Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Violaine Iglesias. Violaine is CEO & co-founder of Cadmore Media, the first video hosting platform dedicated to scholarly information. Cadmore’s vision is to provide the best on-demand streaming technology and service to scholarly and professional organizations so they can publish media content in the same expert way they do journals and books. With prior roles at SAGE Publishing, GVPi and Random House, Violaine has 18 years of experience in academic and trade publishing, including 8 years working with video publishing solutions.
For a fleeting moment, we thought in-person scientific conferences would come roaring back, at least in the continental U.S. With the rise of the Delta variant this fall, COVID-19 has upended our lives and expectations, again. Conferences are getting canceled at the last minute, again (AORN’s global surgical conference set to start August 7 was cancelled on July 28; AANS’s annual meeting beginning August 21 was cancelled in early August). Participants are pulling out, again (Athena Health, among others, pulled out just ahead of HIMSS21). Thankfully, this time around, the pivot to virtual isn’t as logistically brutal as it was in 2020; most meeting organizers had planned some sort of online option to fall back on. However, it is unnerving to realize that, despite the lightning-fast rollout of effective vaccines, we just don’t know when, or even if, conferences are going to get back to “normal.”
As complex as the current situation is, it surely hits pause on the debate about virtual events. Yes, virtual is here to stay. No conference organizer should plan an event without a serious online component, at least in the foreseeable future. By now, the advantages of virtual events have become clear, from lower carbon footprints to more equitable access and potentially higher quality scientific discussions (recent experiments with asynchronous commenting resulted in better interactions with far more papers than usual). And no, not everyone is a fan – starting with exhibitors and, frankly, a lot of event managers. Constantly shifting goalposts is not what they signed up for.
Since in-person events are likely not going away, and neither are virtual ones, conference organizers are left with the most complex of options: hybrid. As daunting as this new format may be, it is ripe with possibilities and could yield a profound transformation of scientific conferences and communities, and, by extension, the bodies that shepherd them: scholarly and professional societies.
To be clear: “hybrid” is very poorly defined. If virtual events are still in their infancy, hybrid events haven’t even been born yet. This does not mean we cannot try to imagine a few shapes they could take, listed from most to least conservative:
- Livestreamed: A “classic” in-person event that is livestreamed to a virtual audience that remains mostly passive, with perhaps some interactive Q&As. All sessions are also typically recorded and made available on-demand afterwards. This is the first option that comes to mind when contemplating hybrid events, with significant experimentations pre-dating the crisis. It can also be incredibly expensive, complex, and risky, requiring a lot of staff, expertise, and AV resources. We can also imagine this format offering a subpar experience for the online audience, who may feel like they are missing out on the in-person action. This may work for the most prestigious, well-funded events or, conversely, for smaller meetings with few sessions.
- Concurrent: A “classic” in-person event with a concurrent virtual option that offers the entire program, where some plenaries may be livestreamed, but most sessions are recorded and made available on-demand online after a short delay. This option is less expensive than livestreaming, even with onsite AV support, but it does require extra organizing staff for the virtual component as well as resource-heavy daily content management. It can offer a decent experience to remote audiences, especially if some sessions, workshops, and networking events are held online only; but it keeps a separation and hierarchy between online and in-person attendees, the latter benefiting from most of the live content.
- In-person, then online: A “classic” in-person meeting followed by a separate online event, which uses content recorded at the in-person conference, supplemented by some exclusive virtual sessions and networking. This format is not as expensive, risky, or complex as any concurrent option, since the same staff can run both events and more time is allowed between them to organize the content and setup the online platform. AV expenses are still a factor, however, and the online event may appear to be a poorer version of the in-person one, especially if it is offered mostly on-demand.
- Truly hybrid: Meetings where portions of the program are offered online, and other portions are offered in-person. For example, scientific papers may be broadcast or available on-demand, whereas networking sessions are organized both online and in-person, in a single, centralized venue and/or in several regional “hubs.” There are creative ways to rethink community needs and potentially offer the best of both worlds in content consumption and networking, without creating a hierarchy between remote and online audiences. Savings can be found in speakers prerecording their presentations and in using smaller event venues. However, such models will collide with the realities of early venue bookings, entrenched habits, attendee and exhibitor expectations, internal politics, and ingrained processes.
- Ongoing: In more extreme cases, the concept of an annual event could be thrown out the window, and instead presentations and events would take place throughout the year, both virtual and in-person. A single platform could be used to host sessions, and double as a site where the community could have discussions and build ties in-between events. This could be a more cost-effective option, with more yearlong engagement and opportunities to jump onto emerging trends and topics. However, this doesn’t quite compare to the energy found at an annual event.
- Alternate years: The simplest of hybrid events is the one that isn’t; an event that runs online one year, and in-person the following year. In many respects this is the least complex option, and potentially the least expensive as well.
This list isn’t exhaustive; the point of this article is not to draw a complete picture of hybrid events and their nuances. Neither is it to dig into the reasons for choosing one model or the other, which are often specific to each community (although, if you are curious, we have created a quiz for this purpose), and which are rendered even more complex by the evolving realities of the pandemic, risk management, governance issues, financial constraints, and early venue reservations.
