Volume 31, Issue 3 p. 540-546
Open Access

The value of virtual conferencing for ecology and conservation

Hannah Fraser

Corresponding Author

Hannah Fraser

Quantitative and Applied Ecology Group, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne, Parkville 3010 Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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Kylie Soanes

Kylie Soanes

School of Ecosystem and Forest Science, University of Melbourne, Parkville 3010 Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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Stuart A. Jones

Stuart A. Jones

Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis (CEBRA), School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne, Parkville 3010 Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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Chris S. Jones

Chris S. Jones

Quantitative and Applied Ecology Group, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne, Parkville 3010 Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Biosis Pty Ltd, Port Melbourne 3207 Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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Matthew Malishev

Matthew Malishev

Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis (CEBRA), School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne, Parkville 3010 Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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First published: 14 September 2016
Citations: 63



The objectives of conservation science and dissemination of its research create a paradox: Conservation is about preserving the environment, yet scientists spread this message at conferences with heavy carbon footprints. Ecology and conservation science depend on global knowledge exchange—getting the best science to the places it is most needed. However, conference attendance from developed countries typically outweighs that from developing countries that are biodiversity and conservation hotspots. If any branch of science should be trying to maximize participation while minimizing carbon emissions, it is conservation. Virtual conferencing is common in other disciplines, such as education and humanities, but it is surprisingly underused in ecology and conservation. Adopting virtual conferencing entails a number of challenges, including logistics and unified acceptance, which we argue can be overcome through planning and technology. We examined 4 conference models: a pure-virtual model and 3 hybrid hub-and-node models, where hubs stream content to local nodes. These models collectively aim to mitigate the logistical and administrative challenges of global knowledge transfer. Embracing virtual conferencing addresses 2 essential prerequisites of modern conferences: lowering carbon emissions and increasing accessibility for remote, time- and resource-poor researchers, particularly those from developing countries.



El Valor de las Conferencias Virtuales para la Ecología y la Conservación


Los objetivos de la ciencia de la conservación y la difusión de su investigación genera una paradoja: la conservación se enfoca en preservar el ambiente, pero los científicos dispersan este mensaje en conferencias con huellas de carbono pesadas. La ecología y la ciencia de la conservación dependen del intercambio de conocimiento global - hacer llegar a la mejor ciencia a los lugares en donde es más necesitada. Sin embargo, la asistencia de países desarrollados a conferencias típicamente sobrepasa a aquella de países en desarrollo que son puntos calientes de biodiversidad y conservación. Si hay una rama de la ciencia que debería estar intentando maximizar la participación mientras minimiza las emisiones de carbono, es la conservación. Las conferencias virtuales son comunes en otras disciplinas, como la educación y las humanidades, pero está sorprendentemente subutilizada en la ecología y en la conservación. Adoptar las conferencias virtuales conlleva un número de retos, incluyendo la logística y la aceptación unánime, que discutimos pueden sobreponerse por medio de la planificación y la tecnología. Examinamos cuatro modelos de conferencias: un modelo puramente virtual y tres modelos híbridos de núcleo-y-nodo, en los que los núcleos transmiten el contenido a los nodos locales. Estos modelos buscan colectivamente mitigar los retos logísticos y administrativos de la transferencia global de conocimientos. La adopción de las conferencias virtuales resuelve dos prerrequisitos esenciales de las conferencias modernas: reducir las emisiones de carbono e incrementar la accesibilidad para los investigadores remotos y escasos de tiempo y recursos, particularmente aquellos en los países en desarrollo.

Why Conservation Conferences Need to Change

Conservation is a truly global science−every nation in the world has a need for improved environmental knowledge and protection. However, conservation science (including ecology and related disciplines) currently has an imbalance in where it is conducted, where it is needed, and how it is shared (Wilson et al. 2016). Conservation conferences need to evolve to meet contemporary objectives and match the scale at which conservation research occurs.

Conferences are integral to the progress of academic research because they allow researchers to network, share knowledge, and develop collaborations (Yoo & Chon 2008). Through conferences, researchers and other stakeholders communicate efficiently, both formally and informally, to keep up with new research ideas and findings without a publication lag, develop and maintain relationships, and seek employment opportunities (Levine 2015). Conferences also foster professional development through workshops. Many researchers also combine conference travel with vacationing.

