Are virtual conferences any good?

2020 was the year when everything went online, including academic workshops, colloquiums, and conferences. And opinions about such online events differ. I have heard about academics’ varying experiences of virtual conferences, and have attended a few smaller online seminars myself. But I have yet to experience a full-scale international virtual academic conference. However, my curiosity in such virtual conferences will soon be satisfied as I plan to attend and present at the 30th RESER (The European Association for REsearch on SERvices) International Conference, which due to COVID-19 will take place virtually on January 21st-22nd 2021. Meanwhile, I thought I should have a look at the pros and cons of virtual conferences.

The major advantages of virtual conferences are of course their smaller environmental impact and greater inclusiveness. If we start with the environment, different calculations of the carbon footprint of conference travel exist and I will not recite the numbers here. Let’s just conclude that academic conferences are a big source of CO2 emissions, with some estimates even suggesting a carbon footprint equivalent to that of some small nations. Virtual conferences reduce this environmental impact to almost zero. Taking conferences online also make them available to a much larger group of academics. It is much easier for researchers with small children or disabilities to attend virtual conferences from home, than flying around the world to participate in traditional in-person conferences. Similarly, economically disadvantaged academics, or researchers from specific countries, often find it difficult to attend international conferences, due to the high costs and visa restrictions. With virtual conferences, the playing field is levelled.  

But what are the main downsides of virtual conferences? Well, aside from being stuck behind a computer for hours and missing out on the (often but not always) exciting travel destination, the major disadvantage of such online events is of course the lack of in-person interaction. In academia, networking is vital, especially for PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. But also for senior academics, meeting and discussing things of common interest with fellow scholars is a critical part of a flourishing academic environment. As many who have attended academic conferences know, even a short lunch or drink in the evening with other researchers of similar interests can stimulate the most interesting ideas, and lay the ground for new exciting collaborations. Also, the wonderful randomness of who you will meet and interact with during traditional conferences and the quality of these experiences are, understandably, not on the same level during online events.

My own final opinion about virtual academic conferences has to wait until after the 30th RESER Conference later this month, but it is obvious that both online and offline conferences have their pros and cons. If I was to speculate, I think both these forms of conferences will co-exist post-COVID-19. And academic conferences of the future might very well try to capture the main strengths of the two formats. For example, I would not be surprised if we will see hybrid conferences in which some of the participants attend in-person and others online. Maybe that would be the best of two worlds?

Gustav Medberg
Postdoctoral Researcher