Virtual variety

Conference technologies in ecology and conservation

While it makes eminent sense, there has been limited uptake of virtual conference technologies in ecology and conservation (with the notable exception of the World Seabird Twitter Conferences – see our article). In other fields, virtual conferencing is more common. The great thing about virtual conferencing is that the format is very flexible and only limited by the availability of time and money.

A range of services have been used for virtual conferences and some are even free (eg, secondlife,, Twitter, WordPress, and YouTube). Others come with a cost (eg, LabRoots, iCohere, and vConference online), and each has its own strengths and weaknesses.

The service that’s the best will depend on the context of the conference and what it hopes to achieve. For example, if the budget is low, the conference is relatively small, free services like Twitter, YouTube and WordPress can be suitable. However, if the budget is higher and the conference is larger, a proprietary service that provides IT support may be preferable.

Another consideration when choosing (or creating) a service to host an online conference is how well it balances the two main limitations of virtual conferencing: reduced networking and, reduced opportunities for skills development.

Networking: Many people feel that virtual conferences provide fewer opportunities to network and that the opportunities they do provide may not yield the same. At a virtual conference you can’t meet people in queues for lunch and you can’t go for a drink with the people you do meet. On the other hand, the virtual context may take away some of the inhibitions surrounding talking with senior researchers.

All virtual conferencing services allow some form of discussion but some are less likely to supply networking opportunities than others. For example, the ‘Climate Change: views from humanities’ conference (part of the Environmental Humanities Initiative 2016) was hosted on WordPress and included a number of keynote talks and a series of panels. The panels included live Q&A sessions where people could post questions in a forum for the speakers and expect a speedy response, though this was not available for keynote talks. However, the possibility for less formal discussions between attendees was limited.

In contrast, during the World Seabird Twitter Conference, people can ask questions about or comment live about each presentation and are easily able to contact other people (publicly or privately) who may be presenting or commenting on topics that interest them.

Skills development: One important reason for attending a conference is to prove to potential employers that you really do have the ‘exceptional spoken presentation skills’ that they ask for in job applications. Speaking at conferences backs up this claim as well as helping researchers to develop these important presentation skills. In most cases talks at virtual conferences are recorded without a live audience (often they are also prerecorded).

When it comes to Twitter conferences, people don’t speak at all. Neither option allows researchers to fully practice and prove their spoken presentation skills.

Both of these limitations could be addressed by developing a hybrid conferencing model where all attendees pre-record talks and then (if possible) travel short distances to local hubs. Attendees could then present their talk live to the local audience (in the same time-slot as their pre-recorded talk goes live) and network with local researchers face-to-face. This, of course, has higher overheads and still produces some carbon emissions, forcing conference organisers to make trade-offs between networking and skills development, cost and carbon emissions.

Virtual conferencing is all about trade-offs. The trade-offs made of each individual conference will be different depending on the size, budget and priorities of the conference. However, when it comes to minimising the impact on the environment, I think it’s a trade-off worth reflecting on.

Counting costs

Traditional face-to-face conferences are expensive and often require long-distance travel. This is particularly problematic for conservation when you add up the:

Dollars: Most conferences are held in developed nations where costs are high and the currency is strong. The cost of international flights, conference registration and accommodation can exclude researchers from developing nations where some of the more important conservation science is being conducted (Fraser et al, 2017).

Kilograms: Travelling long distances to conferences releases staggering amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. In 2008, the average attendee of an international conference created 849kg of CO2 emissions. Academics from isolated countries, like Australia, emitted up to 1891 kg (Spinellis and Louridas 2013).

Virtual conferences have the potential to address both of these issues.

More info: Hannah Fraser


Fraser H, K Soanes, SA Jones, CS Jones & M Malishev (2017). The value of virtual conferencing for ecology and conservation. Conservation Biology. doi:10.1111/cobi.12837

Spinellis D & P Louridas (2013). The Carbon Footprint of Conference Papers. PLoS ONE 8(6): e66508.


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