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.

overhead view of a crowd

Rapid Publication

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.

Office Closings

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.

Conference Publications

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.

Conference Attendance

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.

Angela Cochran

Angela Cochran

Angela Cochran is Vice President of Publishing at the American Society of Clinical Oncology. She is past president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing and of the Council of Science Editors. Views on TSK are her own.


17 Thoughts on "Making a Plan When Planning Is Impossible"

It’s worth mentioning also that major international book fairs and conferences are already under scrutiny in any organization taking the Green agenda at all seriously. Restricting international air travel is a key aspect of that agenda the current crisis may turn out in time to have been a catalyst for a seismic shift in global collaboration

Yes, I think that is the sub-plot here. The current situation could lead to a violent shove into taking the sustainability issues into consideration.

Re: the future of the big conference. Please also consider that the economies that surround conference centers. Conference centers are surrounded by hotel, restaurant, and retail that will go away if the convention centers stop attracting millions of visitor per year. I don’t see it happening.

Thank you for the article, Angela. Among the many losses you recognize when a conference cancels, posters and presentations are a significant one, for they disproportionately effect early career researchers. Readers might be interested in Morressier’s partnership model with societies for digitizing, hosting, and sharing this critical early stage research. It’s a timely solution in the case of conference cancellations, but also what we strongly believe is the future to increasing access to this scientific scholarship.

I know of several societies that are already rethinking these conference outputs. AGU developed their preprint server 2 or 3 years ago for exactly this content. Video will be a serious topic of discussion–in some cases actual video of presentations and in others, narrated slide shows. There is valuable content and it’s valuable to those that could not attend the conference as well. As societies start to think more about their value proposition when it comes to offering networking opportunities, particularly for early career members, capturing this content and giving it a wider audience will be strategically important.

I think one reason in-person conferences have continued to be useful is they present a chance to get out of your work space and thus out of your usual head space. While phones have tied us more closely to our offices, we’re still *not at work*. I don’t think it’s easy to set aside time in your home office to view and participate in a virtual conference. That will take dedication and a behavior change (as most good things require).
I know of a cultural anthropology conference that went virtual a couple years ago for environmental reasons.

Zoom is not overloaded. It’s just one of the audio options that’s been an issue. Computer audio works fine, no overloading, stop spreading fake news.

If you read the linked message from Zoom, they are saying that due to increased demand, they are reducing their service levels. Nothing fake about the fact that they are struggling with capacity issues and for many with limited internet access, having phone audio no longer available is problematic.

It would also make sense that they throttle free use in favor of accommodating the large paying customers that are likely increasing usage.

Re: “The infrastructure for hosting a large-scale virtual meeting has not been widely tested.” – not sure how large is large-scale, but have you heard of It’s being used to host #SheetsCon2020, and there are currently 1,400 people at the main stage event.

I feel that the Researcher to Reader Conference (which I convene) was very lucky with its timing in late February in London, especially seeing this week’s London Book Fair cancelled.
Although I personally have high hopes of a return to some sort of normalcy within a few months, at R2R we will be giving more thought to remote or virtual solutions as an option or contingency in future.
BUT, for many people, real personal interaction is a terribly important part of both the effectiveness and satisfaction at a conference, and that seems to be very challenging to simulate electronically. Humans just seem to work better with face-to-face contact, and there is also great value in the the serendipity of semi-randomly encountering people who are in the same or adjacent parts of our domains. This is especially true if we are to improve communication amongst the sometimes conflicting participants in the scholarly communications lifecycle.

Couple of links, one aspect that keeps getting missed in these discussions are exhibitors. To toot my own horn here, you can read some responses in the story I wrote on APS.

and a colleague followed up with some of the tactics APS attendees used afterwards (just in case people want links to some of the stuff they are up to).

I think the fees for cancelling hotel rooms etc.. are going to bite and change both conference attendees and exhibitors behavior. For example, a short vacation we were planning for New York, we might have to take a $600 hit because we can postpone or cancel the room.

Thank you for this timely article! It especially resonated with me since Project MUSE today made the decision to not hold our in-person Publishers Meeting in Baltimore next month. The MUSE Publishers Meeting is always our favorite event of year, and we are still very excited about the program we are putting together, as well as the annual opportunity to meet and network with many of our participating publishers. MUSE plans to parlay these difficult circumstances into an opportunity to reach even more of our publishers across the world with a virtual program. There are still many questions we need to unpack regarding digital conferencing, but we are up to the challenge to develop an engaging and effective online meeting!

Another wrinkle are the travel bans imposed on healthcare providers and professionals in times of pandemic or widespread outbreaks. Doctors, nurses, and other providers can and may be restricted by their practices or hospitals from traveling from their locales. These recede as the emergency recedes.

What I hope we never lose is the sense of “community” at an event like an annual scientific meeting. These meetings are always far more than just the scholarshiop presented; it’s the reconnection with global colleagues and friends, the sharing of new ideas, insights and epiphanies and the breaking of bread with people you don’t always get to see that also brings immeasurable value to these in-person events. Here’s hoping for the best and safety and health for all!

It has happened before and it will happen again. Does anyone remember Internet World? I still have a 1999 Internet World t-shirt. The Dotcom Bomb followed shortly by 9/11 saw the demise and/or diminution of many conferences and large gatherings. It happened again around the time of the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

Most conferences survived albeit smaller while some died. What were the lessons learned? Why did some survive and not others? A few actually have been growing since 2008. Why? How? Of course, these crises are opportunities for organizations of all types (for-profit, government, non-profits) to extend travel restrictions well beyond the crisis as a big budget saver. Organizationally imposed travel restrictions on employees will continue long after all of the government-imposed restrictions have been lifted for this crisis. This will include all kinds of travel including conferences.

Economic crisis? Terrorist crisis? Pandemic? Fire? Force majeure? There are all kinds of “disasters” to consider in disaster and continuity planning. Did your discovery services serve up timely, relevant, high-quality content? Did you have an unseemly, disjointed scramble? Did you miss critical content? How does The Weather Channel deal with fast changing, life-threatening weather? What is working in this crisis? What isn’t working?

5G will help eliminate any technological barriers to mass attended Webinars. What technology will have trouble eradicating is attention span. Who can really sit through a 60-minute Webinar let along two and a half days? I can’t. How do newly minted PhDs make personal impressions during a Webinar? How would technology replicate those wonderful, serendipitous foyer meeting? How do vendors get the marketing economies of scale the comes with meeting many of our clients and prospects in one place? Social media helps with marketing, but not sales. Conferences have a place and will begin growing again, but they must plan for the next annual meeting forced cancelation. How do you get them back in the big tent?

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