Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Marco Marabelli. Marco is is an associate professor of Information and Process Management at Bentley University where he currently teaches graduate courses on business analytics; PhD classes on information systems theories and qualitative methods.
This post was triggered by a recent Scholarly Kitchen article concerning what many call “back to normal” for academic conferences (in this case, primarily the 2022 Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) conference). The contributors to the post are enthusiastic about the return to in-person meetings. Zoom fatigue was mentioned by several, although some also have concerns, for example, about the risks for vulnerable colleagues.
I was so pleased to hear all this enthusiasm concerning travel and in-person meetings. I share this feeling of happiness for finally gathering in person. However, COVID has also revealed the potential of gathering (also) remotely. As I recently wrote in the European Journal of Information Systems, with my colleague Emma Vaast, from McGill University, and Lydia Li, my PhD student at Bentley University, several technological consequences of the pandemic are here to stay (which, incidentally, echoes Alison Mudditt’s considerations in the abovementioned post). These often relate to technologies unleashed quickly for emergency reasons and then kept in use. For instance, telehealth has become the norm, even as COVID may be starting to vanish (at least in some countries). According to a McKinsey report, in the US, as of June 2021, telehealth services had been used 38 times more often than before the start of the pandemic, with Forbes indicating that 95% of healthcare facilities are currently able to serve patients online, compared with 43% before the pandemic.
Healthcare, I believe, taught us a very important lesson during COVID, as it served as a natural experiment in how current technologies were being underused before an impelling need required their adoption. And a similar consideration should apply to conferences. When the pandemic first forced most, if not all, scientific gatherings to move online, it became apparent that the population attending (online) conferences was substantially different than in the past. More people from less wealthy universities (in the US) and worldwide were joining international conferences for the first time. This also included PhD students (generally with low travel budgets) and junior faculty, for whom it is extremely important to attend conferences and build networks.
Lydia and I, together with Drs. Sam Zaza, and Kathy Chudoba, decided to investigate the extent to which online conferences would improve inclusiveness and whether hybrid conferences could perpetuate this trend. Sam, as president of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) chapter of the Association for Information Systems, deployed a broad survey in several MENA countries and other low-income countries in South America and Central Africa. She asked scholars about their experience with online conferences and their willingness to attend conferences remotely in the future, including hybrid conferences. The countries surveyed were: Bangladesh (20 members), Brazil (49 members), Ethiopia (44 members), Malaysia (84 members), Pakistan (26 members), and the Middle East and North Africa (110 members). Data collection spanned 19 days in May 2021, yielding 72 valid responses (response rate was 24%). Respondents included PhD students (2%), tenured (53%), and untenured (16%) faculty. We also surveyed several colleagues (mostly from the US) who served as conference/program chair of large-scale international gatherings in the past.
The attendees’ perspective
The results were extremely interesting, somewhat surprising, and to some extent counterintuitive. Some confirmed our hypotheses that offering remote access to conferences would promote inclusion. Others, however, made us reflect on the drawbacks of hybrid conferences. Our data analysis highlighted three distinct issues related to attending conferences, which were substantially mitigated by remote options. First, financial issues: most people reported that they were able to attend an international conference for the first time, as they couldn’t otherwise afford travel costs. Second, flexibility: several study participants noted that they could better manage their professional and personal (family) commitments by attending remotely and being able to watch recordings of sessions (this was especially true for women, who are still, for the most, the primary carers for children, as indicated by a 2020 Nature paper). Last, safety: this concerned health (because of COVID), but also other aspects of travel safety. For instance, people reported being afraid to travel because of their citizenship, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs – also documented by a recent study – not to mention travel bans and other political reasons preventing free movement of people, which were lifted in the US in 2021, connectivity issues and more challenging ways to network during “around the clock” meetings were mentioned as downsides. But, overall, the message was clear: hybrid conferences would increase the attendance of people from low-income countries, with benefits substantially outweighing the challenges.
The organizers’ perspective
While supportive of more inclusion through remote participation, conference organizers also raised some important concerns. First, they noted that online-only is a much better environment than hybrid because there is only one audience type. Challenges associated with hybrid conferences include technical equipment and capabilities: conferences run in hybrid mode need ballrooms with large screens, diffusion/ceiling microphones, etc., and stable internet connections. These requirements could lead organizers to pick expensive locations where convention centers can offer these technologies which would, paradoxically, prevent travel from low-income countries even more. This would lead to first and second-class attendees, with the latter attending systematically online (because travel to such fancy locations is too expensive), unable to enjoy post-session social events, informal chats, etc. Another concern is conference fees: if hybrid conferences require more technology, conference fees may become more expensive, preventing more people from attending (in-person or remotely). Privacy issues were also raised. Perceptions of privacy vary from country to country. For example, some people may not feel comfortable being recorded. Also, laws and regulations such as the GDPR may pose issues that need to be dealt with during registration, where organizers always need to provide clear information on how they will treat personal data. As the chair-elect of the CTO division of the Academy of Management, I directly experienced dealing with international issues associated with GDPR, privacy, and international regulations.
What both attendants and organizers pointed out was that limiting long distance travels will positively impact the environment, current jet fuel being a relevant source of global pollution. Having said this, we also need to remember that scientific conferences may specifically relate to the environment. In-person conferences, while detrimental to the environment in the short-term, may be beneficial in the long run. Overall, hybrid vs. in-person conferences represents a challenging tradeoff.
In summary, based on the responses to our survey:
- Online conferences are preferred over hybrid ones, by both attendees and organizers. However, it is not realistic for all conferences to be online only for the future. Human beings are social by nature, and in-person contact, informal chats, etc. are fundamental to our personal wellbeing, as well as to our social interactions (think of how you felt when you were able to hug for the first time someone not in your household, in the aftermath of the “bad days” of the pandemic.)
- Hybrid, therefore, may be a good compromise…but with a few caveats. Not everyone may be committed to giving up some of the “fun” of in-person only conferences to accommodate remote And hybrid conferences add complexity, not just for organizers but also for live attendants who also need to manage two audiences. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are not everyone’s top priority, and we should be realistic about it. This begs the question of how to engage the most skeptical and how to persuade them that long-term benefits of inclusion will positively affect scholarship.
- We need to be careful not to take for granted that hybrid conferences are the solution to all DEI problems. For example, the option to attend conferences remotely might be more affordable, support flexibility (especially for women), and address travel issues (i.e., LGBTQ+ community) for those from low-income countries. Yet, it might also represent a way for universities to deny travel funds that would otherwise typically be awarded.
- The onus will be mostly on live attendees to make “the others” comfortable in hybrid contexts. We, academics, have long-standing experience of hybrid However, participating as attendees will require us to be more considerate of our remote colleagues, who have limited possibilities to interact. A good exercise could be for everyone to attend at least one hybrid conference remotely, to feel what it is like to participate in this way.
- COVID is not yet over — it is very much still present in many countries worldwide, especially where initial vaccinations have just started or are still underway. We should all be willing to accept that full in-person gatherings must increasingly take a back seat, in order to accommodate people from less wealthy countries who cannot travel – including, because they can’t show proof of vaccination when entering the US.
A more comprehensive analysis of these issues is currently under review at a journal in our field. We hope to be able to share the published version of our work soon.