As the academic community slowly adjusts to new routines and ways of working throughout the pandemic, the benefits of working at home have become immediately obvious from both financial and environmental perspectives. While the ‘job’ of a researcher can largely continue unimpeded by social distancing restrictions (in the humanities and social sciences, at least), an aspect of academic life that has certainly taken a hit is the conferencing scene. Most annual events have been postponed until next year, yet the pandemic offers the academy to rethink and revitalise conferences in a way that combats the carbon footprint of international events – whilst also providing more accessible and affordable method of disseminating research for early career researchers (ECRs).
Last week, at alt-ac.uk, we hosted our inaugural conference (The Conference at the End of the World) as an entirely online event. While it held an appeal as an opportunity for researchers to present papers intended for now-cancelled events, we intended the conference to be held online before the pandemic took hold. The benefits beyond social distancing are immediately obvious, both environmentally and financially, whilst also being physically accessible for scholars with disabilities.
While the pandemic continues, a small number of major conferences with an international appeal are (somewhat begrudgingly) beginning to consider transferring their events online. This is a welcome development, yet there is an elephant in the room: they are doing this because they have to, not because they want to. I raise this because, not long ago, my colleagues and I contacted a major international conference to ask if it would be possible to present papers digitally. This is not uncommon – many smaller (and less financially established) conferences will often allow international speakers to present their papers on screen via online communication (Skype, Zoom, etc.). Our request, however, was not only dismissed but even treated with a level of derision. Our lack of institutional funding as ECRs made physical attendance impossible, and the lack of opportunities to present a paper digitally placed a barrier before any hope of dissemination and networking (something we are continuously told is the lifeblood of an ECR).
This was also disappointing from an environmental perspective, given the significant international nature of this particular event. It has become increasingly clear that as a worldwide community we need to drastically cut down on flying, and the academy is no exception. Academic research is a noble pursuit, but that does not give us carte blanche. We do not serve a ‘higher purpose’ that transcends the climate crisis.
I appreciate, while writing this, that I may be coming off as slightly ‘holier-than-thou’. This is not my intention. I have travelled to a number of international conferences by plane, and I recognise my role in this issue. This is an issue that needs to involve each member of our community to closely think about paving new ways forward in academic conferencing.
I am, of course, not proposing that we scrap in-person conferences, but not permitting speakers to attend/present digitally is not a helpful approach. Online communication presents us with an ideal opportunity to pave this new way, but my concern is that many conference organisers simply won’t want to – that they will soon return to environmentally unsustainable methods that also restrict ECRs from presenting innovative and ground-breaking research. This is an opportunity that needs to be grasped now, while major organisations are being forced to do so.
Perhaps you won’t be able to network over coffee and biscuits, but you can easily connect with colleagues online, rather than exchanging business cards that are inevitably lost in your luggage. And at least your homemade coffee will probably be better than conference coffee.