Despite the popularity of the traditional conference model (in-person attendance at a single location), it has a number of shortcomings. Many factors affect whether someone attends a conference, including the cost, accessibility, and safety of the conference location (Zhang et al. 2007). These factors influence researchers and stakeholders from different institutions and countries in different ways, leaving those from poorer countries and institutions underrepresented. Even in the absence of these barriers, individuals have to decide whether the carbon footprint of their attendance is justified (Spinellis & Louridas 2013; Favaro 2014). Concern about the environmental impact of conference travel is rising: at least 2 independent petitions currently encourage academics to reduce their carbon footprint (Academic Flying 2015; Parncutt 2016). Consequently, sometimes even researchers who can afford to attend conferences in person sometimes choose not to. Given these barriers to conference attendance, many researchers and stakeholders are marginalized in the global conservation discussion. If ecology and conservation science are to progress, barriers to conference attendance need to be lowered. Supplementing in-person conferences with virtual conferencing would substantially improve accessibility and reduce their carbon footprint.

We explored the benefits and challenges of transitioning to virtual conferences by examining 4 alternative models of virtual conferences: pure virtual, one hub and node, multihub and node, and multilateral hub and node. We focused specifically on accessibility and carbon footprint. We suggest model choices that we believe meet ecology and conservation-science objectives while retaining most benefits of traditional conferences. We limited our scope to issues specific to academic conferences rather than issues, such as language barriers, which apply to scientific communication more broadly.

Access to In-Person Conferences

Many researchers and stakeholders have limited access to in-person conferences due to inadequate funding for travel, including those from low-income countries or poorly funded institutions, students, and those living in places remote from conference venues. Diversity-focused travel grants and scholarships are great initiatives addressing this problem, although they are often only available for a small number of people. International conferences tend to be held in the 36 countries classified as developed (UN DESA 2016). The remaining 81% of the 193 countries recognized by the United Nations (here, developing countries) have hosted a relatively small percentage of international ecology conferences (Table 1). As a result, researchers in developing countries typically face greater travel expenses than those in developed countries. Researchers from these countries are also likely to be under-resourced. For example, the average academic salary in Latin America is US$29,290, strikingly lower than the U.S. and Canadian average of US$100,722 (Zusi & Keener 2015). This disparity is somewhat ameliorated by differences in living expenses, but not when travel to developed countries is so often required to attend conferences.

Table 1. Percentage of international conservation and ecology conferences held in developing countries (UN DESA 2016).a
Conference Number of conferences Percent held in developing countries
International Congress for Conservation Biology 27 15
International Congress of Ecology 11 18
International Society for Behavioural Ecology 14 0
International Statistical Ecology Conference 5 0
International Society for Ecological Modelling 7 14
International Conference on Wildlife Ecology, Rehabilitation and Conservation 9 33
  • a Data on conference locations were sourced from the websites of societies that hold international conferences; only societies with records from 5 or more conferences were included.

The current demographics of major conferences demonstrate the difficulty for researchers in developing countries to attend international conferences. For example, at the 2016 Society for Conservation Biology's Oceania regional conference held in Australia, just 11% of attendees were from developing countries, despite these countries representing 28% of Oceania's population (UN DESA 2015). In contrast, at the Oceania 2014 regional conference held in Fiji (considered a developing country), 31% of attendees were from developing countries.

Many of the biggest conservation priorities occur and are studied in developing countries. Only 4 of the 23 global biodiversity hotspots include areas in developed countries (Myers et al. 2000). The researchers studying and conserving these hotspots are thus usually located in relatively low-income countries and have limited access to international conferences. It stands to reason that if the expenses of travel and accommodation were removed and conference registration costs were reduced (due to lower venue fees), it would be far easier for these researchers to participate in the global conservation discourse. Much of the research on biodiversity hotspots is led by researchers from other countries who are better able to afford to physically attend conferences (Meijaard et al. 2015; Wilson et al. 2016).

