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Coronavirus is a wakeup call for academic conferences. Here’s why

March 30, 2020

The current international health crisis surrounding coronavirus is wreaking havoc across the globe and is now also having a major impact on the scholarly ecosystem. Academic conferences are being hardest hit as event after event is cancelled to reduce the risk of the virus spreading further.

These cancelations are resulting in turmoil for many would-be attendees who have often spent months preparing for events and not only lose out on time and money, but also on the opportunity to discover and share valuable early-stage research. This can be particularly devastating for early-career researchers who are more reliant on the exposure and networking opportunities that conferences offer to get ahead in their careers.

Canceled meetings also have a detrimental impact on scientific progress as a whole. Conferences are often the first place for the latest findings to be shared with the community, and without them we also lose vital early-stage research, discussion opportunities, and professional connections — all of which could lead to the next breakthrough or valuable new collaboration opportunity.

For this reason, physical conferences will always play an essential role in the scientific ecosystem. However, the wave of recent cancelations due to coronavirus has made it undeniably clear that all conferences must have a strategy in place to provide delegates with the most value, whether they can attend the event itself or not. A comprehensive digital presence does not take away from an in-person event, but rather serves to enhance the entire conference experience and extend its reach by welcoming a far wider group of researchers into the conversation.

Luckily, there are many tools at organizers’ disposal that can help digitize conferences. Almost 10 years ago, Marc Andreessen coined the phrase ‘“software is eating the world”; today, it’s more like services are eating software, and academic conferences are no different. Cloud-based, easily integrable technologies are leading the way in digitizing conferences and increasing the usefulness of the research that is shared at these events.

Digital conferences, already commonplace in the technology industry, are slowly making their way into institutional and society meetings. Conferences can use live streaming services such as Zoom to broadcast presentations and speeches, or turn to the Virtual Science Forum for advice on how to organize and host virtual meetings. Webinars serve as a useful replacement for working sessions – Zoom’s webinar tool, for example, provides interactive features to allow participants to ask and answer questions, vote in polls, and offer commentary throughout the session. Panopto, which many universities already use to record lectures, is now increasingly being engaged to capture meeting sessions and video poster presentations at conferences. Once an event is over, content platforms such as LinkedIn’s Slideshare allow presenters to easily upload slides and supporting material.

With the technology services we currently have at our disposal, there’s also no excuse for conference content to be restricted to the offline realm. Conferences are increasingly providing online platforms to showcase abstracts, posters, and presentations both before and after the event. Bringing this research online ensures that it doesn’t disappear when delegates roll up their posters and head home, and also offers the potential to disseminate this content to the wider research community, whether they can attend the event or not. Digitizing early-stage research and integrating it into wider scholarly communications is the main goal of our company, Morressier, which Sami founded five years ago. We provide DOIs for each document to ensure that they can be securely shared and cited, and that authors receive the recognition they deserve. This way, regardless of whether an event is cancelled or not, research always remains accessible for the long-term.

There’s no doubt that digital content platforms serve as a necessary addition to traditional paper posters, however, one feature of physical conferences that is more difficult to replicate is the benefit of in-person networking. Conferences offer the potential to discuss research face-to-face and make connections in a more casual setting, such as over dinner or at networking events. While nothing can fully replace the value of a real-life conversation, there are technology services that can enhance the experience.

Matchmaking tools, already common in technology events, can allow delegates to connect with relevant researchers virtually and exchange ideas around their topic of interest. Attendees can use these tools to fill out their profile, including their interests and key research fields, and algorithms then match them to other relevant delegates, with matches then ‘meeting’ each other via video calls. One such app that we recently encountered is Braindate, which makes it easy to find and chat with attendees depending on their interests, and even to invite a group of experts to come together around a particular topic. This feature helped to foster a more varied and in-depth discussion of research questions and reduced the pressure of a one-on-one meeting.

The services mentioned in this article are just some of many excellent software tools at conference organizers’ disposal, and we invite readers of this post to share their experience of using them and others. As we look to an uncertain future, it is all the more important that academic conferences find a way to support the virtual sharing of knowledge. If scientific research is held back there will be no cure for coronavirus, and no solution to whatever challenge humanity faces next. By taking steps to digitize conferences, organizers can ensure early-stage research gets the platform it deserves and scientists have the resources they need to accelerate their breakthroughs, without facing health risks.

This article first appeared on The Scholarly Kitchen

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