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 The future of academic conferencing

Two independent aspects of academic conferencing, cultural diversity and environmental sustainability, can be simultaneously improved by developing the semi-virtual, multi-hub model, increasing the number of hubs and locating them such that the number of participants is about the same at each. Future ICMPCs could have 10-20 hubs with 50-100 participants each. Future ESCOM triennials could have 5-10 hubs with 50-100 participants each. If all participants are to be treated equally, the hubs should be roughly equal in size.

Academic colleague in all disciplines are invited to follow our guideline for organizing a conference of this kind and take advantage of our offer of technical advice and limited support.

A video documentary about the semi-virtual conference format is here. A webinar that compares different low-carbon conference formats is here (explained here). A talk explaining the new semi-virtual format is here

We also have two promotional videos for individual hubs (La Plata and Graz). A video guideline to using Moodle to access research talk videos during the conference is here.

Is a change of this kind necessary or desirable?

The answer to this question depends on how one perceives the current situation. Consider the following broad claims:

1. It is important to maintain a high proportion of face-to-face contact. This is what people enjoy and it is also where a lot of the motivation and creativity comes from that enables researchers to do good original research. Purely virtual conferences may have their place as a means of communicating the latest research results and there are interesting precedents (more) but their effectiveness is restricted by lack of personal contact.

2. Only one in four countries (about 50 out of 200) was represented at this conference (in previous conferences, one in five). Participation (registration + travel + accommodation) typically costs $1-2k per head. This price tag prevents many international colleagues from participating. It also indirectly prevents research cultures in our discipline from emerging in less privileged countries. GDP per capita exceeds $50k in rich countries and is less than $5k in developing countries.

3. The global average effective carbon footprint is currently about 5 tons of CO2 per year. To stay below the internationally agreed 2°C global warming target, greenhouse gas emissions per person per year must be roughly halved (Wikipedia: "Carbon footprint"). It will be very difficult to achieve this. Five tons of CO2 is roughly equivalent to flying from one continent to another and back in economy class. It follows that flying should be reserved for emergencies. Meanwhile, climate change is life threatening for a billion people. The global climatic situation, and associated preventable death rates due to hunger, disease and violence especially in developing countries, will probably deteriorate every decade until the end of the 21st century.

On this basis, we can ask whether the following claims are correct:

1. Whatever solution we find for the future of our conferences, it is important to maintain a high level of personal interaction. Physical contact can be replaced in part but not completely by high-quality virtual (audiovisual) interaction.

2. Cultural diversity is important for the validity of research in general and music research in particular. Anyone in the world should be able to participate in our conferences based only on the quality of their research. Currently, the total cost of participation is excluding many potentially important cultural groups. The problem can be addressed by improving cultural access: either reducing the total cost of participation or funding participants from disadvantaged groups. The first of these two options is more promising.

3. Academic conference culture is contributing (via the aviation industry) to a global climatic process that is gradually and irreversibly undermining global ecosystems and political/social stability. If that claim is true, and it is certainly consistent with leading climate research, then all members of our community will agree unanimously that a big change is urgently necessary. The best solution is to radically and permanently reduce emissions. Carbon offsetting is interesting but has limitations (Ives & Bekessy, 2015): the negative effect of the emissions is immediate, whereas the positive effect of planting trees is delayed by decades and dependent on unpredictable factors.

The semi-virtual multi-hub approach addresses all three problems at the same time, but it is not the only way to address them. Other strategies might also be considered.

Practical considerations

Placing hubs in low-GDP countries would drastically reduce the cost of travel, accommodation, and registration (all three at once) for participants in or near those countries, allowing many colleagues to participate for the first time.

Organizers of low-GDP hubs may need funding for equipment. Transfers from rich countries of the order of $1k would solve the problem, enabling many new colleagues to join the conference for a price that is comparable with travel expenses for one person.

The cost of running a hub in any country, and hence registration fees, could be reduced by using regular teaching rooms and facilities at host institutions. Several remote presentations can happen in one room if the computers are connected to large screens, headphone splitters, and headphone extension cables, so that several people can watch one talk without disturbing people at the next table.

Academic standards would be promoted and maintained in the usual way. Every hub organiser would have a relevant PhD and relevant publications in leading journals. On that basis, and apart from certain global agreements (e.g. a minimum rejection rate of 10%), everything could be organised independently at each hub, including the review procedure and program construction. The review procedure could also be organised centrally (as at this conference) if there was an advance agreement that the academic standard (i.e. the mean reviewers' grades at cutoff points between talks and posters and between posters and rejects) in "new" regions would be slightly lower than in "old" regions, so that the proportion of talks, posters and rejects was about the same everywhere.

