Envisaging enhanced accessibility

CTC collab

Source: © M-H Jeeves

With virtual conferences, researchers can travel the world from the comfort and convenience from their homes

As an early-career researcher from a developing country, I have found it hard to attend in-person academic conferences. A conference I attended as a PhD student in autumn 2019 made me pay around £860 for registration, hotel, local transport and local poster printing out of my own pocket. There were also several international conferences that I wanted to attend but could not because they were held in a global north country notorious for its troublesome visa application process.

By contrast, the online conferences that happened in 2020 and 2021 were much more enjoyable because of better accessibility – most of them charged no registration fees and there were absolutely no visa requirements.

I am not the only person who finds attending conferences challenging. I frequently see on X (the platform previously known as Twitter) researchers complaining about how inaccessible conferences often are. The vast majority of these researchers are early in their career, based in the global south, or disabled or chronically ill. They often couldn’t attend conferences in the pre-Covid era due to lack of accessibility, attended and enjoyed online conferences during the Covid lockdown, and find it difficult to attend conferences again following the removal of Covid restrictions across the globe.

So what accessibility problems have stopped us from attending in-person conferences? The biggest problem that affects early-career researchers worldwide is obviously a lack of travel funding. But this problem is much worse for those from the global south. The funding available from their own countries is usually far from sufficient to cover international travel costs, especially the significantly higher costs in global north countries. But it is impossible for aspiring researchers to avoid travelling to the global north for conferences, as that’s where most prestigious international scientific conferences are held.

Also, when travelling internationally to conferences, global south researchers often face visa issues. Many global north countries have made it difficult for global south researchers to obtain even a week-long visa. Applications may be rejected even when researchers have a secure academic position and enough funding for their trip.

A big new problem has come up since the start of the Covid pandemic: many disabled or chronically ill researchers refuse to attend in-person events, as they try to avoid Covid infections that could exacerbate their existing health conditions. The return to in-person meetings has simply erased these researchers from conferences.

So how could we make academic conferences in the future more accessible and inclusive? Here is what I envisage.

No in-person-only conferences would still exist. There would be some entirely virtual conferences in every field of research, which would charge a very small or no registration fee.

The other conferences would all go hybrid. Those who attend completely virtually would have their registration fee waived or be charged significantly less than those who attend in-person. There would be virtual-only social sessions (for example, a virtual pub quiz) open to all attendees, to make sure everyone has a chance to make friends and form collaborations. For international conferences where attendees are based across the world, social sessions would be planned for at least two very different time zones. In the distant future when every student and staff member has access to VR (virtual reality) technology, this could even be used to better engage virtual-only attendees.

The in-person part of each hybrid conference would also be improved considerably. Most international conferences would be held in global south countries or global north countries with more generous visa approval systems, and events would be announced at least six months in advance to give attendees time to go through the visa application process. Conferences would be hosted in cities that are easily accessible by air and by rail, and with good public transport. Instead of the current expensive recommended hotels (which are unaffordable to many researchers even with conference discounts), organisers would arrange for attendees to stay affordably in nearby student accommodation or budget hotels.

The organisers would also strive to lower registration fees for everyone. Some early-career researchers would even get their trips subsidised by the conference organisers. These grants should be paid upfront, and paid as early as possible.

Additionally, conferences would be Covid-safe. Masks would be required, rapid Covid test kits would be handed out, air purifiers would be running, and rooms would be well ventilated. Anyone who tested positive for Covid would have to switch to virtual-only attendance. Everyone would feel safer attending these conferences – not only disabled or chronically ill researchers.

These suggested changes may look daunting now, but we can achieve them little by little. As a result, our academic conferences would see an increased level of diversity in attendees, which would in the long run help build a more diverse, healthier academia as a whole.