Virtual conferences are better for the environment and more inclusive, but…

Research by a team led by engineers from The University of Texas at Austin analyzed several science conferences that first went virtual during the early months of the pandemic. It may not come as a surprise, but they found that this shift has made it easier for more people who could not previously attend these events to participate and lowered their environmental footprint. (you can check the research by Matthew Skiles et al, 2021 here).

So, no more real-life conferences? Hold your horses, because there are also downsides. In 2012 the annual American Political Science Association conference was last minute cancelled because of Hurricane Isaac. The consequence was clear. de Leon and McQuillin (2014) found that papers that would have been presented at that conference were much less cited afterwards. The effect of conferences are clear:

…on average, articles gain 17-26 downloads in the 15 months after being presented in a conference. The effects are larger for papers authored by scholars affiliated to lower tier universities and scholars in the early stages of their career.  (source)

Also, another study by Chai and Freeman (2019) showed that meeting each other at conferences can have a positive impact on collaboration.

But those studies examined the difference between being cancelled or IRL, not between online and IRL. A study of what happened when Apple started limiting the people attending their WWDC-conferences do show that effect. From 2016 on, only 5000 attendees were allowed. Attendance was decided based on a lottery, making it very interesting for research. Foerderer (2020) discovered that developers taking part in the WWDC IRL became more innovative in their apps and received more positive feedback on their apps.

So, don’t throw away those IRL conferences just yet, although the benefits of virtual conferences are clear.

P.S.: This post was in part inspired by a column prof. Frederik Anseel wrote for the Belgian news paper De Tijd.


  • Chai, S., & Freeman, R. B. (2019). Temporary colocation and collaborative discovery: Who confers at conferences. Strategic Management Journal40(13), 2138-2164.
  • de Leon, F. L., & McQuillin, B. (2014). The role of conferences on the pathway to academic impact: Evidence from a natural experiment (No. 1408). School of Economics Discussion Papers.
  • Foerderer, J. (2020). Interfirm Exchange and Innovation in Platform Ecosystems: Evidence from Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. Management Science66(10), 4772-4787.
  • Skiles, M., Yang, E., Reshef, O. et al. (2021). Conference demographics and footprint changed by virtual platforms. Nature Sustainability.

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