Hot on the heels of Catherine Scott’s excellent post in early February, where she summarized Skiles et al. 2021 on how virtual conferences shifted conference attendance, we want to share a brand new article in Conservation Biology related to the same topic. In it, myself and 13 colleagues in the aquatic sciences outline why we think scientists should critically consider virtual conferences not as a stopgap measure, but one that can transform research networks, accelerate knowledge sharing, confront sustainability challenges, and better reflect the global nature of environmental research.
(Also, obviously, online conferences have lower carbon footprints)
Many traditionally in-person scientific meetings have shifted to virtual formats during the COVID-19 pandemic. As an attendee (and organizer) at several virtual conferences over the last two years, I heard a lot of people talking about how they look forward to conferences being “back to normal” next year, or sometime in the future. I will state up front that while I find in-person conferences exhausting (I am an introvert and the non-stop social context is overwhelming), I generally find them both personally and professionally rewarding and can absolutely understand all the reasons other people enjoy them. I also get that a virtual conference is never going to be the same as an in-person meeting. Obviously they are different. But as much as I and others who have traditionally attended and benefitted from in-person conferences might enjoy them and the opportunities they provide, if we are serious about our stated commitments to DEI (and if you or your professional society haven’t at least made a statement to this effect, I’m not sure where you’ve been the last two years) we need to think critically about the “normal” conference model and who it excludes by its design. Now, I am not saying that we have consciously designed conferences to exclude people, but that the system in which they have evolved has resulted in a structure that actively excludes. The pandemic has given us the opportunity to collect data that makes this very clear.
A recent paper by Matthew Skiles and colleagues investigated the impact of the switch to online scientific meetings in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I encourage you to read the paper, but I will highlight some key results here:
Overall attendance was 40-120% higher at virtual meetings, and more international attendees were able to participate, presumably because of lower costs in terms of travel and registration.
Attendance by women increased by 60-260%, and attendance by LGBTQ+ scientists also increased substantially relative to in-person meetings.
More students and postdoctoral researchers were able to attend online meetings, with the proportion of students at virtual meetings more than double that of in-person meetings.
Attendance by researchers at PUIs increased by up to 157%, and attendance by researchers at R2s increased by up to 106%.
Also, the carbon footprint of a single attendee at an in-person meeting (the average of domestic and international attendees) was equivalent to that of >7000 attendees at an online meeting.
Conference attendees that were surveyed about their experiences identified networking and social interactions as one of the greatest challenges of the virtual format. The paper and its supplemental material contain lots of suggestions for overcoming this challenge, including locally organized hubs for attendees. Please read them here. I am sure we can find creative solutions to make virtual networking successful, with the understanding that it is never going to be quite the same as the way we did things at traditional in-person meetings.
To me, these data make clear that online meetings are necessary to include all scientists. We already knew that there were barriers to attendance at in-person meetings, including but not limited to monetary costs, but now we have a solution to dismantling these barriers.
I have heard a lot of arguments for in-person meetings that suggest one of the main benefits are the chats over coffee between sessions or the informal or formal networking that happens over drinks, and that these cannot be replicated virtually. As much as I enjoy chatting science over a beer with my colleagues (and like many, I’ve had collaborations start this way), access to the physical spaces where these conversations occur is limited. It may exclude those who don’t drink (or who don’t want to be in spaces where people are drinking) or those who can’t afford to tag along to the pub for dinner with a group of people interested in a specific research area, and, obviously and importantly, those who can’t physically attend the conference, whether because of financial constraints, caring responsibilities, being immunocompromised during an ongoing pandemic, disabilities that aren’t accommodated by the meeting organizers, or any other reason. Meeting exclusively in person is actively excluding a large proportion of our scientific community. We can’t continue to make attendance at these in-person meetings the price of admission to a successful career in science, when it’s clear that the price is too high for so many.
UPDATE: here’s another great paper by Sally Lowell and colleagues called The Future of Conferences which highlights the need for creative solutions to making conferences sustainable and accessible. I’d also like to point to the Company of Biologists’ Sustainable Conferencing Grants which provide funds to support virtual meeting components.
UPDATE 2: Please read this excellent, much more comprehensive piece by Divya Persaud about conference equity issues: What is the future of conferences? And what should be? Importantly, it covers the issue that virtual meetings are not by default accessible to all, and includes great suggestions and further reading.
