What do conferences do—and can econferences replace them?
By Geoffrey Rockwell, Oliver Rossier and Chelsea Miya; edited by Lucy Barnes
Motivations: why do we have academic conferences?
Universities and colleges are complex environments with a range of stakeholders who influence aspects of academic conferences. This includes how they are organized, conducted, and located, and whether the conferences happens at all. While there are some major overlaps, the motivations for organizing and hosting conferences can be quite different for different groups.
Early career academics, like graduate students and pre-tenure professors, might need to build their research networks, to establish their place in the field and to enable access to leading researchers in their fields. Many mid-career professors seek to broaden their research networks, build on their reputations, and take leadership roles in journals and society conferences.
Some researchers have described the key motivations for academics to attend conferences to be: opportunities for social networking, keeping current in research areas, pressure to participate in an internationalized workforce, and building social capital.
University administrators might see conferences as venues for recruiting potential students and staff, building capacity in current students and staff, fostering research collaborations, building prestige for the host institution, and generating conference tourism revenue. Similarly, external stakeholders like business and political leaders, organizations and governments (civic, regional and national), might see conferences as venues for fostering research collaborations, building prestige for their jurisdiction, generating tourism revenue, and building capacity in current staff.
Universities must also attend to financial and reputational issues related to conferences. Over the last several decades, with more financial pressure on core funding based on traditional teaching and research activities, universities in North America have turned more to auxiliary service activities like conference hosting to bolster financial resources.
Meanwhile academic reputation—which can be boosted by hosting conferences—is the largest single factor in the overall ranking metrics for universities. The importance of conferences at an organizational level is illustrated by the fact that even universities facing financial challenges will often offer funding for academic staff to participate in conferences.
The importance of presence
Looking at the core reasons why academics participate in conferences, it is evident that the focus is on presence. On an individual level, conferences serve a diverse range of uses for academics because knowledge work “involves communication among loosely structured networks and communities of people, and understanding it involves identifying the social practices and relationships that are operative in a particular context.” International travel has become an important aspect of building and maintaining social capital for academics.
A very pragmatic reason for academics to attend conferences is knowledge mobilization. Conferences can serve as spaces where relevant knowledge can be surveyed through shared presence in a scholarly community environment. Likewise, conferences are a way to promote new research and to connect it with what others are doing.
Ultimately, the key motivations for academic conferences include the creation of spaces for social presence, cognitive presence, and access to leadership presence. Conferences are also important spaces where the agenda of research fields are negotiated.
Econferences: Affordances and Constraints
The speed of travel and flow of information have been among the most important technological affordances supporting research conferences. In particular, aviation has created opportunities for academics in wealthier countries with access to travel funds from research grants and institutional professional development funds.
For individuals in other parts of the world the cost of travelling to distant conferences is often prohibitive, as the cost of airfare to a major conference in Europe or North America can be greater than the average annual income in developing countries. This has created a situation where researchers who have the funds to travel, which usually means researchers in the Global North, have disproportionate international visibility.
The rich travel more and those without funding struggle to be heard.
There are physical, political, and social constraints to participating in traditional f2f conferences which rely on physically moving all the individuals to a single location. Physical barriers include issues like disability; political constraints are, for example, situations where a conference is hosted in a country which restricts visas for visitors from other parts of the world; social barriers might include issues like family care.
Over the last 50 years, there has been an exponential growth in technologies that accelerate the movement of information while simultaneously reducing the financial cost of using those technologies. However, there are significant populations in all parts of the world who have very limited access to computing devices and infrastructure, as well as important technological constraints and challenges for econferencing, including maintaining acceptable levels of video and audio stream quality.
Time limits give an ephemeral immediacy to conferences. Conferences are designed to focus attention, and have people examine something together for a limited period of time. In the academic milieu, this distinguishes conferences from research groupings, online email lists, and other longer-term working collaborations.
Trade-offs are embedded in time constraints. For example, if a researcher wants to attend a conference, they might have to travel for a day or more to get there. In the same way, when a group of academics are brought together to focus on a particular issue at a conference, they are by definition not focusing on other areas of their own research.
A constraint of traditional f2f conferences is that participants must return to their home institutions, therefore ending the conference dialogue (and spending time travelling). Many scholars agree that online conferencing has an immediate affordance of allowing asynchronous dialogue relatively unconstrained by time.
Mitigating climate change is one of the greatest challenges of the current era. Air travel is a significant contributor to climate change, and one of the largest discretionary aspects of an individual’s CO2 footprint.
As discussed above, academics can influence change at many levels of conference culture, as participants, attendees, keynote speakers, funders and conference organizers. In short, academics have both an opportunity and a responsibility to make personal and organizational choices that make sustainable conferencing more broadly available.
In the following posts, Terry Anderson, Nick Byrd and Geoffrey Rockwell et al. share concrete examples of how to create and run econferences across a range of disciplines. These studies highlight the benefits and challenges of moving academic gatherings online, and it is the authors’ hope that the academic community can learn from their findings to build capacity for future econferencing initiatives.
Econferences can improve accessibility, lower cost, and significantly reduce carbon emissions. At the same time, it can prove difficult for virtual gatherings to replicate the benefits of face-to-face interaction. Will we find that hybrid conferences, which combine face-to-face and virtual conferencing, help us bridge this gap?
This series of blog posts is 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. Explore the other posts here.
 J. C. Thomas, Kellogg, W. A., and Erickson, T., ‘The knowledge management puzzle: Human and social factors in knowledge management’, IBM Systems Journal, 40.4 (2001), p. 868.