Cancel Everything – or Just Postpone?

Because of the Coronavirus pandemic, many conference organisers are currently struggling with hard decisions: should we cancel? Postpone? Or maybe go virtual? All decisions have pros and cons, and we’ve weighed them against each other.

Academic conference organisers are stuck between a rock and a hard place as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads and new instructions aim at social distancing.

Organisers have been following instructions and updates from the World Health Organization, national health authorities and university policies, and as the most recent recommendations make conference gatherings impossible, organising committees all around the world have been forced with heavy hearts to arrive at the decision to #canceleverything, as the viral saying goes.

Most of the Nordic media conferences in March and April in Nordicom’s conference calendar have been cancelled – for example, the Collaborative Visual Research Conference in Gothenburg and the Helsinki Photomedia Conference. Other conferences have been relocated, like the IAMCR conference, or postponed, like the 15th EASE Conference. Others, for example, the 70th Annual ICA Conference have decided to go entirely virtual. 

– The small team behind the Helsinki Photomedia Conference has been closely following the unfolding of the events since January. In the current light of events we see no other responsible way in approaching this matter than cancelling this year’s conference, says Hanna Weselius, member of the organising committee. 

– The health and safety of the attendees, presenters, colleagues, and students are what we have prioritised in our decision making. The updated Aalto University policy does not allow to organise events or invite any guests until 31 May 2020. 

The work involved in the decision to cancel includes communication to all stakeholders, refunding conference fees, and rescheduling the conference.

Pros and Cons of the Alternatives

+ The work done so far will be preserved
– Still uncertain if the pandemic situation will be stable in the Fall
– Many conferences will co-occur and overlap in the Fall
– Fewer participants at conferences as academics must be more selective in planning conference travels

Going virtual
+ A new way of participation
– Not as attractive to all participants as an onsite conference

+ Less effort for conference organisers
– Organisers will lose all the input already developed for the 2020 edition
– Organisers will lose the income from the 2020 conference
– Organisers will lose the momentum with the community

Going virtual may imply an unexpectedly high amount of work, as the routines are not tested yet.

The International Association for the Study of the Commons implemented a virtual conference in 2018. The work was carried out solely by two volunteers without any funding, as it was a pilot.

– We had 40 videos and 100 participants. A physical meeting needs more work to plan and implement lodging, travel, visa, daycare, excursions, dinners, social events, and alike. All these fall out when organising a virtual conference, says Marco A. Janssen, president of the association and professor at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University.

Still, communication and technical solutions demand a lot of efforts. Where will presentations be submitted and how? What is expected from virtual presentations? Is there technical support available? How will real-time interaction be enabled, or will it be enabled?

– I hope that over time the experience of a virtual meeting improves, and where we have professional staff implementing it – and people are willing to pay for attending, Janssen concludes.

Text: Maarit Jaakkola
Photo: Illustration created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention