Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Sami Benchekroun and Michelle Kuepper, respectively Co-Founder/Managing Director and Head of Communications at Morressier, the platform for early-stage research. (Full disclosure: use of this platform is mentioned in the post below)

The current international health crisis surrounding coronavirus is wreaking havoc across the globe and is now also having a major impact on the scholarly ecosystem. Academic conferences are being hardest hit as event after event is cancelled to reduce the risk of the virus spreading further.

These cancelations are resulting in turmoil for many would-be attendees who have often spent months preparing for events and not only lose out on time and money, but also on the opportunity to discover and share valuable early-stage research. This can be particularly devastating for early-career researchers who are more reliant on the exposure and networking opportunities that conferences offer to get ahead in their careers.

meeting poster session

Canceled meetings also have a detrimental impact on scientific progress as a whole. Conferences are often the first place for the latest findings to be shared with the community, and without them we also lose vital early-stage research, discussion opportunities, and professional connections — all of which could lead to the next breakthrough or valuable new collaboration opportunity.

For this reason, physical conferences will always play an essential role in the scientific ecosystem. However, the wave of recent cancelations due to coronavirus has made it undeniably clear that all conferences must have a strategy in place to provide delegates with the most value, whether they can attend the event itself or not. A comprehensive digital presence does not take away from an in-person event, but rather serves to enhance the entire conference experience and extend its reach by welcoming a far wider group of researchers into the conversation.

Luckily, there are many tools at organizers’ disposal that can help digitize conferences. Almost 10 years ago, Marc Andreesen coined the phrase ‘“software is eating the world”; today, it’s more like services are eating software, and academic conferences are no different. Cloud-based, easily integrable technologies are leading the way in digitizing conferences and increasing the usefulness of the research that is shared at these events.

Digital conferences, already commonplace in the technology industry, are slowly making their way into institutional and society meetings. Conferences can use live streaming services such as Zoom to broadcast presentations and speeches, or turn to the Virtual Science Forum for advice on how to organize and host virtual meetings. Webinars serve as a useful replacement for working sessions – Zoom’s webinar tool, for example, provides interactive features to allow participants to ask and answer questions, vote in polls, and offer commentary throughout the session. Panopto, which many universities already use to record lectures, is now increasingly being engaged to capture meeting sessions and video poster presentations at conferences. Once an event is over, content platforms such as LinkedIn’s Slideshare allow presenters to easily upload slides and supporting material.

With the technology services we currently have at our disposal, there’s also no excuse for conference content to be restricted to the offline realm. Conferences are increasingly providing online platforms to showcase abstracts, posters, and presentations both before and after the event. Bringing this research online ensures that it doesn’t disappear when delegates roll up their posters and head home, and also offers the potential to disseminate this content to the wider research community, whether they can attend the event or not. Digitizing early-stage research and integrating it into wider scholarly communications is the main goal of our company, Morressier, which Sami founded five years ago. We provide DOIs for each document to ensure that they can be securely shared and cited, and that authors receive the recognition they deserve. This way, regardless of whether an event is cancelled or not, research always remains accessible for the long-term.

There’s no doubt that digital content platforms serve as a necessary addition to traditional paper posters, however, one feature of physical conferences that is more difficult to replicate is the benefit of in-person networking. Conferences offer the potential to discuss research face-to-face and make connections in a more casual setting, such as over dinner or at networking events. While nothing can fully replace the value of a real-life conversation, there are technology services that can enhance the experience.

Matchmaking tools, already common in technology events, can allow delegates to connect with relevant researchers virtually and exchange ideas around their topic of interest. Attendees can use these tools to fill out their profile, including their interests and key research fields, and algorithms then match them to other relevant delegates, with matches then ‘meeting’ each other via video calls. One such app that we recently encountered is Braindate, which makes it easy to find and chat with attendees depending on their interests, and even to invite a group of experts to come together around a particular topic. This feature helped to foster a more varied and in-depth discussion of research questions and reduced the pressure of a one-on-one meeting.

The services mentioned in this article are just some of many excellent software tools at conference organizers’ disposal, and we invite readers of this post to share their experience of using them and others. As we look to an uncertain future, it is all the more important that academic conferences find a way to support the virtual sharing of knowledge. If scientific research is held back there will be no cure for coronavirus, and no solution to whatever challenge humanity faces next. By taking steps to digitize conferences, organizers can ensure early-stage research gets the platform it deserves and scientists have the resources they need to accelerate their breakthroughs, without facing health risks.

