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Research intelligence: how to organise a virtual conference

Published on: 21 Feb 2020

Academic conferences provide scholars with the chance to network, reflect and rub shoulders with the great and good of their discipline. However, some are asking if such international meetings can be organised in a way that does not require participants to fly, thus avoiding the environmental impact of air travel.

Online conferences are often mooted as an answer, but the complexity of coordinating speakers and delegates across different countries and time zones can easily be underestimated.

Riccardo Sapienza, reader in experimental solid state physics at Imperial College London, was part of the organising committee for the first “online photonics meet-up”, which attracted more than 1,100 participants last month. Here, he gives his top tips for putting together a successful online conference.

Blitz the organising
Traditional academic conferences usually require at least a year of planning, but Dr Sapienza’s organising committee decided that a tighter time frame was needed to build momentum and generate online buzz. “We would normally advertise in journals, but we didn’t take this approach as we wanted to do things over a much shorter period,” he explained. “We started on Twitter and made sure the academic community was really engaged from the start.”

In addition to putting the word out through Facebook and Instagram posts, the committee contacted technical societies to publicise the event, and academics did the same in person at their lectures. “It struck a chord with busy researchers who could not drop all their usual duties to attend a conference in another country,” said Dr Sapienza. “There are a few professional travellers in science, but most do not have that time to spare, particularly if they have young children and families.”

Keep it snappy
Most academic conferences run across two to three days, with shorter ones limited to a day. The photonics meet-up ran just five hours but still managed to host three keynote speakers and 12 talks in total.

“Normal conferences last a lot longer,” said Dr Sapienza, but the meet-up organisers wanted brevity, in part because some delegates would be watching in the middle of the night. “We chose to hold it in the afternoon in America, mainly because their technical support would be available at universities there…That meant some countries were not well represented, though we still had about 50 people from India join us even though it meant a 3am start.”

Get students involved
Half those tuning in to the online meet-up did so from their own computers, and so were presumably alone, but about 600 joined via 66 institutional gatherings across 27 countries.

These “hubs” allowed optics researchers to discuss the presentations together, affording the proceedings some of the interactivity of a traditional conference. The largest hub featured 65 people gathered at the University of Ottawa.

“We did not plan these hubs, but they really made the event feel alive,” said Dr Sapienza, adding that the satellite micro meet-ups were largely student-driven. “Some students managed to get small amounts of funding for pizza and set up small conferences of their own.”

In addition, students were encouraged to submit posters via Twitter, with some 60 displays gathering an average of 3,000 views each – far more than they would receive at a typical conference.

Overall, more than half the participants were graduate or undergraduate students. “For many of them, this was their first conference, and it would not have been possible if it had not been free and online,” said Dr Sapienza.

Use technology, but enlist backup
Even the best-laid plans for an online conference will count for nothing if the internet connection goes down. Thus, checking that any potential technological difficulties could be easily resolved was vital, explained Dr Sapienza.

“We did a rehearsal for the conference but knew that wasn’t enough,” he said, adding that organisers recruited technology experts from their institutions to ensure that problems could be rectified.

Other technological issues should also be considered. For instance, all the event’s talks were made available on YouTube for those unable to view on the day, but they were deleted two weeks later.

“We understood that some people couldn’t make it into their office to view at the time, but we also wanted to preserve the immediacy of the event,” Dr Sapienza said. “People are also aware that if you post something for a long time, the content can be overtaken by new findings.”

For future events, committee members are considering how they might improve communication between delegates and speakers, with Dr Sapienza admitting that, because questions from hubs had been relayed via a single representative, interaction was a little slow and cumbersome at times.

“These online events will not stop more traditional in-person conferences, but they can be great to engage different audiences who wouldn’t otherwise attend a conference,” Dr Sapienza concluded. “It was amazing to see people from all over the world watching our speakers, even when it was 5am.”