The ‘virtual academy’ must not leave the next generation behind

Young scholars’ lack of reputation and digital prominence risks seeing them excluded from online conferences, says Scott Rich

July 14, 2020
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For better or worse, academia is not known for responding fast to evolving events. The process of earning a PhD and joining the academic community has remained largely unchanged for centuries. Yet, amid the most daunting crisis in a generation, many academics have displayed an encouraging ability to adapt, as much of our work and communication shifts to the virtual domain.

This transition is necessary for research to continue in the age of Covid-19, yet it could also widen the chasm between up-and-coming academics and those already established. In these difficult times it is critical that the academic community recognises and mitigates the challenges faced by parents, caregivers and those with mental and physical health conditions who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. In parallel, it must also reckon with the unintended consequences that “the virtual academy” might have on early career researchers (ECRs) and trainees. I fear that we may inadvertently compound the already daunting challenges faced by the next generation of researchers if we don’t adopt conscious and active strategies to mitigate this possibility.

My concern stems partly from the increased emphasis that the digital landscape places on social media to disseminate research and drive academic discussion. The number of followers someone has on Twitter or connections on LinkedIn does not necessarily reflect the quality of their work so much as their adeptness at social media or name recognition in their field. Nonetheless, with conventional techniques for research dissemination impacted by the pandemic, it’s only natural that the publications of those with a substantial social media following will garner the most attention. Meanwhile, new researchers and ideas may struggle to break through into the digital conversation.

Virtual conferences have similar pitfalls, which is all the more concerning because trainees and early career researchers arguably benefit most from traditional conferences. Poster sessions may be the closest thing to a pure “meritocracy” to be found in research dissemination, since the most interesting research naturally tends to attract the most attention.

The networking opportunities that arise organically at conferences are also invaluable for young academics. Even the most valiant attempts to replicate such environments and interactions in digital space face an uphill battle. Meanwhile, to draw attention to meetings without the built-in audience of traditional conferences, organisers may understandably feel pressure to highlight a few “big name” speakers, rather than to give a spotlight to less established but nonetheless talented researchers.

All these factors pose the risk of creating a feedback loop in which only established voices garner attention in the virtual setting. Such researchers and their labs are the most likely to have existing infrastructure in place to disseminate their research in the digital landscape, and so to garner the attention and acclaim of prestigious speaker slots at online events. Perhaps more concerningly, this divide may be further magnified by the fact that young researchers are more likely to have their research output hamstrung by the effects of this pandemic – through economic anxieties, limited access to laboratories and additional hurdles to traditional mentorship.

My colleagues and I consciously tried to address some of these concerns in planning and carrying out a recent online meeting known as the “Canadian Computational Neuroscience Spotlight”. Our desire to maintain such a “trainee focus” was partly motivated by the fact that the organising committee consisted entirely of early career researchers (including me as a postdoc). Interestingly, we found that the virtual setting encouraged more questions from younger scientists: using the Crowdcast platform, questions were submitted throughout talks and voted on by the audience, which replaced traditional Q&A periods that begin with a mad dash to a microphone stand. However, even with a designated space for a large number of trainee talks, we still found it challenging to recreate the organic interactions and networking that take place at traditional poster sessions. Finding a virtual solution that highlights trainees while also capturing the essence of a poster session remains our primary challenge for our next event.

At a time when the next generation of researchers face unprecedented levels of anxiety about their career prospects, the academic community must make a concerted effort to address their concerns or risk missing out on their contributions. Virtual conferences need not simply include but could highlight the work of this segment of academia. Journals should also make similar efforts to promote new voices. And when the world eventually does return to a semblance of normalcy, we must recognise that the obstacles faced by ECRs will not disappear overnight. We must continue to support them accordingly.

The digital landscape provides exciting opportunities to engage a worldwide audience, minimise the accessibility challenges of physical conferences and amplify previously unheard voices. But maximising these benefits will require conscious engagement, alongside efforts to mitigate the potential negative side-effects of these new tools. It is crucial that the significant opportunities presented by this change in research dissemination are not unintentionally limited to the lucky few.

Scott Rich is a postdoctoral research fellow at Krembil Research Institute at Toronto Western Hospital, which is a part of the University Health Network and associated with the University of Toronto.

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