Ad

All conferences should be virtual in a post-coronavirus world

For accessibility, financial, and environmental reasons, it just makes sense

Adam Fortais

Physics

McMaster University

It’s Saturday, February 29th at 10:00 PM. I’ve just finished packing for a week-long physics conference in Denver, Colorado. By this time tomorrow I will have flown from Toronto to Denver, where I’ll be settling down in one of four shared hotel beds with the other members of my research group. I’ve spent the last two weeks scrambling to assemble the results from the last 12 months. It’s right then that I get a Twitter message from a US colleague, “Looks like the APS March Meeting is cancelled.”

I knew the reason immediately. 

When the American Physical Society's March Meeting was cancelled the night of February 29th, would-be attendees had already been checking for cancellations daily. I recall early reports of COVID-19 near the end of 2019 feeling serious but distant, with much of the North American discourse treating it like someone else’s problem. But as the number of countries with confirmed cases increased through February, it became clear that the spread of COVID-19 was becoming everyone’s problem.

In an attempt to flatten the curve, many communities have chosen to cancel all public gatherings until further notice. A new wave of virtual conferences are popping up in their place. But COVID-19 isn’t the only reason to push more meetings online. In fact, there had already been a growing desire in academia to reduce conference travel. Often, it has been the environmental cost of flying causing scientists to reconsider their conference schedules, but there are other reasons we should be looking to go virtual.

Academia is diverse, filled with people at all stages of their careers, with varying abilities to travel. Whether due to physical mobility constraints, or work and family commitments, traveling for conferences and meetings benefits the careers of those who can participate, and punishes those who can't. By moving online, conferences could let academics who would otherwise be left at home still attend.

Mobility isn't the only thing keeping academics at home. I have the privilege of attending the biggest conference in my field every year. As a young, able-bodied person with no children or dependents, I have never been confronted with issues of accessibility. But I am still a graduate student living on a modest scholarship. Every year I am forced to run up a huge credit card bill associated with conference travel before receiving reimbursement from my department. My department is small and is usually able to process claims quickly, but other graduate students are not so lucky. Some students simply can’t afford to carry that kind of debt while they wait for reimbursement.

A computer lab filled with computers, with people sitting at them working.

More like this please.

Citrix Systems via Flickr

From an accessibility and environmental standpoint, virtual conferences seem promising. But planning and implementing a virtual conference is a daunting task, especially if you intend to replace large, in-person conferences like the APS March Meeting. With potentially thousands of attendees, the technical requirements are not trivial and the risk of failure is high. But a narrow silver-lining may perhaps be emerging amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Academia is being forced to develop a model for robust, inclusive virtual conferences, and that is an opportunity to rebuild itself in a more equitable form.

The way conferences are choosing to adapt varies. Some organizers have asked that presenters pre-record their presentations and upload them to a temporary server, making them available on-demand. Smaller meetings have successfully held live virtual meetings with tools like Zoom and Google Meet, with companies like Google providing free access to many of their paid features. Even before COVID-19, some conferences like the Photonics Online Meetup experimented with 66 hubs around the world where researchers could gather locally to watch live-streaming content. Many conferences have also offered reduced fees for attending their virtual events, making them even more accessible. In fact, the following APS conference this April converted into a completely virtual event, and was also free to attend. 

What's perhaps most encouraging though, is that conferences taking place later in the year are starting to hire companies to handle their virtual organization. This seems to suggest a willingness to invest real money into making online conferences work beyond simply getting though this pandemic.

Attending conferences like the APS March Meeting has been a crucial part of my graduate work. Yet, I found the accessibility benefits far outweighed the benefits of meeting in person. I didn’t feel like I missed out on any learning or networking. On the contrary, the difficulty of navigating sessions, running between rooms, and worrying about how to sneak a lunch break was totally eliminated, and I met more people by helping with the event than I would have had the courage to speak to in person. I don’t have a hole in my bank account where a travel reimbursement should be, and perhaps most importantly, I got to sleep in my own bed each night. This is the beginning of a revolution that sees conferences and meetings increasingly move online.

Comment Peer Commentary

We ask other scientists from our Consortium to respond to articles with commentary from their expert perspective.

Sridevi Ranganathan

Infectious Diseases

University of Maryland

Great read. I especially liked the discussion about what would be the benefit of attending a conference in person vs a virtual meeting, and how one outweighs the other. As a new mom, I personally identify with the accessibility issue, in a slightly different way. Planning the new realities of my life aka childcare, pumping/breastfeeding, transporting milk on international flights, etc., have led me to accept that it is best to let a meeting or two slide by because the logistics are too much to handle. An online option to attending conferences would have enabled me to do both and not have to choose. Having the option of attending conferences online would definitely make Science more inclusive and supportive! 

