Online academic conferences showing wide benefit

Ending in-person conferences during Covid tied to substantial gains in equity, sustainability and inclusiveness, US team finds in broad data analysis

December 10, 2021
woman say hello with teamwork colleague in video conference when Coronavirus outbreak
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The shift of many academic conferences to online formats during the Covid-19 pandemic created substantial benefits in social and cultural equity, the environment and inclusiveness, a team of US research scientists has concluded.

The researchers, for an analysis published in the journal Nature Sustainability, compared changes in costs and attendance at three major international scientific conferences in 2020, in the fields of artificial intelligence, chemistry and astronomy.

The authors acknowledged the sense of loss felt by many academics prohibited by the pandemic from meeting their professional colleagues in person, but the study data identified a far wider set of gains, they said.

“The future of conferences and conference formats has been an active debate in the field, with two clear camps,” said one of the authors, Andrea Armani, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Southern California. “We are hopeful that our findings will provide data-driven – not anecdotal – support to future decision-making.”

Among their findings, the authors showed that online meeting options and the accompanying sharp reductions in attendance costs drove up overall participation by between 40 per cent and 120 per cent over pre-pandemic levels. The gains came largely among students and younger professionals, people from distant and economically disadvantaged parts of the world, female scientists and those with disabilities, and researchers affiliated with minority-serving and lower-ranked institutions, they found.

The shifts also produced a major environmental benefit, with the 7,000 attendees of one online gathering producing the estimated carbon dioxide emissions of a single in-person attendee, the analysis showed.

Survey data from the study affirmed that the lack of in-person interaction remains an overwhelming concern among academic conference attendees, large shares of whom rejected the artificial nature of online attempts to replicate the spontaneity of in-person gatherings. Yet the authors also noted ongoing improvements in virtual formats that aim to replicate such experiences.

The study was based on data from the annual conferences of the International Conferences on Learning Representations, the American Astronomical Society, and the North American Membrane Society. Along with Professor Armani at USC, the participating authors came from the University of Texas at Austin, Arizona State University, Cornell University, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Ottawa.

Possible innovations that organisers of scientific conferences might consider to take advantages of the lessons of the pandemic, Professor Armani said, include converting their formats into a series of regional in-person gatherings that are then joined together virtually.

And where there are in-person events, she said, conference organisers should make a greater effort to highlight younger researchers, rather than to continue emphasising “flagship presentations by well-known researchers”.

One of her co-authors, Manish Kumar, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Texas, suggested that conference organisers make more use of fee subsidies and hybrid-format gatherings, while offering a fully online format every other year. “The more people are able to move seamlessly between these formats,” he said, “the more effective they will become.”

The attention to the problem brought by Covid is proving valuable, said another co-author, Kasey Faust, an assistant professor of construction engineering at Texas. Professor Faust said she lost nearly a year of conference opportunities after the birth of her first child, and is now caring for a four-month-old. “I appreciate the virtual platforms that have become a bit more mainstream and normalised,” she said.

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