Friday, May 29, 2020

Re-imagining the purpose of conferences in a time of isolation

It is now trite to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted many aspects of routine life, from our personal to our professional realities. Every part of academic life has been touched by the pandemic, reducing all aspects of our research endeavours to virtual platforms, from coursework and student mentoring to faculty meetings and conferences.  Zooming in and out of meetings has become the norm for all of us. While there are obvious restrictions to life on an e-platform, I see an opportunity for us to use it to our advantage, to increase the impact and extent of how we communicate our science.  
The obligatory Zoom lab meeting screen capture.

I’ve been involved with a number of e-activities including giving departmental seminars, giving a conference talk and helping to organize a weekly on-line seminar series (Ecology Live). These experiences have led me to think quite a bit about new opportunities for giving talks and sharing ideas and findings.

One obvious casualty of COVID-19 restrictions has been conferences -large gatherings are simply untenable even if some regions are starting to reopen some activities. Some conferences were simply canceled outright early on while others have switched to online formats. These e-conferences seem like the best-case scenario allowing for scientists to share their findings while observing gathering and travel restrictions. I gave a talk in an organized oral session in an e-conference and have been contemplating signing up for another.  But I have mixed feelings. Let me be clear, the decision to move to e-format is the best decision for these conferences that have had to respond to these unprecedented changes, but moving forward are there other ways to facilitate interaction and communication? To me, the answer is yes.

The cons of the e-conference:

1. Spontaneous conversations

I don’t think fitting a traditional conference into an e-format works all that well. The point of a conference, to me, is more about the random meetings and discussions with friends and collaborators, rather than the extensive back-to-back talks, for which I have a rather low limit that I can actively listen to.  These sporadic encounters, which often amount to valuable research outputs and collaborations, are lost in the e-conference.

A mock debate at the last conference I attended before the pandemic

2. Child-care

Physical conferences have become better about providing childcare options for attendees. But, with e-conferences, the parents stuck at home with children might not have childcare options, making it difficult to attend whole sessions, and remain fully focused on the science. Added to this, is that the e-conference format with multiple concurrent sessions over the whole day is not that convenient for people at home, even without children.

3. Fees and funding

In my experience thus far, e-conferences appear to still be limiting attendance with still rather steep paywalls. The one I spoke in still had substantial fees to attend even though they were using what appeared to be university Zoom accounts. I totally understand that there are expenses, but the hefty fees limit an amazing opportunity to reach a broader audience.

Related to this, conferences traditionally are quite exclusive. Fees, travel, housing, visas and immigration all exclude people from different parts of the world, especially those who don’t have access to the same level of funding as researchers in North America and Europe. E-conferences can change this, but they have yet to. More than this, many of us are accustomed to being at institutions that bring in weekly seminar speakers, and again, people in other parts of the world have no opportunity to access these.

A route forward?

1. Seminars open for all

Working with the British Ecological Society to bring the weekly Ecology Live seminar series has been an incredible experience. Firstly, the BES has been amazingly supportive of this idea and helping to make it work. More than 3000 people have registered for this series, and from all over the world. The response from people has been phenomenal.

The lesson I take from this experience is that there is a demand for high-quality talks and that there are numerous colleagues from the global south who jump at the opportunity to hear from cutting-edge researchers. Many of these people are excluded from traditional, and likely online, conferences. If we are moving to an online format, accessibility and inclusion should be a motivating factor.

Obviously, there are expenses with delivering online content, but costs can be covered in other ways. Traditional conferences have sponsors and companies advertising their products in the main halls. These groups can still be engaged and in fact access to online audiences around the world and in permanent on-demand formats could be quite attractive to sponsors. We’ve now started including advertisements on the opening and closing slides of Ecology Live to keep the webinars free to watch.

2. Freed from time restrictions to conference length

Traditionally conferences are restricted to 3-5 days but switching to an online format means that societies are no longer subject to a conference structure. Without time limitations, e-conferences do not have to conform to sessions occurring simultaneously. By spreading talks over time, perhaps grouping by thematic topic areas, researchers would be able to attend far more talks than they would normally be able to in a traditional conference setting. I’d watch four 15-min talks on a specific area every couple of weeks.

3. A permanent record accessible by all, always

Many ecologists are quite overcome by a deluge of webinars, zoom meetings, etc. Taking the time to spend days in an e-conference is a daunting choice. Even if they are unable to watch talks live, conference organizers could make them permanent, searchable, and linkable. We post the Ecology Live talks to YouTube afterward and some of our earlier seminars have been viewed thousands of times. There is a general move towards open and transparent science, and free online talks that are permanently available is another step towards this. 

We live in a world where access to new ideas and hearing about cutting edge research is divided between the have and have-nots. Despite the limitations of COVID-19, given some planning, e-conferences can provide a powerful means to connecting the ecologists across the world, but there might be better ways forward to use these recent moves to on-line formats to better engage diverse audiences in a much more inclusive way.


Have you attended an e-conference recently, or plan on attending one soon? Let me know your thoughts and opinions down below.

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