Conference cancellations could have ‘big impact’ on research

Effects could be particularly significant for junior researchers, who rely heavily on conferences for early career progression, says scholar 

March 11, 2020
Source: Getty

The cancellation of academic conferences in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak could have a substantial impact on the quantity and quality of research and collaborations, according to an academic who has measured the effects of scholarly meetings.

Ben McQuillin, lecturer in economics at the University of East Anglia, was one of the authors of a 2017 study that estimated the impact of the cancellation of the 2012 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in New Orleans, which was called off at less than 48 hours’ notice because of Hurricane Isaac.

The cancellation of that event meant, the study found, that 76 academic papers that would otherwise have been written never saw the light of day. The research also revealed that attending a conference increased the likelihood of an academic subsequently collaborating with a fellow participant by 18 per cent (from 13.2 per cent to 15.6 per cent).

Dr McQuillin told Times Higher Education that if the Covid-19 outbreak results in many conferences being cancelled, and researchers becoming much more reluctant to travel generally, he would expect to see scholars sticking with their customary collaborators. Such partnerships tended to produce papers that were published in lower-ranked journals or received fewer citations than collaborations between “socially distant authors”, he said, adding that “face-to-face communication isn’t fully substituted” by virtual meetings.

“It does seem to be that conferences have an important role in either the formation or the sustenance of collaborations between socially distant authors – authors who are not at the same institution, who are geographically distant, or who aren’t already part of the same authorship network – that are otherwise quite difficult to form and sustain,” Dr McQuillin said.

Several academic conferences have been called off as a result of the spread of Covid-19, and more are expected to follow suit.

The American Physical Society cancelled the world’s largest physics conference, which had been scheduled to take place in Colorado on 2-6 March, because of “rapidly escalating health concerns relating to the spread of the coronavirus disease”.

Meanwhile, registration to attend the annual conference of the Association of European Research Libraries, which brings together library directors and their staff and is scheduled to take place in Serbia in June, has been postponed owing to concerns about the outbreak.

Widespread cancellations of conferences would likely also have “quite a big impact on the generation of new, young academics”, who rely heavily on face-to-face meetings for “maturing their work and bringing it to the point where it’s likely to be published or cited”, Dr McQuillin added.

“For that generation of authors, something like the coronavirus could have a disproportionate effect because if it’s one whole cycle of conferences that gets cancelled, that could be the key year when they’re finishing their PhD,” he said.

“If a particular cohort of young academics don’t get to progress that early work sufficiently quickly, that can have a very significant career effect for them. Some may not end up staying in academia.”

Learned societies likely to be hit by downturn

The coronavirus crisis looks set to inflict heavy losses on learned societies as academics put off signing up to events during the conference season.

“It will depend a lot on where the conference is, but it will be very difficult to plan any conference if people hold off from registering,” said Angela Cochran, president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, who is also publisher of the American Society of Civil Engineers. She added that “learned societies with conferences coming up will be keeping a very close eye [on registrations]”.

“Organisers will be careful about allowing enough time [for registrations to pick up] and not pulling the trigger on an event too quickly,” added Ms Cochran, although they would be mindful that a last-minute cancellation would incur significant costs for delegates and societies alike.

Learned societies could also face a double income hit if conference proceedings related to events were unable to be published, Ms Cochran said. About 500,000 conference proceedings were published in 2018, representing about 15 per cent of all scholarly publications, according to the Scopus database.

“If a conference is pulled, there may still be an opportunity to publish proceedings, but their publication is often funded by registration dues,” explained Ms Cochran, who said this “revenue generation model” was important to many learned societies.

“In some disciplines, a volume of proceedings is often submitted to a conference before it takes place, with presenters, in effect, paying for inclusion,” she added.

Jack Grove


Print headline: Event cancellations shrink horizons of research

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Reader's comments (2)

The cynic in me sees this as a good thing, less flying so less pollution, money and time saved for other things, but I suppose the missed opportunities to share ones genetic material will be of greater significance to some... I shall not miss being regaled by returning conference attendees of tales of who got off with whom, nor the colds and other infections they returned with causing other staff members to go sick in the weeks following, every cloud might just have a silver lining after all.
I am concerned about the stock image used to illustrate this piece. It depicts a courier in Beijing and has no relevance to the content of the article. By portraying Asian faces as illustrations of the virus, THE is contributing to a heightened climate of anti-Asian racism.