiasm encountered at conferences, and perhaps even a touch of inspiration while there too, and the determination to then follow such ideas up when back home. However, the realities and vagaries of modern academic life rarely allow the time needed to follow up such enthusiasm. As a form of knowledge exchange, conferences are inefficient.

If the last defence of conferences is that they “teach networking skills” then that is a weak pitch

The effort spent by organisers, delegates, and presenters often goes way beyond whatever might be recognised by university workload allocations, as there is more background effort required than is acknowledged. Travel risk assessments and insurance all add to such costs.

In addition, the vast number of university administrative staff who typically arrange conference travel and accommodation bookings (because academics are either incapable/too lazy/or not to be trusted with credit cards), typically through university-affiliated travel providers with inflated prices and non-eco-friendly practices, could surely be doing better and more rewarding things.

The working hours that go into conference attendance are wasteful, especially when considering what the ‘return’ is for the attendance. If the last defence of conferences is that they “teach networking skills” then that is a weak pitch.

Conference mechanisms still exude exclusionary practise and do not encourage wider participation, as there are so many prohibitive factors to joining in: the time needed to attend; the cost of accommodation and travel; getting cover at work; caring/family responsibilities; those with mobility and disability issues; and people suffering from social anxieties or communication/developmental disorders who find such gatherings intolerable.

The days when academics and researchers would ‘unveil’ their discoveries and findings to an audience of eminent people in the field is long-gone

Conferences have never been synonymous with the concept of work-life balance either. In an age where widening participation is a core business principle, it is a wonder that conferences get away with operating at all. With researchers and academics fuelled by enthusiasm for MS Teams and Zoom since their recent widespread introduction, and the vast opportunities for efficient collaboration they bring, more conference organisers should move online.

Online conferences can be monetised and sponsored if they must, but even then, a simple cost-benefit analysis comparison of traditional versus digital conferences would reveal better value and greater impact than traditional conferences yield.

The days when academics and researchers would “unveil” their discoveries and findings to an audience of eminent people in the field is long-gone.

Researchers are more likely to learn of new developments in their field from online services than learning of it at a conference. Ground-breaking developments in the Covid-19 vaccine made by Oxford University were tweeted by the journalist Robert Peston days before being announced in The Lancet.

Conferences are not cutting-edge – they are at the bottom of the information chain.


Craig Jackson is professor of occupational health psychology at Birmingham City University

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