Econferences: why and how? A blog series

Online conferences Mar 24, 2020
This series of blog posts are drawn from Right Research: Modelling Sustainable Research Practices in the Anthropocene edited by Geoffrey Rockwell, Chelsea Miya and Oliver Rossier, forthcoming with Open Book Publishers.

Right Research: Modelling Sustainable Research Practices in the Anthropocene asks what it means to 'do research' sustainably, and one of the book’s central topics is how to stage successful conferences online. One consequence of the global pandemic we are all currently facing has been a wave of cancellations of academic conferences, and we are all having to learn how to do more remotely, now and for the foreseeable future. Because of this urgent new situation, the authors wanted to make relevant chapters publicly available immediately. This series of blog posts is based on some of those chapters, and the peer-reviewed manuscript versions of two case-study chapters can be freely accessed via the University of Alberta repository, here and here.

By Geoffrey Rockwell, Oliver Rossier and Chelsea Miya; edited by Lucy Barnes

In 2019, a record number of private jets landed in Davos, Switzerland for a climate talk hosted by the World Economic Forum. The scale of the event, with an estimated 1,500 jets used to transport participants there and back, was unusual. Yet, it speaks to a wider problem within the research community. Even as colleges and universities take steps to green their campuses, the amount of air travel that academics engage in continues to rise.

Our flying is unsustainable—all the more so in the current COVID19 era, which has made travel all but impossible for the foreseeable future—and yet research depends on open and timely communication of ideas, methods and results. How then can we adapt our conferencing practices to preserve their communicative value while reducing the need to fly so often?

To answer this question, we need to understand more about the attraction of traditional academic conferences: how do they function, and what do they offer researchers?



We will use the term econference to describe the act of conferencing via digital media.[1] It seems very possible that the term econference will evolve into common use at some point in the near future, similar to the evolution of terms like e-books, email, e-transfer and e-research.

It’s also more nuanced: the “e” invokes the dual electronic and environmental dynamics of the medium.

Our definition of econference is adapted from the one put forth by Anderson and Anderson to describe ‘online conference’ and reads as follows:

An [econference] is a structured, time-delineated […] event that is organized and attended on the Internet by a distributed population of presenters and participants who interact synchronously and/or asynchronously by using online communication and collaboration tools.

Hybrid conference

A hybrid conference combines online and face-to-face (f2f) communication and collaboration. As will be discussed in the AtW case study, the hybrid model may provide a key opportunity for conference organizers to strategically balance the core motivations of f2f social networking with the mitigation of environmental impact by using digital platforms to replace travel where possible.

Posts in this series

[1] There are several other terms currently used: web conference, online conference, virtual conference. The problem with the phrase web conference is that it is also often used to describe one-to-one discussions online, or face-to-face (f2f) conferences that take the internet for their subject. Both online conference and virtual conference are somewhat cumbersome when used as search terms and in metadata.

Lucy Barnes

Lucy Barnes is Senior Editor and Outreach Coordinator at Open Book Publishers.