The Carbon Cost of In-Person Conferences

Conservation researchers want to share their findings with, and learn from, the global conservation community. Yet, by flying to international conferences, researchers contribute to one of the biggest long-term threats to biodiversity—climate change (Bellard et al. 2012). In 2008, the average CO2 emission of an academic presenting a paper at an international conference was 849 kg; academics from more isolated countries emitted up to 1891 kg (Spinellis & Louridas 2013). Research does not have to come at the cost of the environment or one's professional values. One estimate suggests that one student in a 4-year PhD program emits 21.5 t of CO2. This amount could be approximately halved if virtual technology removed the need to travel to meetings and conferences (Achten et al. 2013). Virtual conferencing could allow one to obtain equivalent benefits to traditional in-person conferences with a smaller carbon footprint.

Conferences in a Virtual World

Supplementing in-person conferences with virtual conferencing would help address the issues of accessibility and carbon footprint by reducing costs and travel distances. Virtual conferencing is widely used as a cost-effective way of providing educational resources remotely (Anderson 1996) and facilitating information transfer within organizations (Erickson et al. 2011). In academia, virtual conferencing technology is used either alone for an entirely virtual experience (Welch et al. 2010) or to supplement in-person conferences (Shirmohammadi et al. 2012). There are a variety of virtual-conferencing services, both free (e.g., secondlife, livestream.com, Twitter, Wordpress, and YouTube) and proprietary (e.g., LabRoots, iCohere, and vConference online), which support a range of conference activities, such as poster sessions and group discussions (often navigated using avatars), audio-visual streaming, and discussion boards. Virtual language translation tools could also help improve conference accessibility, although language barriers are a broader challenge for scientific communication (Clavero 2010) and are not the focus of this essay. Virtual services are necessary to implement virtual conferencing; however, conferences with more demanding applications may require advanced software and good internet speeds, which increase costs and limit accessibility for some participants.

Education, medical science, and humanities are beginning to successfully adopt virtual conferencing to disseminate research globally (e.g., Environmental Humanities Initiative 2016; LabRoots 2016). However, embracing virtual conference technology seems to have been slower in ecology and conservation. This might be because these disciplines prioritize different objectives. For example, in ecology, innovation in education is prioritized over reliable technology for data reproducibility. Recently, a few ecological conferences have used virtual conference technology, including hybrid conferences with some online content (e.g., The 2016 conference Tackling Emerging Fungal Threats to Animal Health, Food Security, and Ecosystem Resilience provided online access to recorded audio of the presentations) and pure-virtual conferences (e.g., the 2015 World Sea Bird Twitter Conference). Conservation organizations are testing the waters, but have yet to adopt virtual conferencing on a broad scale. We hope that proposing practical models for the implementation of virtual conferencing will encourage some to take the plunge.

Next-Generation Models for Virtual Conferencing

Virtual conferencing will not entirely replace in-person conference attendance in the near future. However, the use of virtual tools would increase the number of conferences that researchers can attend and, particularly, improve accessibility for remote and poorly funded researchers and students. Because virtual conferencing is relatively new to ecology and conservation, it may be necessary to test a number of formats and evaluate their success relative to attendance and diversity and delegate engagement and satisfaction (DeRosier et al. 2013). We examined 4 virtual conference models (Fig. 1): pure virtual, one hub and node, multihub and node, and multilateral hub and node (Fig. 2). We focused on their design and features that meet the demands of traditional conference attendance while presenting new directions for the future of conferencing. The hub and node models, adapted for the ecology and conservation fields, aim to minimize the limitations of the virtual format while maximizing the benefits.

Details are in the caption following the image
Conference traits compared across traditional in-person conference model and the 4 virtual models: pure virtual, one hub and node, multihub and node, and multilateral hub and node. See Supporting Information for full description of terms and Fig. 2 for diagram of conference model designs.
Details are in the caption following the image
Four virtual conference models illustrating potential hubs (red circles) and nodes (blue circles): (a) pure virtual, individuals interact online; (b) one hub and node, a central city serves as the conference hub; (c) multihub and node, conference operates across multiple hubs within one time zone; and (d) multilateral hub and node, conference operates across multiple hubs and multiple time zones (dashed lines, nodes interact with other nodes; solid lines, nodes connect to the hub; and thick solid lines, interactions between hubs). The figure represents a simplified example of common interactions; realistically, all nodes and hubs are interconnected.