Te Jones

Comparative Neural Systems & Behavior

Johns Hopkins University

In general, I agree that making conferences more accessible to those who are financially limited or cannot step away from their responsibilities as parents is necessary to making science more inclusive. I will argue, however, that the purpose of conferences is not just to communicate research. Part of my growth as an academic has come from experiences that aren’t just about getting data and showing it to the world. As a graduate student myself, living on a modest stipend, I do find waiting for reimbursements a stretch on my resources, but I would otherwise never be able to experience the world outside of my university. Traveling to conferences allows for the opportunity to engage in other cultures and meet people one may otherwise not have met, including people who aren’t necessarily associated with the conference. This socialization aspect is important in science and is difficult to recreate virtually, as it is often spontaneous. That said, finding a way to incorporate virtual attendees as presenters and audiences should still be a priority for those who cannot, or do not wish to attend in person. 

Danielle Nadin

Neuroscience

McGill University

I truly believe this will be one of the positives that comes out of this pandemic. The NYC Neuromodulation conference happened virtually last week; normally, I wouldn’t have been able to attend. This format allowed me to attend more sessions than usual, and I think brought many the opportunity to connect with top researchers in the field who would normally be too busy to approach at an in-person conference. Looking ahead, I’m really excited for the OHBM Annual Meeting which is moving online in June. Making virtual options part of our status quo would do wonders for inclusivity.

I saw in your pitch that you were involved in planning one of the virtual APS sessions. What challenges came up? Any tips for hosting events like this online?

Adam Fortais responds:

Our virtual conference was thrown together very quickly by some very motivated people, but there were some significant growing pains in the first few sessions as we developed some best practices.

Things like setting up individual meetings so accounts that join are automatically muted upon entry is key. Planning an extra minute or two for transitioning between speakers. Having presenters all on the same page as far as screen-sharing.

I think going forward, having smaller, parallel sessions that you can attend “live”, and a short-term collection of recordings for the talks you missed might be a good idea. Since writing this, I’ve heard of some meetings specifically creating networking events as well. I haven’t thought too much about how that should work, but I think that’s a good idea!

Fernanda Ruiz Fadel

Animal Behavior and Behavioral Genetics

University of Tübingen

You bring some very good points. The unnecessary travel always bothered me. I have heard of keynote speakers who took a 10 hour flight to give a talk, stayed less than a day in location and took another 10 hour flight back home. The carbon footprint for one talk is unbelievable.
I still think that meeting in person is nice if you can, in regional events. Sounds like you got to network because you were involved in the organizing team. I am not sure it would be as effective for people who are only watching.
In general, giving more options for participation would definitely be ideal. In my area, the conference SPARCS (Society of the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science) has had a broadcast for years now in addition to the normal in person conference. That way people who cannot go in person can watch. They are also opened to the general public to watch online. I believe the conference funds/grants issue you mentioned vary. I am based in Europe and when I was a student, half of the conferences I went to were paid for directly from a fund, I didn’t have to have the money in advance and then ask for reimbursement. It depended where the funding was coming from though.
It is good to see everyone adapting and I hope the remote participation becomes common even after travel goes back to normal. 

The most impactful restrictions that I’ve experienced as a disabled person in this field is the requirement for in-person participation. I’ve missed out on opportunities, information, networking, and more because I didn’t have the option to “zoom” into an event or work from home some days. While accommodations are technically possible, they are rarely offered or adequate and they are still exclusionary.

People with disabilities have been working to get conferences to go virtual, or at least provide virtual participation, for some time. I’m very happy to see you bring up the issue of accessibility, Adam, and why virtual conferences moving forward would be a positive thing.

“Academia is diverse, filled with people at all stages of their careers, with varying abilities to travel.”

I want to state outright that virtual participation was an accommodation previously denied to many people because it was “inconvenient” or as a means to gate-keep numerous marginalized groups. It was denied until able-bodied people needed it. Ableism is pervasive in the sciences. For this reason, I do not see virtual conferences becoming the norm except for when individuals who are a part of these marginalized groups or are allied to them are the ones in charge of organizing these events.

“Yet, I found the accessibility benefits far outweighed the benefits of meeting in person. I didn’t feel like I missed out on any learning or networking.”

Thank you for speaking up. I hope we do see virtual conferences and events persist in the future. I hope we see more remote work in the sciences as well. If we do, we will be taking steps towards making the sciences an inclusive field.

Adelita Mendoza

Metal Biology

Washington University in St. Louis

Great article. I would like to add that hosting conferences online can make them accessible not just for financial and mobility reasons, but it can also provide opportunities for trainees to pursue other career opportunities that their PI may not think is necessary for their development but the trainee does. For example SciCom events, conferences for people of color, leadership conferences, etc.
Personally, I will be applying for more presentation opportunities since more and more conferences will be hosted online.
I agree that online conferences really opens up opportunities for those who have financial and personal challenges but at the same time, I like seeing people’s face. It definitely changes socialization- like happy hour on zoom? 

