The academy must end its love affair with conferences

The damage we’re doing to the environment by travelling to international conferences is no longer worth the benefit, argues Gary Thomas 

September 1, 2019
Airport plane
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I think it was Eyjafjallajökull’s volcanic ash cloud in 2010 that first got me wondering about a cost/benefit analysis of conferences. When Iceland’s monster volcano started spewing jet-grounding ash into the air, it became apparent that much of the academic world was stranded overseas at conferences. My experience may have been atypical, but I didn’t seem to be able to get hold of anyone. They were stuck in Los Angeles or Thailand or Rio. And is it just me or is the amount of spam telling me about conferences in nice places like Thailand (never Walsall or Wolverhampton, note) increasing exponentially?

I have to start with a confession: I’ve never liked conferences. In 35 years in higher education, many of those years as a journal editor, I guess I have, on average, attended one per year. It’s my duty, after all, everyone tells me, to “keep up”; to make contacts.

For an international conference, this entails a week or two of preparation, travelling, sleeplessness, discomfort, jet lag, cost (to me and my institution), and most importantly, damage to the environment. We academics have to accept that we’re a significant part of the demand for long-haul flights. Many is the time I’ve been on a plane sitting next to someone reading through their conference presentation (yes, I’m nosey). Coincidence? I think not.

A top, five-day annual international conference I have attended several times in the US hosts more than 15,000 delegates. I guess the total cost to the individual delegate and their institution in conference fees, accommodation, travel, subsistence and other sundries is about $2,000 (£1,640).

This makes the total spent on the conference by the HE community about $30m (£24.6m). Let’s say that again: thirty million dollars. Each year. Just for one subject in one conference. And this is to say nothing of the externalised costs in carbon emissions, and the opportunity costs in not teaching, not researching, not writing. Are there not better ways of spending $30m on our research?

And for this cost, what benefit? Listening to – in the great majority, sadly, even in the “top” conferences – not very good papers, often seemingly hurriedly prepared for the purpose of inclusion in the conference proceedings and for CV ballast.

In a world of immediate communication, where you can say what you’ve found instantly via Twitter or dozens of other means, the conference paper now seems to be the default option for the recycling of rejected peer review submissions or failed funding proposals. Whatever the research excellence framework panels say about not being influenced by place or type of publication, try getting your institution to accept a conference paper as one of your REF submissions. It ain’t gonna happen.

Conference papers are understood for what they are nowadays: often preliminary, not well thought out, perhaps just testing the water, and sketchily reviewed (if reviewed at all) by reviewers drawn from a scholarly society or professional association’s membership.

But there’s networking. Of course! Networking...the conference’s steadfast legitimator. Yes, it’s lovely meeting people and talking to them. And it’s very nice doing it in Los Angeles. But is it thirty million dollars nice?

“There’s no substitute for the face-to-face”, some colleagues protest. Well, actually there is a substitute – in fact there’s a superabundance of substitutes nowadays, because it’s 2019. There’s Skype, WhatsApp, Facetime (all with super-simple videoconferencing facilities), Twitter, and lots more. Let’s keep in touch! And for those who want to “keep up” there are all sorts of clever widgets (ask a librarian) that automatically alert you to new articles (peer review articles, to boot) on subjects of interest.

Now that climate change is really catching up with us, though, I think the real thing to be concerned about is the greenhouse gas we academics are churning out into the atmosphere with all this travelling to pointless conferences.

One person on one flight from London to San Francisco produces 3.3 tonnes of CO2. International aviation was responsible for the largest percentage increase in greenhouse gas emissions over 1990 levels (+114 per cent), and if we are to see emissions fall by two-thirds to meet government targets, we have to do something. In its ongoing love affair with conferences it doesn’t look to me as if the academy is doing very much at all.

Gary Thomas is professor of education at the University of Birmingham.

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