Pure Virtual

The pure-virtual model (Fig. 2a) comprises a series of external locations all linked by a central conference virtual network. The key benefit of this model is convenience: it allows delegates to remotely participate in the conference from work, home, or even a public space. This model has substantially less overhead, such as organization and maintenance costs, because it is simple to administrate. It also reduces the need to travel and thus minimizes environmental costs (Fig. 1). An example of the pure-virtual model is the conference Climate Change: View from the Humanities (Environmental Humanities Initiative 2016).

One Hub and Node

The one hub and node model (Fig. 2b) has a central hub, such as a conference venue or university, which houses virtual conferencing equipment, internet access and power, and fixtures for a smaller, in-person conference, such as a traditional conference hall, refreshments, and communal areas. The hub aims to emulate the traditional conference site simply with similar, downsized features. The hub streams the conference proceedings to nodes—smaller external venues, such as a university department or research institute—where regional pools of delegates can meet, network, and attend the conference. We propose that delegates prerecord their talk; this recording would be played at the hub and all the nodes other than the one being physically attended by the delegate and would be available online for pure-virtual attendees. Delegates present live to their local audience (at the hub or node). Delegates from any node could then ask questions after each presentation. This reduces the possibility of encountering the technical difficulties of live streaming, while still providing the opportunity for delegates to hone their presentation skills and respond to questions in real time. It is also possible for pure-virtual participants to access the conference (even from remote locations in different time zones), but the nodes and hub allow delegates to network face-to-face (Fig. 1). They also serve as access points for delegates with no or limited computer or internet access.

Multihub and Node

The multihub and node model (Fig. 2c) incorporates the same hub elements as the one hub and node model, but it does so across multiple, international hub locations within a similar time zone. The virtual format of this model is identical to the one hub and node model, albeit with virtual conferencing facilities replicated across hubs. This model allows for large groups of delegates to gather at national hubs and enjoy the traditional conference experience when financially and environmentally viable, whereas other delegates can attend from regional nodes, home, or work. A key element of this model is that it is transnational: Hub access is in multiple countries. Having hubs in similar time zones preserves the real-time interaction of the one hub and node model, while reducing travel costs to a hub. This model also facilitates tourism and additional leisure elements, although it is less likely that researchers will capitalize on the possibility of visiting family or affiliated research institutions compared with the multilateral hub and node model (Fig. 1).

As an illustration of the multihub and node, consider the 2017 International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB). The conference will be held in Colombia and participants will travel globally to attend. Should the multihub and node model be used for ICCB 2017, it could include hubs in, say, Chile and eastern Canada. This would substantially reduce obvious travel costs (time, money, and carbon emissions) for Chileans and Canadians, but would also reduce travel for South Africans and Norwegians, for example. In this way, accessibility and emissions are improved, whereas real-time interaction through live streaming at all hubs and nodes is retained.

Multilateral Hub and Node

This model incorporates all the design elements of the multihub and node model, but the elements are replicated across multiple time zones (Fig. 2d). This is a subtle, but important, extension to the multihub and node model because it addresses the potential time and resource constraints to conference attendance by improving accessibility on a global scale. This model facilitates the possibility of research and leisure in different countries (Fig. 1) should delegates choose to travel to an international hub. By having a number of international hubs in different time zones, this model maximizes the possibility of visiting family and affiliated research institutions. However, time differences reduce the possibility of real-time interaction with other hubs and nodes.

To illustrate, again consider ICCB 2017. Using the multilateral hub and node model, the primary hub would be in Colombia and additional hubs would be in the 6 other regional sections of the Society of Conservation Biology (SCB). Node locations would be chosen depending on accessibility to the hub in each regional section. The hubs would facilitate international networking and in-person presentations, whereas the nodes would provide regional networking and internet access for virtual participation. The appropriate number and geographical distribution of hubs and nodes depends on the size of the conference. Adding hubs increases the number of locations that need to be organized, but the scale of organization required at each hub is reduced.

Embracing Virtual Conferencing within Conservation Research

The given 4 conference models (Figs. 1 & 2) each delivers opportunities for professional development, networking, and discussion, as well as allowing communication of research via poster sessions and oral presentations. We believe that the one hub and node model and the multihub and node model are the most suitable for ecology and conservation conferences because they incorporate virtual conferencing with the benefit of a central location to serve as a nerve center. Compared with the multilateral hub and node model (with potentially many hubs spread over a number of time zones), these 2 models are the most viable due to lower time and resource costs for organization and coordination between hubs. Having central conference hub locations and regional nodes allows participants the option to attend in person (unlike the pure-virtual model), but does not exclude others who do not have the means or inclination.