Creating the global program

Programming could be simplified by having all events last for integer multiples of a basic unit. A global timekeeping website would play music at the end of those units, around the clock. The music would start 2 minutes before the end of the unit and stop 1 minute before to give people time to change rooms. The technician in a given room would turn the sound off if it disturbed the proceedings.

There is a fundamental decision to be made at the start. Will the basic unit of time on the program be 20 minutes or 30 minutes? At ICMPC15/ESCOM10, we tried to mix these in one program, but the result was very difficult to manage. The task of managing these overlapping time units would become impossible if the number of conference hubs were increased beyond four.

The following text assumes that conference organizers choose a 30-minute unit. In that case, all regular talk timeslots would be 30 minutes, all keynotes would be 60 minutes, all sessions/symposia would be 90 minutes, and all breaks would be 30 minutes.

Global breaks, during which participants communicate informally by Skype or similar (we used Jitsi), would happen for 30 minutes every two hours around the clock: UTC 0000-0030, UTC 0200-0230, UTC 0400-0430 and so on. As far as possible, all 90-minute units between these breaks would be thematically coherent (with a stated theme, e.g. "musical development") in a given room at a given hub, and comprise for example:

  • a session or symposium of 3 talks 
  • a keynote of 60 minutes (talk 45 minutes, questions 15 minutes) followed by invited commentaries for 30 minutes
  • a poster session (60 minutes) preceded by an introduction with speed presentations (30 minutes)
  • several workshops or demonstrations running in parallel

To maximize global interaction, the daily program would be separated into a morning and an afternoon/evening session, separated by a long break or siesta. If global breaks were timed as described, and time differences were whole numbers of hours (sometimes they are not, but the problem is easily solved), the work of each hub would be largely confined to fixed time periods in one of the following two patterns (local time):

  • 8:30 am -12:00 noon; 4:30 - 8:00 pm
  • 9:30 am -1:00 pm; 5:30 - 9:00 pm

According to this plan, work time per day would be 7 hours not including lunch. The structure of each half-day would be 90 minutes working time + 30 minutes break + 90 minutes working time. The 30-minute global break that immediately precedes the start of each half-day could be used for an activity, a concert, or discussion groups. These activities would include global interaction, because they would coincide with breaks at other hubs. Scheduling an activity of this kind at the start of each half-day would ensure that people are seated on time for the main event. This is important because at a semi-virtual conference everything has to run exactly one time.

This plan ensures a reasonable length for the working day: 7 hours. This is shorter than 8 hours at ICMPC15/ESCOM10, and is intended a constructive response to feedback that those days were too long. Enthusiastic conference participants would have the option of participating in 30-minute events happening both before and after each 3.5-hour block, turning these blocks into 4.5 hours and the day into 9 hours. 

International timing seems perfect if three hubs are separated by exactly 8 hours (e.g. Eastern Australia, US Midwest, and Europe in July). But a more flexible solution is preferable, in which all continents and all major regions are represented by hubs. Communication works well when hubs are placed quasi-randomly around the globe.

Local programs could be entered by hub organisers to a global spreadsheet (we used Google Docs). After a deadline for entering local programs, each hub would independently choose virtual presentations from the programs of other hubs. Each hub might agree to reserve the last half-day for delayed virtual presentations, to ensure that every presentation at a given hub can be seen virtually at one or more other hubs (checked centrally).

Programming would be further simplified if the time and date of the start and end of the conference at each hub was decided and announced in the call for papers, and all participants agreed at abstract submission to attend the entire conference. That could be justifed as follows. The conference is organized as a service to the academic community. It is complex and time consuming for organizers to accommodate requests to present on certain days; once talks have been assigned to thematic sessions, it is difficult or impossible to exchange two talks without seriously affecting the thematic coherence of the sessions (especially for a multiple-location conference). Thematic coherence is generally improved if organisers are free to place any presentation anywhere. The conference works best for everyone if as many people as possible participate in the real and virtual discussions following each presentation.

Bill Thompson made the following suggestion. As part of the "global foyer" in the breaks, or perhaps at other times, the senior experts at each hub could volunteer to meet junior colleagues at other hubs by Skype or similar for 5-10 minutes each. A student assistant could organize the appointments. Another possibility is identify given research themes or areas and invite people to global discussions in those areas. "In this way, we could kick start the process of genuine intercultural communication and, hence, understanding and collaboration in a way that goes beyond what typically occurs at the old style of international conference."

I hope these ideas are useful for future organisers of similar conferences.

Richard Parncutt, June-December 2018


Ives, C. D., & Bekessy, S. A. (2015). The ethics of offsetting nature. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 13(10), 568-573.

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