Benefits of virtual conferences for ecology and conservation research

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Note: This is a guest post by Lauren Kuehne and co-authors of Kuehne et al. 2022.

Hot on the heels of Catherine Scott’s excellent post in early February, where she summarized Skiles et al. 2021 on how virtual conferences shifted conference attendance, we want to share a brand new article in Conservation Biology related to the same topic. In it, myself and 13 colleagues in the aquatic sciences outline why we think scientists should critically consider virtual conferences not as a stopgap measure, but one that can transform research networks, accelerate knowledge sharing, confront sustainability challenges, and better reflect the global nature of environmental research. 

Science may be driven by ideas, but is also highly relational, reflecting our collaboration networks, or who is working with whom. In the “before times” prior to the pandemic, in-person conferences were a default mode of building and maintaining our research networks and relationships. Professional societies (like American Biological Society, American Geophysical Union, or American Chemical Society) connect their members and advance science within the field, and annual conferences are anchor events for most societies. For established researchers, conferences are a chance to refresh knowledge, get inspired, share work, exchange ideas, catch up with colleagues and make new connections. For student researchers, conferences are an important entry point into collaboration, networking, and sharing new research. 

It has long been clear that in-person conferences were inaccessible to many, but the barriers became more starkly apparent when COVID forced a rapid shift to virtual formats1,2. Organizers of virtual conferences have consistently reported higher numbers of attendees, and from more countries, than in-person conferences. Sarabipour (2020) showed an increase in the number of participants and countries represented – sometimes up to 10-fold1 (Figure 1). Attendance by student and early career researchers, and scientists from Low-to-Middle-Income Countries went up1,2.

Figure 1 from Sarabipour 2020 (eLife), "Virtual conferences raise standards for accessibility and interactions"
Figure 1. Sarabipour 2020 found increased global participation in virtual conferences, with emphasis on those from low-to-middle-income countries (LMIC”)

Those with caring responsibilities reported a sense of inclusion. These virtual conferences also reduced the long-acknowledged problem of the high carbon emissions associated with in-person conferences and regular international travel. The scientific community now has abundant data that is difficult to deny. The question is, what will we do with this information as pandemic conditions ease, and in-person conferences are a viable option again? 

The implications go well beyond how any individual researcher feels about virtual conferences. As with the rightful efforts and discussions around long-standing diversity and equity issues in STEM, the question is one of access, representation, and how that influences the research and science that ultimately gets done. The question is also one of sustainability. We acknowledge there are challenges to virtual participation and more work needs to be done to ensure platforms are effective and engaging. However, we believe that with deliberation and ongoing development, over time these can become consistently effective experiences. 

Our author group includes graduate students to mid-career scientists, all in the field of aquatic sciences. We work around the globe. Many of us are academic researchers but others are consultants, independent scientists, or are involved with nonprofit organizations. We collectively represent a cross-section of the diverse roles and perspectives in ecology and conservation, while sharing a commitment to critical examination of scientific practices and how they impact diversity, equity, and inclusion. As aquatic scientists, we also share concerns about global climate change and carbon emissions. Somewhat fittingly, our collaboration on this topic initiated on Twitter and has been entirely virtual. It is our hope that this article is shared widely and promotes widespread debate and discussion within ecology and conservation communities.

Link to shareable article version: https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/cobi.13884

Link to journal website: https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.13884

Link to Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/omfishient/status/1493297724732575745

written/edited by: Lauren Kuehne

1 Sarabipour, S. (2020). Research Culture: Virtual conferences raise standards for accessibility and interactions. Elife, 9, e62668.

2 Skiles, Matthew, Euijin Yang, Orad Reshef, Diego Robalino Muñoz, Diana Cintron, Mary Laura Lind, Alexander Rush et al. Conference demographics and footprint changed by virtual platforms. Nature Sustainability (2021): 1-8.

2 thoughts on “Benefits of virtual conferences for ecology and conservation research

  1. The link to a sharable article does not lead to something viewable or downloadable :( Otherwise, thank you for your guest post and the article highlighting this topic!

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