Raj Rajeshwar Malinda

Cell Biology and Developmental Biology

 Nice read Adam. Certainly you have got some good point in support of virtual meetings, though they are more with sustainable and cost effective approaches. However I feel that virtual meetings are more effective for smaller size of meetings where everything is easy to manage, though still not good approach for big societies meetings. Virtual meetings are more just into your conform zone, where the learnings I feel are limited. When people are attending more traditional way of meetings, they made lot of efforts to have best experience out of it, though it is in part of growing as a good researchers, isn’t it true? always being at same place/university for your entire study would definitely not a good idea, you are not exposed with different minds/cultures/places would eventually lead you to a monotonous personalty. I would prefer one-on-one conversation which doesn’t require a limited time to connect with them like viral meetings do and share the ideas. In addition, travel costs related to the conferences are not big and long-timed debts which students can’t recover entirely, most of the universities pay back them within the time frame (usually 1-3 months) which is certainly not a longer though. moreover, there might be some fundings which is always good to get for their curriculum, which I think virtual meetings do not offer. Though there are always some points in support of both meetings and certainly some are not. 

Adam Fortais

Physics

McMaster University

Thank you for reading!

I agree, there are a lot of things “not on the conference proceedings” that make up a conference, like the spontaneous meetings, exploring new locations and cultures, and other socializing benefits, and for those with the means to travel, this can be massively beneficial. The thing I worry about though, is having organizers use the idea that a conference is more than its presentations to justify putting less time and effort into making virtual attendance possible. I think that has sort of been the case until now, if not explicitly, then implied by the lack of virtual options in The Before-Time.

The main point that I’m trying to make is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other, and neglecting to offer a virtual-attendance option means forcing people out of science. Developing these options should be less about what is lost (arguably nothing, since we can do both), and more about what is gained.

Marnie Willman

Virology

University of Manitoba Bannatyne and National Microbiology Laboratory

Whether or not we’d like to admit it, I think COVID-19 has changed the way so many programs and businesses will run in the future. It turns out, the phrase “how many of these meetings could’ve been an email” is shocking true, remote work is achievable and a money-saving measure for businesses (when executed the right way), and remote events and conferences are likely the way of the future. Why invest thousands of dollars in travel, hotel fees, and food when the same effect could be achieved from home?

While I agree that the system will need work (as mentioned by other reviewers, one-on-one meetings, networking potential, etc.), but all new things need tweaking in their early stages. From the underfunded laboratory to the graduate students and faculty on maternity leave, remote conference options open the field back up to those who couldn’t otherwise attend. I enjoyed reading your piece, and hope this will be one of the good lasting effects from the 2019/2020 pandemic.

Devang Mehta

Genomics

University of Alberta

Great read Adam. I broadly agree with your argument but I wanted to point out that a major reason against having only virtual conferences, especially to replace large international meetings is the fact that many researchers in the Global South do not have access to stable, high-speed internet. Some colleagues and I recently published COVID-19 advice for conference organisers and funders (https://elifesciences.org/articles/57032#s0) and we point out that 46% of the globe currently has NO internet access, let alone video-streaming and conferencing capacity.
I think a world where all conferences are only held virtually would result in even more stratification of the global research enterprise between richer countries in Europe, North America and East Asia and the rest of the world. In the article you point out the example of the Photonics Online Meetup which used 60 global hubs for researchers to connect, however, of the 60 hubs, just one was located in Africa, and only 3 in South America, and 6 in Asia, again reflecting this problem of representation and access. 

Emily Costa

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Weill Cornell Graduate School

Great piece, Adam, and definitely timely! I attended the first of two free virtual sessions of AACR, a major annual conference for cancer physicians and researchers, last week and experienced many of the merits you describe. It was actually my first time attending AACR (my lab typically only sends a few students per year because of travel and registration costs) and I doubt I was the only one; per a recent write up of the event, roughly 61,000 people from 140 countries registered (as opposed to the usual < 25,000 registrants for in-person meetings). In a way that I suspect further expanded this boost in accessibility, the seminar streams included a chat window receive audience questions, and questions submitted to the chat could be upvoted by other audience members. I really dug how this improved the quality of questions asked (since they were selected by moderators based on their votes), avoided wasted time from long-winded pseudo-questions, and allowed attendees to ask their questions anonymously. Thanks to this setup, I imagine there was a greater variety of folks, and perhaps more early career researchers and graduate students, asking questions than usual. Regardless, at least for AACR the virtual approach worked exceptionally well, and I hope the organizers follow your suggestions and continue streaming sessions alongside in-person meetings!