Current Affairs

Will Scientific Conferences Survive COVID-19?

Franco Viviani, former President of the International Council for Physical Activity and Fitness Research, and anthropologist at the University of Padua, Italy, reflects on the rise of virtual meetings.

For decades I have organized and attended F2F conferences worldwide and, given these unprecedented circumstances, a lot of questions have arisen, as virtual conferences seem to be gradually taking over.

Virtual conferences are appreciated mostly by researchers who are usually not able to attend in-person gatherings because of disabilities or family, time or money constraints. They express in informal surveys the hope that future meetings will take place more online or that at least that hybrid meetings will be the norm. Recently, Nature (Nature 582, 135-136, 2020) offered a coverage of the virtual conference of the American Physical Society held last April, and surveyed 485 participants who generally found the online experience positive: 82% of them said they would definitely participate to online conferences in the future. 

But not all researchers seem to agree: for them weakness of virtual meetings actually outweigh their possible benefits. Pros & cons are, in fact, many. Online conferences, in general cost less and they are practically carbon-free. It is estimated that if the 7.8 million of the scientists who, in normal times, travel the globe to attend just one meeting participated in an online meeting, the world would save the equivalent of emissions of a small nation. 

Right tools and systems

Additionally, if the right tools and systems for networking are available, participants such as graduate students could be less intimidated and more prone to ask questions. Pre-recorded presentations can be paused and reviewed over and over, and this is undoubtedly useful for those who missed details or need more time to reflect on a slide or an issue. Details and achievements of speakers can be made accessible before the congress, sparking the interest of participants who can get the conversations running way before anything starts. Lower costs will also allow more people to attend more digital conferences, seminars and meetings. The same day, a scientist could participate to a conference in Europe in the morning and to another one at night in Asia. Scientists coming from low budget universities would also be able to access quality content online, and this is definitely a democratic improvement! 

Also, data (A. Carter et al. PLoS One 13, e0202743; 2018) shows that male speakers usually outnumber female speakers and the former are about 2.5 times more likely than females to raise their hand after a panel, while observational data from almost 250 seminars in 10 countries show women audience members ask absolutely and proportionally fewer questions than male audience members. Virtual meetings, in this regard, could encourage women to engage more easily. 

At the same time, if virtual meetings cost less, they, however, obviously require the right technology… and the right staff. I’ve seen on many occasions technical glitches occur, and I know some presenters have difficulties talking to an invisible audience. Poster presentations can also be an issue, as they are not seen and appreciated as much as in a physical space. 

Casual chats carried out during a conference and informal encounters at lunches and dinners or during coffee breaks are usually not happening, decreasing cooperation, possible knowledge transfer or the opportunity for new partnerships. Junior researchers who are now facing a so-called “recruitment freeze” affecting many institutions usually rely on those face-to-face encounters to create future collaborations: in this case they would surely be frustrated. Not to mention the depletion of the congress organizers’ budget…

What to expect for the future? Probably a combination of virtual and F2F conferences. As far as the information about science is concerned, we are facing a revolution. Some “digital natives”, ie the young researchers belonging to varied disciplines, are for instance already using social media such as Twitter to learn in real time. They post their papers on there and specialists answer right away, shortcutting everything we’ve known so far. The scientific world is opening up to new digital solutions. So why not conferences? In the meantime, we’ll have to make sure that we don’t create a double standard: first-class F2F conferences vs. second-class virtual meetings, which is, to me, the direction we’re heading to, unfortunately. It’s a distinction that I personally hope will fade away in the near future.

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