How about alternating online and travel conferences?


Now that many of us know what an online conference is like, it appears there’s increased demand for more of then. I would presume that, as societies get more experience running these conferences, they’ll become even more engaging and more accessible.

Here’s an idea for discussion: What do you think about alternating online and in-person conferences?

Online conferences have a lot of positives. They don’t require the carbon and time of travel, and make it easier for people caring for families to participate. They cost less. Asynchronous presentations mean that you don’t have to worry about missing talks that are in different rooms at the same time. It might be easier to bring people from different fields to facilitate interdisciplinary cross-fertilization.

For some, online conferences are more accessible. For others, in-person conferences offer more accessibility.

I like the idea biennial in-person conferences because this will make them more of an occasion. There are some folks who don’t go to the conference every single year because that’s just too (and that is often me), but if the meetings are less frequent, then is there a better chance of seeing the people that you’d like to see? (I don’t know how true this is, and this is one key piece of data that would inform and decision. If attendance doesn’t go up when you switch from annual meetings to biennial meetings, that’s a problem.)

I wonder if biennial meetings of US-based societies would bring more international folks. (Though I understand how particularly at this time what with the raging pandemic and the xenophobia and the nationalism, folks are wise to stay away.)

Also, societies that have overlapping membership bases might choose their biennial schedule so that there’s an in-person conference every year. For example, the taxon-oriented societies could alternate with the disciplinary-based societies. So one year, the ornithologists, ichythologists, entomologists, botanists, and mycologists can meet in person, and the other year, the ecologists, the evolutionary biologists, the physiologists, and animal behaviorists can do their thing. (One summer, I somehow made plans to go to four conferences. It sort of made sense at the time, as two were back to back in an absolutely wonderful location, but it still might not have been a good idea.)

I realize that online conferences don’t work well for some people. I’m one of them. I feel that the online meeting was a poor substitute for what I would have gotten out of traveling to the meeting. A lot of what I get out of meetings happens in the hallways and the interstitial moments between sessions and organized conversations. I get to spend time with people in person in a way that isn’t really replaced with yet more video chats. Some of the most productive collaborations and relationships emerge organically from an unplanned interaction, and there’s not nearly as much of this in online conferences. (I also have had a lot of personal matters interfering with my time, and I might not even have been able to travel to the meeting this summer anyway, so perhaps the online meeting let me attend more than I would have otherwise?)

It’s not easy to attend a conference from the comfort of my own home or even my own office at the university. When I am able to carve time away from other responsibilities to go to a conference in another town, that gives me the latitude to focus on the conference. I’ve had a similar issue when attending in-person conferences in my own city — I’m still at home during the meeting, which means I don’t really have the chance to fully engage with the meeting.

But I do see that the online conferences have been positive for lots of other people, and if we can adopt an approach to conferences that is more inclusive and accessible, that’s something we should talk about, right?

4 thoughts on “How about alternating online and travel conferences?

  1. Yes, there are pros and cons, and as the author puts it, we can’t get in the tempo of the conference unless we reach the venue. So true! One downside of the meetings online is interaction. No doubt we reduce the carbon print and have the comfort of attending from our work-place/ online; however, the series of interactions is limited online. Say you asked a question. The speaker discussed it briefly, and then someone from the audience says something connected/ contradictory. Now you want to add something. Precisely at this juncture, you are reluctant because other members online also need to pitch in. A situation like this makes a participant hesitant to go forth with the discussion, but this is not an issue in offline meetings. Of course, this could be subjective.

  2. Yes, I agree, until we have VR on-line is a reasonable stop-gap but misses out on what I actually to to conferences for, which isn’t generally the talks :-)

    • just to clarify – my problem with the talks is not the quality (these days they are so much better than when I first started going to conferences in the late 1970s) but about the content, most are either about topics that are in press or repeats (and I can understand this attitude in ECRs who don’t want to give others a chance to scoop their ideas or in disciplines where experiments take days father than months/years – many years ago, I made the decision that I would only ever speak about unpublished data or to see what people thought about an idea I had. So for me, like Terry, the point of conference are the interactions in the bar, breakfast, lunch in passing or round the book displays :-)

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