It is time to reconnect the two arms of academic communication
Source: Getty/iStock montage
When the pandemic brought an immediate halt to all forms of in-person academic meetings and conferences earlier this year, we initially thought it was a temporary blip. It never occurred to us that our old habits of travelling to far-flung parts of the world, meeting up with friends and colleagues, and exchanging results and gossip over a beer or a glass of wine might be gone forever.
However, since lockdown, we have become used to online symposia and meetings. In terms of their acknowledged goals, these events have been successful: the technology works, talks are delivered and questions answered.
Online events have demonstrated other benefits over in-person meetings, too. Attendances have increased by factors of between two and five because online participation is much more feasible for academics with limited funds, significant family responsibilities or heavy teaching loads.
In addition, the discussion sessions are arguably more democratic; it’s not possible for a dominant person to hog the question time when everyone can submit questions at the touch of a button. And the costs, in terms of both cash and greenhouse gas emissions, have been slashed.
The disadvantages of online meetings are also very evident. The lack of chance meetings means that they are much less likely sources of new collaborations or postdoctoral recruits. Nor are you likely to be impressed by a new piece of kit in the trade show. But I doubt we will persuade funding bodies that these factors justify the expense of in-person meetings.
The pandemic has also hastened the digital evolution of the journal system. The days of browsing a printed journal in the library ended many years ago for all but the most exalted publications, but open access and, especially, preprint servers have risen to particular prominence amid the demand for instant dissemination of research into Covid-19.
Of the two branches of academic discourse, journals have traditionally been more important for career progression. Talks at meetings are far more memorable and drama filled than emails informing you of the acceptance of a paper, cause for celebration though they are. But the availability of quantitative data on publication volumes, journal impact factors and authors’ citation rates, despite all their obvious weaknesses, is too tempting to be ignored by committees deciding on recruitment, promotion and funding. How likely that is to be supplanted by use of preprint servers – which bypass peer review, leading to the release of some distinctly premature findings – remains to be seen.
The journal system was established in the 19th century. A growing number of learned societies were established, which ran journals to publish edited versions of the papers read out at their regular meetings. These modes of communication continued as the size of the academic community mushroomed, but they became increasingly disconnected. More and more symposia were organised that were unconnected with journal publications. A frequent comment is that the same high-profile people give talks at meeting after meeting, presenting already published and familiar work.
My suggestion is to recreate the 19th-century process in a manner suitable for the 21st. As now, authors would choose the appropriate journal to balance the impact of the paper with the chance of acceptance and the relevance of the audience. But all submissions would be accompanied by a recorded verbal presentation, complete with slides and videos. This would be peer-reviewed alongside the paper.
I suspect that many reviewers would look first to the abstract and then the talk as the best way to quickly grasp the message and quality. Upon acceptance, the edited paper would be published and the finalised talks would be posted online.
If authors were keen to promulgate their findings prior to peer review – perhaps because they wanted to get a result out before a grant application round – they could still submit the paper and associated talk to a preprint server.
The presentation of the talks could evolve in a number of ways. An obvious scenario would be for the journal to package its recently accepted talks into a series of themed symposia, allowing discussion and feedback. Academics would be able to tune in to those that interested them. Remote time zones would be an issue, but the inconvenience of an occasional late night or early morning would have to be balanced against the 24/7 commitment demanded by in-person conference attendance.
There would be another advantage, too. For the first time, we could capture data on the number of people logging on to a talk – both at the start and at the end – as a new measure of the speaker’s esteem and impact. This “AI” (audience index) would be at least as informative as the much-maligned impact factors and h-indexes. And, after all, if scientific publication is all about communication, why should the verbal variety be excluded?
Richard Oliver recently retired as professor of agriculture at Curtin University.