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Hubs and local information

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Can academic conferences become more global, accessible, equitable, and culturally diverse?

Equity and cultural diversity

Imagine a doctoral student in India in the area of computer science. She is already an internationally recognized expert in computational theory, but cannot attend the leading global conference in that area (which happens to be coming up in Brazil), because travel, registration and accommodation are far too expensive relative to the sources available to her.

This financial limitation applies to all three main components of the cost of attending a conference: travel, registration and accommodation. For this Indian colleague, a multiple-hub, semi-virtual format, similar to ICMPC15/ESCOM10, would drastically reduce all three costs. An Indian hub might be centrally located relative to the Indian rail network (at Barkatullah University, Bhopal, for example). For Indian participants, both registration and accommodation would be far cheaper than for a conference in Europe or North America. Travel would also be much cheaper.

At that multi-location conference in computational theory, people from all over the world would get to know each other's work. Those people would include our Indian doctoral student at the same level as everyone else. The new format would allow the conference and subsequently the entire global community in that area to grow, allowing an ever-increasing number of global participants to present their work. That would in turn allow the rejection rate to be increased, increasing academic quality.

This scenario could be applied equally to music cognition or any other academic discipline. It could also be applied to any country, larger (China, Russia, Brazil) or smaller (South Africa, Thailand, Peru). If we take advantage of today's communication technologies, we can now overcome the implicit racism that for decades has indirectly prevented colleagues from financially disadvantaged countries from participating in academic conferences. This is true independent of questions about emissions and climate change.

Emissions and climate change

ICMPC15/ESCOM10 aims not only to increase the cultural diversity of conferences in music cognition by making them more accessible to colleagues in all countries. It also aims to reduce per capita emissions by 50%. In future, it may be possible to reduce emissions by 90% -- while at the same time improving accessibility, inclusiveness, and cultural diversity even further -- by increasing the number of hubs so almost everyone can attend without flying. Because global warming will more seriously affect developing countries, whereas the rich countries are mainly causing it, this issue is also about racism and human rights.

Organisational details

To achieve these parallel goals of increasing global participation, improving equity, and reducing emissions, hubs should be located such that the number of participants is about the same at each. The ICMPC could have as many as 20 hubs with 50 participants each on average. Costs 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. 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. That might even change what we mean by "music" (not to mention "perception" and "cognition") by diversifying cultural contexts. 

Every hub organiser would have a relevant PhD and relevant publications in leading journals. 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, with a morning and an evening session each day at each hub to maximize global interaction. The review procedure could 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 long talks and short talks, and so on) in "new" regions would be slightly lower than in "old" regions, so that the proportion of long talks, short talks, posters and rejects was about the same everywhere.

Local programs could be entered by hub organisers to a global spreadsheet. Break times would have been determined globally in advance to enable communication during breaks. After the deadline for entering local programs, each hub would independently choose virtual presentations. Each hub would 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 simpler if timeslots for short talks were 15 minutes rather than 20, so 30-minute slots could be divided in half without changing the basic 30-minute grid.

Programming would be simplified considerably if all participants agreed at abstract submission to attend the entire conference. First, the conference is organized on that assumption as a service to the academic community. Second, 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). Third, thematic coherence is generally improved if organisers are free to place any presentation anywhere. Fourth, the conference works best for everyone if as many people as possible participate in the real and virtual discussions following each presentation. 

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

Richard Parncutt, June 2018

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