Discussion

15 Thoughts on "Guest Post — Coronavirus is a Wakeup Call for Academic Conferences. Here’s Why"

Some time ago I went to a conference (biochemistry?) when the keynote was given by Francis Crick after he became a Nobel laureate. It was a uniquely formed presentation in that he did not reference a single publication. He delineated what he regarded as the key questions which required answers and then described his recent visits to what he saw as the key laboratories, where they were with their research and what he thought about their progress. It was stunning. Our research on Trust (CIBER) has shown the continued importance of peer reviewed publication for most researchers but for the very top players it is probable that the loss of conferences and international travel is really very much more important than it is to most of us

“…Physical conferences will always play an essential role in the scientific ecosystem.”
As the post points out, obviously not! The scientific ecosystem evolves. It’ll be replaced by something else more adaptive.

Thank you for your perspective, Phil. I agree that the scientific ecosystem evolves and will hopefully continue to adapt to changing needs. That said, I do think there will always be a need to connect in person when possible and share ideas face to face.

I’m an adacemic librarian running a crowdsourced list of cancelled cons here: bit.ly/cancelledcons
I saw a need to gather this information in real time to provide documentation as well as support conference organizers in decisionmaking. Several researchers have already expressed interest in using the data to estimate carbon emissions implications.

Some wag (can’t remember who) has already written (can’t remember where) that to simulate presenting his paper at a canceled conference, he simply delivered the paper to his family in the living room, thus simulating an 8 a.m. session, and then drank a cheap beer, after flushing $9 down the toilet.

It is undeniable that we have entered an era of dematerialization and remote meetings. In addition, the absence of air travel has allowed the planet to breathe. However, direct contact can never be replaced, especially for young researchers and researchers from the SouthS who find in these physical encounters opportunities that do not allow remote meetings

Thank you Samir! You are absolutely right – it is a combination of in person meetings and virtual enhancements where the magic lies.

Sadly (I am now retired, so don’t go to conferences any more) many of them have so many concurrent sessions that it is almost impossible to decide which to attend – and you end up attending none of them. The beauty of physical meetings is to meet friends and colleagues with whom one can find out what’s new and what’s blue. Zoom is great – but requires some planning, and often it’s the casual contact that produces a result. That said, I cannot see why the keynote speeches, and posters from a cancelled conference, could not be presented on the web for folk to go through. It’s better than nothing. And yes, some of us retirees are meeting through Zoom in the UK, where otherwise we are locked down.

I don’t see any reference here to the economics of these conferences. How will remote access be priced? Conferences are hard to put together and have many costs. Many conference organizers such as professional societies depend on a surplus from conference operations to underwrite other important functions for research. In any event, while a call for greater remote access is certainly welcome, it is hardly a “wake-up call.” More remote access would happen immediately, and would have happened hears ago, if someone had figured out a robust economic model. This is not about technology. It is entirely a business issue.

Thank you for the comment Joseph. In my opinion it is absolutely a wake-up call, because the community seems to look into how to connect the world of conferences and the world of publishing. So far they have been quite separate from one another and I believe by prioritizing conference output such as posters or presentations and integrating those into the general scholarly output, one can very well find sustainable business models (Poster APCs, new types of content package etc.). We at Morressier see this development increasing significantly in the last couple of month and accelerating even more during this period of crisis with our partners. Very happy to walk you through our models offline if you are interested.

The world of conferences and publishing are intimately connected *right now.* The question is how to monetize remote access. This is NOT a technology issue.

The annual conference of the Society of Pediatric Psychology in Dallas was cancelled and in one week converted itself to a virtual conference spanning two days. The plenaries and symposiums were conducted on Zoom; poster sessions were presented via Twitter. Continuing education credits were earned through a check-in/check-out procedure on a different website for the licensed psychologists. It was a monumental effort to transition in a short time by the University of Kansas Professional and Continuing Education staff and the leadership of the Society. There were few technical glitches so it worked well as a replacement. The presenters (including international speakers) demonstrated great enthusiasm and adaptability. I attended a total of 13 hours of programming; probably a bit less than I would have done in person over a three day in person conference. I found it tedious to sit at a computer all day, but acceptable given that I could not go anywhere else. I did not find the poster sessions as enlightening. And, I greatly missed the conversations with other researchers and clinicians about what they were currently researching (not just what they had submitted for the conference months earlier). As one wit posted, the snacks at breaks were nothing new, while the restroom lines were shorter and the receptions were BYOB.

The forced change to working virtually will hopefully open up new ways of collaboration and engagement across institutions. I hope the forced moved to teaching courses virtually will open up for creativity and higher utilization of virtual guest lectures, student group work across institutions where the same course is thought simultaneously or virtual case competitions. Within research I envision more joint group meetings and open working seminars with collaborators, partners and specialists – develop open science to be deeper than primarily open sharing of information and data. There are moreover, in my view, ample opportunities for societies to develop new services around facilitating virtual networking and professional development.

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