Is it time to write off 2020 yet?
I realize it’s only March. Early March at that. Still, it feels weirdly like 2019 was several years ago. My current pessimism comes from the fact that it’s budget time at my office. I am looking at how my budget did with 2019, how it’s looking so far with 2020, and what I should do with 2021.
COVID-19 has set off a global ripple of disruption as well as opportunities for innovation. Forecasting how this year will end is no small task. Looking into the crystal ball of 2021 is flat out impossible.
Within our scholarly publishing world, we are certainly not immune to resource needs and revenue uncertainty.
Most biomedical or clinical journals have committed resources to rapidly peer-review and produce papers related to COVID-19. In order to make this work, many journals are standing up expert reviewer teams and asking that they be available to review submissions quickly. If appropriate for publication, those papers are getting moved through the copyedit and production process as quickly as possible.
This rapid response is not necessarily sustainable if you are counting on volunteer reviewers. It also seems reasonable to expect that the number of papers will ramp up in the coming months. All in all, it’s a resource intensive process that makes it hard to predict your upcoming expenses. Journals that have employed a rapid publication process will also need to review whether non-COVID-19 papers took longer to publish than normal, given the preference given for publishing COVID-19 papers.
There will also be the inevitable questions about why rapid publication can happen in a crisis and not at other times. I am sure journals offices are doing all kinds of different workflows and it would be great to evaluate them in due course.
Subscriptions and Economic Uncertainty
When entire countries and/or regions are shut down, there will be a disruption in payments or even orders. Universities shut down for short periods of time may get back to business as usual fairly quickly. Those that remain closed for several months of the school year will certainly have higher priorities and could just forgo a subscription year. And, as universities will move to “critical only” tasks, it seems possible that the transformative agreement you always wanted will be put on hold due to lack of anyone to negotiate with.
Companies are beginning to prepare for potential office closings with high levels of “work from home” anticipated. Scholarly content processing is, fortunately, work that can be done mostly remote. Still, organizations that don’t have capabilities for functions like video conferencing may find it difficult to transition quickly when companies like Zoom are already experiencing overload. Having a plan (and not depending on free online services) will be critical in the coming weeks. Identifying critical work and non-critical work and thinking through not just talent issues, but also supply chain issues, is well worth the time.
A week or so ago, APS cancelled their meeting in Denver only 32 hours before the meeting was set to begin. They had, I am sure, solid reasons for doing so and very little precedent to follow. With 11,000 people from all over the world set to gather, they made the call that the current spread of COVID-19 presented more of a risk for them and their attendees than they wanted to make.
Many other scientific societies have since cancelled their annual meetings or smaller workshops. I think the only thing worse than cancelling a meeting is having a meeting that no one attends. Particularly for a scientific conference where researchers are coming to share their work via poster or presentation, finding an alternative is frustrating.
Whether to cancel a meeting seems to be taking on different forms: fewer people will come but too many speakers have cancelled; employers aren’t reimbursing for travel so people are cancelling; public pressure to cancel causes confusion.
Conference output differs widely depending on the discipline. In biomedical fields, the society may only publish abstracts with presentations likely to be turned into journal articles that are then published. Some disciplines have extensive poster activity. In engineering or computer sciences, it is more common to publish short conference papers in a proceedings volume and then present that paper at a conference. These proceedings are typically sold as books or conference packages to institutions via subscription.
If conferences don’t happen, the publisher may lose the conference generated revenue for the proceedings as well as being concerned about the subscription revenue.
Despite calls for shifting to more environmentally sustainable conferences in some fields, societies have yet to see a groundswell of support for virtual meetings and as such, very few exist. Many conferences may now have a virtual component, typically with lackluster results. It’s one thing to try and offer a virtual component of an in-person meeting. It’s another to try to create a virtual event with an in-person component. Most meetings still fall in the first category.
The infrastructure for hosting a large-scale virtual meeting has not been widely tested.
Recent conference cancellations have been too hasty to have time to address virtual presentations. That said, depending on how long travel bans and concerns about large congregations loom, organizations with conferences later in the year may have time to proactively plan.
Smaller scale operations have popped up with recent cancellations. Organizers of tracks within the APS meeting pulled together websites for presenters to include video presentations. Preprint servers and platforms such as FigShare can be used for poster presentations.
What gets lost when the presentations start popping up on unrelated websites, is the “community” that a conference is trying to serve. In an ideal world, the society hosting the conference would have a platform for the conference output, with an easy way for presenters to get their content on the platform, and some way for the community to interact with the content.
Other creative opportunities — such as conference branded webinar series sponsored by conference exhibitors; online networking; opportunities to interact with industry leaders via chat or “ask me anything” types of events; conference branded regional meet-ups (again with conference sponsor/exhibitor support); modified journal clubs, but with presentations — may help societies maintain the social aspect of a conference in a virtual format.
All of these initiatives require planning; but could also be done after a planned conference has been cancelled. In other words, organize a set of virtual events as a postponed conference.
The Future of Conferences
Annual meetings and conferences are large revenue generating events for most societies. A cancellation of an annual meeting can be catastrophic to the bottom line. A big question will remain after 2020, will big annual conferences come back? A year (for those annual meetings) is a long time for alternative offerings to supplant a conference. Will exhibitors find that their business was not negatively impacted by not attending conferences? Will companies decide that their employees did just fine without the expense of attending conferences? Will academics find other ways on other platforms to engage? Will big meetings seem like too much of a risk and be replaced with smaller, more frequent (and local) meetings?
The global COVID-19 crisis is forcing a certain amount of creativity in the scholarly communication ecosystem. In an environment where change is often met with complacency and inertia, a global pandemic may force the issue. If we embrace the change and become more nimble in how we meet, network, share, and communicate, there may be no going back.