Going online can redress global inequalities in academic collaboration

Like many academics, my 2020 diary has gone from full to empty in the space of a week. Planned fieldwork trips, seminars, research meetings, workshops, talks… all have been cancelled. Much of this has gone online, sometimes smoothly, sometimes not. Even the digital recalcitrant are learning new skills, as we zoom our elders, our students and our research teams.

As we worry about our loved ones, obsessively track the metrics, and mourn the human costs of this tragic pandemic, spare a passing thought for the conference organisers. Academic conferences and set-piece annual conventions are eagerly anticipated and take years to organise. The endless hours that go into planning the programme, selecting panels and inviting speakers are suddenly rendered useless. Hotel bookings, catering, logistics, venues: none of it matters now.

Professional societies are responding in different ways to the pandemic, perhaps reflecting their disciplinary cultures and financial commitments. The decisions are painful and expensive, reflecting the care that goes into preparing these rituals of collective academic effervescence. Some are postponing their 2020 conferences to a future year. Others are simply cancelling outright, feeling that there is no substitute for a face-to-face gathering, and apprehensive about  the virtualisation of academic sociality.  A few dither.

Importantly, a growing number of associations are responding to these exceptional times by shifting their annual events online, prompted not just by national lockdowns, but also by restrictions on future academic travel imposed by universities. Events as large as the American Association of Geographers (AAG, normal attendance 9,000) or AIDS 2020 (the 2018 event attracted 15,000) are planning to go virtual, or have already done so.

Online academic conferencing is by no means new. There are many precedents on which to draw, including decentralised and distributed events and the ‘Nearly Carbon-Neutral’ vision of the Environmental Humanities Initiative at University of California, Santa Barbara. But most have been niche affairs. To date, many associations have discouraged online participation at their events, aware that long-distance skype participation in a live panel is often frustrating, and feels like a pale substitute for the conference experience.

As some conferences go fully online for the first time, a real-time mass experiment is underway. Some are streaming panels via Youtube, others are using innovative conferencing software, such as Shindig and Hopin, to trial new genres of live academic sociality.

One package offers speed-dating sessions, another allows peer-to-peer video chats even within a large plenary presentation. Both are available as smartphone apps. Suddenly one can gossip, sotto-voce, to your neighbour about the quality of the keynote without fear of being overheard. Concerns about bandwidth, and the costs of data where internet connections are of low quality, remain very real, but across the world many academics are likely to already be reliant on their smartphone or a broadband account for their work.

This is one of those rare moments where the basic sociology of knowledge production is up for grabs. Place-based academic conferences are not just about meeting friends, gossiping in corridors and spotting the big names. They do deep cultural work, nurturing academic identities and disciplinary belonging. They are places to find collaborators, to apply for jobs, talk to journal editors, and hear the latest research.

But these communities exclude as much as they include. Those unable to travel because of disabilities or caring responsibilities have long criticised the exclusivity of place-based gatherings. In a state of exception, online conferences offer a simulacrum of normalcy. But now is the time to think about how they could, and should, enable a much more radically inclusive model of academic networking.

Why does this matter for scholars based on the African continent? All too often they find themselves excluded from international conferences.

These are the events that bring disciplinary communities together, events dominated by European and American voices.  Even within African studies, the evidence of discrimination is all too visible in the composition of journal editorial boards and professional associations.  The finances of international travel are prohibitive, and Africa-based scholars have been hard hit by highly discriminatory visa regimes.

This is why the darkening clouds of the Covid-19 pandemic may, eventually, have a small silver lining. The Open Science movement has been boosted by publishers freely sharing pandemic-related research. Opening up conference cultures by moving online could be a parallel move: widening access to disciplinary knowledge cultures.

I have been working with a team of researchers to explore the challenges that African scholars face in getting their work published in academic journals. Like higher education systems everywhere, African universities are increasingly driven by the global logics of research rankings and journal impact. Academic promotions, tenure decisions and even the award of Masters and PhD degrees depend on getting publications in ‘international’ journals as quickly as possible.

Usually the first step for an early career researcher is to present at a departmental seminar, and then perhaps at a national or regional conference to get feedback. Yet national and regional academic communities are being steadily undermined. A high proportion of Africa-based journals listed on AJOL (African Journals Online) are not included in citation indexes like Scopus or Web of Science.

Discouraged from conferencing or publishing ‘locally’, many African scholars are equally frustrated by what they perceive to be the painfully slow decision-making processes of many Northern humanities and or social science journals, facing repeated rounds of peer-review or repeated rejections.

If a key barrier to attending an international conference is financial, virtual conferences change everything. Registration rates can be much lower – the AAG charges students $10 to attend, and members $20. Compare that with the thousands of dollars (flight, accommodation, visa fees etc) it can cost to attend a US conference from Africa.

Virtual conferencing does not come free. These events still need professional organisers to organise timetables, facilitate the new software and troubleshoot technical problems. But going online avoids exhausting international travel, the humiliations of visa restrictions, and the human costs of leaving behind family and caring responsibilities. It is also the ethical decision, minimising the addition of yet more carbon to the atmosphere.

Conferences have traditionally been the place to learn more about one’s field, to meet publishers, pitch ideas to journal editors, and get work published in special issues or conference proceedings. Editors are often keen to solicit work and promote their journals. If you cannot attend, you miss out.

But all these activities can now be facilitated online. In our research we have heard many stories of the challenges of getting published in the ‘right’ journals. The prevailing sense is that the existing ‘high impact’ journals are biased against African scholars. Denied these opportunities, some have turned instead to journals that are all too quickly dismissed by Northern gatekeepers as ‘predatory’ (a word we would ban) or simply of questionable quality. Others end up paying expensive Article Processing Charges (APCs) to get their work published in a timely manner, even while many existing journals (especially in the humanities and social sciences) do not charge APCs.

Opening up every aspect of conference culture (including online publishers’ stalls and ‘meet-the-editor’ sessions)  would bring more transparency to these disciplinary peer-review and publication cultures.

What if this rush to online conferencing is just an exceptional response to exceptional times? Some insist that 2020 should not set a precedent, and that as soon as possible their associations’ meetings need to return to ‘normal’. This would be a wasted opportunity.

The acute challenges presented by Covid-19 cannot distract us from the worsening climate crisis, manifested in growing levels of pollution-related mortality. There is a growing field of research seeking to understand the deep psychic attachment of academics to conference sociality and the normativity of carbon-intensive ‘academic aeromobility’. Making virtual conference attendance a ‘second-best’ option would lead to two-tier participation, further discriminating against those already on the academic periphery. The current hiatus is a time to rethink our default model of networking as travel, and to explore other approaches to connecting and thinking together.

Back in the 16th Century, a small group of privileged, white (and overwhelmingly) male scholars in America and Europe began to correspond about their scientific research. Over time they came to refer to this as a ‘republic of letters’, blithely unaware of those excluded from this ‘community’ on grounds of race, gender and class. Today’s global science system promises to make the knowledge commons a shared public good, but continues to devalue and dismiss the contributions of those at the margins.

Moving  conferences online should not be a one-off crisis response, but also a moment to rethink the very concept of academic community. Dare we begin to imagine a radically inclusive republic of letters?

David Mills is an Associate Professor at the Department of Education, University of Oxford, and Treasurer of the European Association of Social Anthropologists. His work on  universities and disciplinary cultures includes the book Difficult Folk? A political history of Social Anthropology.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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