The shift to hybrid is another opportunity to break some traditional silos within scholarly and professional societies. Specifically, Publications staff can help their Meetings colleagues navigate these new waters. There are, of course, previous instances of Publications staff being involved in event management, but this involvement seems to have been mostly limited to those disciplines where proceedings submissions are the norm, such as engineering. The creation of training products based off meeting recordings, which are conceivably published products, seems to be more commonly handled by Education staff, especially in the medical sciences. Some larger societies with strong, centralized IT departments, did manage to bridge certain technology gaps long before the pandemic.
With hybrid events, there will be more areas where the expertise of scholarly publishers could provide a valuable asset to conference organizers. Here are a few ideas:
- Content management: Traditionally, event organizing has required managing specific sets of data: attendees and organizers, speakers, abstracts, and, in some cases, proceedings papers. Regardless of the specific format that a hybrid meeting may take, it will involve a lot more content management than a classic in-person meeting ever did. All virtual components of hybrid meetings are “born video”: whether a session is livestreamed, recorded, or pre-recorded, a media file will be created before, during, or after the event. This media file requires proper handling, with the addition of metadata and captions, so that it can be used for the virtual conference and/or an archival product. The same best practices that scholarly communications specialists have perfected over the years for journals can absolutely apply to video content.
- Workflows: Hybrid events require more complex workflows than traditional in-person conferences. The workflow is highly dependent on the format of the event. If a lot of pre-recording is involved, especially with author submissions, peer-review, and transcription, robust workflows need to be in place to organize the content so that it is ready for “publication” or “broadcast” on the day of the event. It is not a big leap to request video presentation submissions along with abstract submissions, as many conference organizers have started doing in the past year, including the Optical Society’s Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics and the European Association of Urology. If most sessions are live, they often need to be quickly downloaded from the recording source, trimmed, and edited before being uploaded to the platform for on-demand consumption. With hundreds or even thousands of papers and sessions, volumes are often high enough that they require expert organization. The better that organization, the more opportunities there will be to re-purpose that newly created content.
- Vendor management: Complex workflows often require hiring external vendors. Of course, meeting organizers are used to managing vendors, from abstract management and mobile app software to venues, catering, and AV companies. But publishing staff almost always externalize at least some, if not all, parts of content production workflows. The same vendors who can handle high volumes of article content can also handle video content. They will require project management, documentation and follow-ups, all tasks that are core skills of publishing teams.
- Standardization and automation: With this much content to be wrangled, some automation is a great help. A common pain point for virtual events has been data ingestion into the meeting platform, especially for paper or poster-heavy conferences, and rich schedules. A lot more stars need to properly align for an online session to go smoothly than for an in-person one: page URL, authentication, meeting links, pre-recorded videos, host logins, speaker data, test configurations. Standardizing this data in machine-readable formats and creating validation routines, which can be enabled by publishing technology, is key to preventing technical issues.
- Authentication: If a technical pain point had to be singled out for virtual events, it would be authentication issues. The first experience an attendee will ever have with a meeting platform is with a login page. Meeting platforms may require integrations with e-commerce platforms, membership, and association software; single sign-ons; support for tiered pricing, registration, and access levels. These features have been in place for years on publishing platforms, and now are becoming necessary on virtual event platforms, too. Publishing staff can be a source of advice and troubleshooting here, too.
- User experience: Virtual platforms function as a hub for the two major components that make up a conference: content and people. They require quick ways for an attendee to interact with both through thoughtful schedule navigation, browsing, notifications, and federated search. UX/design is key to the success of that experience, especially for hybrid events where part of the program will be online and other parts will be in-person. These are areas that publishing staff have been focused on to keep improving journal platforms.
- Preservation: In the past, annual meeting websites used to disappear after a few months, replaced by the next year’s; URLs were overwritten, and programs did not get properly archived. Virtual and hybrid meetings give us a chance to capture and preserve meeting content like never before. Whether on aggregated platforms like Bone & Joint’s Orthomedia; on dedicated media portals, such as AIAA’s video library; or as archival objects tagged with DOIs on proceedings platforms, and, in the future, in preservation systems like CLOCKSS and Portico, conference videos can have a long life and continue to provide value to members, students, and even the broader public.
- Accessibility: Hybrid events offer a unique opportunity to make conferences available to people with physical and cognitive disabilities. Making virtual platforms accessible requires a completely different set of skills than making an in-person conference accessible. Those skills, which encompass content and web technology requirements, are becoming a crucial part of publishing expertise and could be extended to hybrid and virtual platforms.
- Product development: Publications are used to developing new types of products and inventing new business models. They can assist event organizers with new pricing structures and monetization models, and they can even build new products out of this new video content, especially ones that bridge the gap between journals and meetings content by interlinking the outputs of the various stages of the research cycle.
However much sense these ideas may make on paper, they will not be easy to implement, and they will call for some strategic thinking about internal skills and responsibilities. As always, habits, tradition, and power plays will all be obstacles to change. But, with hybrid events, conference organizers are facing a particularly complex challenge that requires unprecedented combinations of skills and organization-wide efforts. If ever there was a time to try and break organizational silos within societies and associations, that time may very well be now.