Now that many of us know what an online conference is like, it appears there’s increased demand for more of then. I would presume that, as societies get more experience running these conferences, they’ll become even more engaging and more accessible.
Here’s an idea for discussion: What do you think about alternating online and in-person conferences?
Let’s say you’re a grad student heading off to the annual 5-day conference in your field. You’re giving a poster, you are scheduled to have coffee with a person whose work you admire, you’ll be seeing a some old friends, and you’re there to learn about the newest work in your field.
Then, you get contacted by the people who run the conference. They’re wondering if you want to work — during the conference — at a rate of $14 per hour.
This weekend, I had an Experience. For the second half of Saturday, I went down to San Diego to crash the Society for Neuroscience conference. I visited with and learned from the #MeTooSTEM folks, and I got to meet so many wonderful people in person who I’ve only known from twitterbloglandia. I’d heard about SfN before, of course, but never had the occasion to go because, well, the stuff at this meeting is way out of my wheelhouse.
Anyhoo, let me tell you about SfN. As soon as I walked into the poster hall, I was like ZOMG. HOLY MOLY. WHAT THE WHAT.
In scientific conferences, the talks are often the least constructive part of the meeting. That’s my experience and opinion, at least. This is ironic, because at least in theory, the talks are the raison d’être of a conference.
When people fly in from great distances to be together, should we really be spending most of the day in dark rooms listening to canned talks from our colleagues? Should we be spending our time on things that we could just as easily do in a webinar?
Hello. I’m Ian, a shy introvert. And those two things are distinct. Through a lot of trial and error, I’ve worked out a way to network and build social capital that works for me even though connecting to people is not exactly natural to me, as I know it isn’t for many academics.
Being an introvert in a world that seems to favor the expressive and extroverted can seem daunting and unwelcoming. A lot of the usual advice is to just act against type*. In other words, be extroverted for as long as you can sustain it, especially at conferences or other events where connecting with people is the goal.
Part of favoring of extroverts is that they announce themselves and seem like the movers, shakers, and doers in the world. In the United States at least, taking (overt) action is favored over introspection or making the decision to do nothing even though taking that decision may well be the right one depending on the situation.
I have been going to entomology meetings (including those of the Entomological Societies of Canada (ESC), British Columbia (ESBC), and Ontario (ESO)) yearly since I started studying spiders in 2010 (we don’t have an arachnological society in Canada, so for these societies spiders are welcomed as honorary insects) and I went to my first International Society of Arachnology (ISA) meeting in Colorado this past summer.
The national SACNAS conference came through LA again. SACNAS is an organization that fosters diversity in higher education and runs a huge national conference each year. The organization does other things, but the national conference is clearly a focal point.
SACNAS has been described as a “mentoring conference.” From what I’ve seen, that’s a good description.
Call now! Loan counselors are standing by at +1 (301) 731-4535*.
A few weeks ago Terry wrote about going to conferences, networking and social capital. The post struck home for me for a couple of reasons. First, I agree wholeheartedly with the diffuse benefits that come from interacting with people at conferences. I’ve made friends, started collaborations, been invited to give departmental seminars and gotten paper invitations, all of which I am sure wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t given a talk and talked to people at conferences. Of course, there are challenges to these intense social and scientific interactions too (e.g. the conference hangover) but conferences are a really important part of developing your scientific career.
People say that it can be important to go to conferences once in a while because “networking” is important.
I wouldn’t put it that way. I would say that, for junior scientists, attending a conference regularly is critical because knowing people in your field is necessary for academic success. This is particularly true if you don’t have prestigious connections.
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. It’s a cliché, but it’s one I’ve seen affirmed time and again.
Guest post by Ian Lunt.
In popular culture, peak beard has been defined as the point in time when the rate of beard destruction exceeds the rate of beard production. By extension, peak tweet can be defined as the time when the rate of tweet production far exceeds the rate of potential consumption.
In 2015, a sizable ecology conference exceeded peak tweet. Attendees live-tweeted far more messages than readers could feasibly find or read. Which creates a quandary we haven’t before had to face:
Now that live-tweeting has mainstreamed, how can we increase the utility of conference tweeting to improve outreach?