The outbreak of COVID-19 has resulted in the cancellation of numerous academic conferences worldwide, with Nature questioning whether 2020 could be the “year without conferences” . It is not so unusual for academic events to be cancelled. For example, the 2012 American Political Science Association (APSA) Annual Meeting was cancelled because of Hurricane Isaac . The following year, however, the APSA Annual Meeting ran as normal, with over 6,000 political scientists attending from around the world . But, will conferences return to normal in a post-COVID-19 world?
International conferences during a climate crisis
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, academic conferences (as we know them) were inching towards the chopping block. At the University of Montréal, professors travel on average 33,000 km per year for work-related events, generating >10 tonnes of CO2 each . A review at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) revealed that about one-third of their carbon footprint comes from staff flying to conferences . A recent study of 263 economics conferences revealed that attendees travelled 417 million km in total, producing some 50,000 tonnes of CO2 . Such reports brought the sustainability of international academic conferences into question long before the COVID-19 outbreak.
The privilege of attending conferences
As well as their environmental impact, (before the outbreak) conferences were also under scrutiny for their accessibility. Fifteen percent of academics worldwide may account for 70% of conference air travel, reflecting the inaccessibility of conferences to those from the developing world . For researchers living in Thailand for example, “attending an international conference, after the registration fee, flights, taxis, accommodation, and meals, could cost 1/10th of an academic’s annual wages” . In addition, international conferences may be less accessible to women, particularly those with children or those caring for others .
Will COVID-19 be the final blow for conferences?
There are a number of reasons to suspect the current conference format will become a thing of the past.
The “hypocrisy of hypermobile academics”, particularly those working on climate change-related topics, has drawn increasing attention . Much like “flight shaming”, a movement to discourage people from travelling by plane, “conference shaming” may make academics embarrassed to travel long distances to attend conferences, particularly as alternatives to physical conferencing become more available. This social pressure may nullify the current expectation placed on academics to cultivate an “international reputation” (in person) .
Necessity is the mother of invention
With many large international conferences cancelled due to COVID-19, societies are rapidly developing alternatives “to allow for a safe and meaningful exchange of scientific research and information” [see here]. While it was impossible for those conferences scheduled for early 2020 to change to a virtual format (e.g., the American Physical Society [APS] ) resulting in their cancellation, others managed to adapt to various degrees. The American Chemical Society (ACS) Spring National Meeting & Expo was cancelled but presenters could still upload their posters and presentations to Sci Meetings, a virtual science-sharing platform [see here]. This meant the presenters’ work was not wasted; however, such platforms do not preserve the sense of a live event. Many conferences scheduled for mid-2020 have taken the “hybrid” option, offering participants the option to attend online or in-person if restrictions have been lifted [see here]. Other conferences, for example, many IEEE conferences [see here] and ConTech [see here], have made the move to fully virtual. The outbreak of COVID-19 has forced many organisations to develop virtual alternatives to the traditional physical conference model. With so many engaged parties, we can expect much discussion of the benefits and downsides of these events in the coming months and years, surely resulting in their refinement.
“It’s still early days for these virtual alternatives, and while it’s unclear how much disruption they might cause to traditional models, enthusiasts say it’s just a matter of time before the kinks are ironed out and virtual conferencing becomes part of the fabric of academic communication” .
In May 2016, UCSB hosted an online nearly carbon neutral (NCN) conference , with over 50 speakers from eight countries [see here]. Talks were pre-recorded and hosted on the conference website. Participants could watch the videos at any time during the conference and ask questions using Q&A forum spaces. The organisers noted the following upsides to this format:
More accessible – A broader swathe of scholars attended the conference, including those who would normally be unable to travel. In addition, closed captioning was added to the videos for those hard-of-hearing. Organisers noted that, in future sessions, captioning in other languages could be added, broadening accessibility even further.
More engagement – The discussions in the Q&A sessions were three times greater than those of typical sessions at a traditional conference, with participants commenting positively on having more time to formulate questions and feeling less intimated. One participant commented “there’s a depth to the Q&A here that I do not experience in ‘normal’ conferences.”
However, the organisers noted that it is “unlikely that any kind of virtual interchange can truly replicate face-to-face human contact” . This may be true, but a compromise may be possible –”hubs”. In January of this year, the inaugural Photonics Online Meetup (POM) was attended remotely by >1000 people from around the world , with ~600 of these participants congregating at one of the 66 hubs organised at various institutions across 27 countries. While hubs of this kind are obviously not suitable during a global health emergency, they may be the ideal compromise in a post-COVID-19 world – reducing the carbon footprint of conference travel while maintaining the benefits of human contact and global collaboration.
Interaction in a virtual conference
The main concern regarding virtual conferences is that they won’t be taken as seriously as fly-in conferences  or that academics won’t have the same opportunities to network with peers, a factor crucial in arranging collaborations and obtaining valuable contacts, especially for early-stage researchers . It is likely that organising committees currently attempting to move to a virtual platform are struggling most with this issue. Yet, already, strides have been made in collating ideas to tackle this problem. The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) recently established a task force to produce a “practical guide to the brave new world of virtual scientific conferences” . This guide offers an impressive range of ideas to create the feel of a physical conference in a virtual setting, including:
Providing a range of group-chat channels (video/text) of varying size, including specialised chatrooms (e.g., a speaker’s chat room, workshops, etc.).
Providing the option for break-away one-on-one video/text conversations.
Providing a chat channel (video, text, and/or a whiteboard space) for each poster presenter.
“Chat roulette” where two to four participants are randomly assigned to a chat room during breaks. Algorithms could even be used here, assigning people to chat rooms based on topic similarity, or participants could list the people they were hoping to speak to upon registration.
Asking senior members of the community to sign up to a “virtual lunch table” to which others (e.g., students) may join for a certain length of time.
A scavenger hunt for questions related to the posters/presentations. This would encourage participants to engage with presenters. Awards would further incentivise engagement.
Live music and other shared online activities during breaks.
Presenting in a virtual conference
Even if you are asked to present your talk live, it is likely an organising committee will ask you to provide a pre-recorded video in case of technical difficulties . At the POM meeting in January, many participants commented on the distinct lack of clapping after each talk . To energize your talk, you could record the talk in front of a group of colleagues at your university . As universities normally fund conference travel, you could request they redirect some of these funds towards video production facilities .
As virtual conferences become more sophisticated, you may be asked to create a short “teaser” trailer for your talk, to help attendees choose which talks to attend . These could also be used to promote your talk on social media.
You may be required to attend a training session prior to the conference commence date, to learn how to function on the platform, how to enlist the help of the organising committee, how to interact with the audience, etc. .
It is likely your talk (and Q&A session) will be recorded and archived. In many ways, this changes the concept of the traditional conference talk, whose details quickly fade in the audience’s memory . This may concern you, as conference talks are typically the venue to try out preliminary ideas—you may be hoping the audience forgets the details of your talk! A discussion of this potential “paradigm shift” can be found in .
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