Societies and conference organizers that already have regional groupings for membership and conference hosting, such as SCB, are a natural fit for the hub and node structure, whereby local organization and support can be delegated. It may also be advantageous to alternate each year between a pure-virtual and a hub and node model to gain the benefits of both. Conference organizers can, of course, choose the models that best suit their needs.

Limitations of Virtual Conferencing

Virtual conferencing overcomes the 2 most pressing limitations of the traditional conference model: accessibility and carbon footprint. However, virtual conferences are not without limitations. Primary concerns surround the unreliability of technology, the effectiveness of communicating and networking online, and the general perception that virtual formats as networking tools will never replicate face-to-face interaction. However, we believe current technology, acceptance of next-generation communication tools, and concern for the environment are the catalysts needed to address these concerns.

Technological Difficulties

Although sophisticated communications technology is becoming increasingly accessible, running a virtual conference is not a straightforward task. The major technological difficulties of virtual conferencing include reliability and quality of delivery; access to appropriate computing and internet; and logistical issues, such as communicating across time zones (Erickson et al. 2011; Shirmohammadi et al. 2012). Simulcasting presentations is impractical in certain situations given time differences. For example, it is difficult to schedule when to contact delegates to discuss their presentation. One solution might be to request delegates to spend time addressing any questions or comments in the 24 h following their presentation. Other potential barriers to successful implementation include language differences and technical skill levels (Gunawardena et al. 2001).

Social Difficulties

Many argue that virtual technology can never truly replicate the social interactions required for effective networking (Anderson 1996; Chinowsky & Rojas 2003; Shirmohammadi et al. 2012). Indeed, it may be harder to bond with people without shaking their hand or sharing food at a conference dinner. Opponents of virtual conferences suggest that in-person contact is integral to developing codes of conduct and on-going collaboration, both of which virtual conferences struggle to achieve (Chinowsky & Rojas 2003; Welch et al. 2010). This may be because it is more difficult to fully engage with a virtual conference because the distractions of work and family commitments are still present in ways absent from in-person conferences (Bell & Shank 2006). However, the hub and node models address these issues by incorporating face-to-face interaction with virtual conferencing.


Virtual conferencing provides an opportunity to obtain many of the benefits of in-person conferences while reducing the time, financial, and environmental costs of traveling to international destinations. Virtual conferencing opens the door for researchers from poorly funded countries or institutions to more easily participate in the international research discussion. It also provides a genuine alternative to those who choose to limit their carbon footprint by not traveling. The main limitation of the pure-virtual conference model is the inability to network face-to-face, which is why we believe the one hub and node model is the most suitable introduction to the virtual format. In this model, traveling is still encouraged, but it is optional, and the need for long-distance travel is removed, reducing costs for attendees and the environment. In return for this compromise, the one hub and node model provides opportunities to network with potential colleagues and renew collaborations on a regional basis.

There are several recent, promising examples of pure-virtual and hybrid (in-person plus virtual) conferences in ecology and conservation, but the uptake of virtual conferencing is lower than it ought to be given the potential benefits. Using a virtual format, it is possible to communicate research with people who would otherwise have been unable to attend the conference. We believe conservation and ecology researchers should be active advocates of virtual conferencing to help reduce their collective contribution to climate change and improve knowledge exchange with some of the most biologically rich, yet financially poor, parts of the world. Furthermore, we believe that there is an opportunity for the organizers of larger conferences to lead by example and demonstrate that virtual conferences can work successfully in ecology and conservation. Funding agencies and research institutions can play a key role in this process by engaging with conference organizers and encouraging participation.


Ideas for this paper were inspired from discussions during the Quantitative and Applied Ecology (QAEco) and Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis (CEBRA) workshop in Melbourne, Australia. Financial support for the workshop was provided by QAEco, University of Melbourne. H.F. is funded by the Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions. We thank F. Roberts for early comments on the manuscript and V. Adams and S. Jupiter for providing data on demographics from Society of Conservation Biology Oceania conferences.