Research intelligence: the best and worst of a year of virtual conferences

A year since face-to-face academic conferences were cancelled, Jack Grove hears from scholars on their mixed experiences of digital events

March 16, 2021
Man in PPE with audience of cardboard cut-out people, virtual conference, digital, remote
Source: Getty

The last-minute cancellation of the American Physical Society’s March Meeting a year ago was the moment that many academics began to pay attention to the coronavirus crisis.

The scrapping of the Denver event, due to host 11,000 scientists, also marked the start of a new era of online academic conferences, replacing the decades-old circuit of scholarly meetings around which research revolved despite its often mixed results. Twelve months into this brave new world of virtual events – which looks set to continue, at least throughout 2021 – we asked scholars about their best and worst experiences of online conferences, and what makes an outstanding event.

Avoid pre-recorded speeches
“The best remote conferences I’ve attended have been better than the best in-person events, but the worst remote events have made me want to never attend a conference again,” said David Barner, professor of psychology and linguistics at the University of California, San Diego, who said he particularly disliked pre-recorded talks, which may “avoid catastrophe” from a technical standpoint but are “insanely boring to watch”.

“Conferences aren’t just about information transmission, but about the social benefits that we get from sharing information in the presence of others,” said Professor Barner. “This includes the reward of people engaging with one’s work and feeling like one’s work is important to others – safely pre-recorded talks miss these benefits and, in my view, miss the point of conferences.”

Small is beautiful
While event organisers may be happy to draw a vast online audience – and use thousands of sign-ups as a barometer of success – smaller events are preferable, said Professor Barner. “The best events I’ve attended have been small and featured a single stream so that every person at the event has the same conference experience and equal access to audiences,” he said. “They’ve also had a high speaker-to-audience ratio, meaning that many of the audience ultimately speak, placing audience members and speakers in a parallel relationship.

“They’ve also featured people that otherwise would never assemble in a single room,” continued Professor Barner, adding that while synchronous talks are more enjoyable for participants, they should also be recorded to allow catch-up viewing for participants in different time zones, as well as making them “inclusive to families”. Low-cost events were also accessible to “underfunded labs and can place junior researchers on an even footing with senior researchers”, he said.

Large events need interaction
Good larger remote events can succeed but must work hard to “create feelings of intimacy”, said Professor Barner, who recommended providing “multi-channel social interaction, allowing audience members to interact with one another during talks, and shortening talk durations in favour of longer Q&A sessions”.

Online panellists benefit from hearing from audience members during their talks, observed Mark Carrigan, a digital sociologist at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education who researches the proliferation of digital platforms. “The absence of feedback – which you’d normally get from a crowd – can be quite draining,” said Dr Carrigan, who compared two talks at online conferences that he’d given recently. “In one of the talks, people could send you thumbs up or comments as I was speaking – in the other, there was no reaction, and it’s very difficult to get a sense of how people are reacting to you,” he said.

“We need to think about the kind of strategies that we could introduce to help foster this interaction,” added Dr Carrigan. “A lot of the effort of organising an in-person conference is about the logistical challenges of bringing lots of people to a single venue – food, venue, accommodation – so we need to put that same effort into fostering interaction online.”

Not all old formats work online
For Dr Carrigan, the biggest mistake is to reproduce an in-person conference for an online audience. “The idea that people will sit in front of a screen for eight hours is unrealistic,” he said. Longer set-piece keynote talks that often bookend traditional in-person conferences rarely work online, “even if the talk itself is incredibly well argued”, he insisted. Conference organisers should instead pay attention to the growing popularity of the group podcast, he said. “It’s exciting to hear people talk off the top of their heads and create something new in this way,” said Dr Carrigan. To help academics talk freely – without fear that their words may be taken out of context and used against them – organisers “should not record talks by default”, he advised, adding that a strong online moderator (who is not the event chair) is also needed to quickly stamp down any online abuse faced by panellists.

Don’t be afraid to fail
At a Researcher to Reader Conference on academic publishing held online last month, organisers decided to split a panel debate over two days, with audience members asked to vote prior to the opening speeches on whether peer review should be paid or not and then after concluding arguments. Rick Anderson, librarian at Brigham Young University in Utah, who chaired the panel, said the innovative structure had helped participants to “focus on issues themselves and ensure that they’re discussed both rigorously and respectfully by people with diverse viewpoints”.

Such experiments are riskier and harder to pull off than the standard Q&A but are well worth the effort, said Dr Carrigan.

“We need to accept that some formats might not work, but we need to experiment and make sure organisers know which experiments worked and which didn’t.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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