I’m super excited that my abstract was chosen for an oral presentation at CSHL’s eukaryotic mRNA processing meeting which will be held virtually at the end of August! I’m not saying this to get congrats or anything, but I thought sharing would make a good excuse to talk about virtual science conferences. Plus I like to make note of exciting moments so I can look back on my achievements when I’m feeling down. The text below I have adapted from a report I wrote for school based on my experiences with virtual conferences – how they were set up as well as pros, cons, likes, dislikes, and suggestions.  



The COVID-19 pandemic has upended many plans, including plans for thousands of scientists from around the world to come together in one city or another to attend a scientific conference. As the extent and severity of the pandemic emerged, the organizers of meetings decided to make their conference virtual in some fashion. They took very different approaches and, as virtual conferences appear to be reality for the foreseeable future, it’s beneficial to look back on which aspects worked well and which could be improved upon, as well as some of the unintended benefits and detriments of virtual conferences. I’ve now gone to several virtual conferences and they had different styles as well as pros and cons. 

At most of them, there’s some sort of virtual poster session where scientists upload a PDF of their poster, which was then available for attendees to browse throughout the entire meeting. One meeting I went to set up a dedicated Slack workspace for attendees, with individual channels for each poster where people could ask questions. As a poster presenter, there were several drawbacks; the setup could be stressful since you had to be “on alert” for the whole meeting as opposed to just the hour or two you would normally stand by a poster. Additionally, it was hard to know how many people were “visiting” my poster and I really missed being able to physically walk through the posters with people. There are, however, workarounds; at some of the later meeting I went to, many presenters had recorded themselves giving such “walk-throughs” and had posted them along with their poster. I think that this was a great idea and, if comfortable with it, researchers could also upload these videos to YouTube or other public-facing platforms in order to engage with a wider audience. At some conferences, I have even seen people upload their posters to Twitter and whole virtual poster sessions have taken place on Twitter with dedicated hashtags. 

However, such public sharing has faced criticism. Poster presentations have typically been viewed as a way to present scientific “works in progress” – results that are far from verified. Therefore, there has been concern from some in the community that results may be misinterpreted and/or taken as conclusive, potentially even picked up by the media. This is a similar situation as has recently been playing out in conversation regarding preprints. And, says Morrison et al., unofficial “peer editors” on the internet are typically more than happy to provide critique and help others interpret the work in a nuanced fashion. In fact, in an opinion piece in Cell, these authors advocate for taking access to conference presentations further, suggesting that poster slides be posted to public web platforms like FigShare and even adapted into “flipbook” mini-posters optimized for mobile engagement (Morrison, Merlo, and Woessner et al., 2020).

There are, however major obstacles to the broad adoption of these suggestions. In addition to generational divides regarding opinions around, and usage of, social media platforms, there is concern about scientific competition. Poster sessions have been powerful means for scientists, especially junior scientists, to gain input on additional experiments to perform and advice on troubleshooting during the mid-to-late phase of a research project. With an in-person poster presentation, there’s always some risk of a scientific competitor seeing your work and scooping you before you can publish, but the risk increases dramatically when you put your presentation on a public platform. As much as I wish scientific competition weren’t such a concern, it is in many fields, including mine. Therefore, while other scientists were Tweeting about their work during the meetings, I held my fingers.

Thankfully, that meeting’s Slack-channel format provided a middle-ground between public dissemination and total secrecy. Because only registered meeting attendees had access to the Slack channel and the posters, the audience was akin to that at a physical poster session. The format did have downsides, including that the chat history holds a “paper trail” for anyone who wants to eavesdrop, which can make it quite embarrassing if you accidentally misspeak or forget something. However, overall, it was fairly successful. It certainly was a more positive experience than with poster sessions at a different conference I attended. There, no dedicated platform such as Slack was set up for engagement. Instead, poster PDFs were posted on a server for a week and the organizers merely shared everyone’s emails and encouraged us to email one another with questions and comments. 

I strongly feel that having some sort of facilitated chat is crucial to the success of any poster session. However, even without one, I still found benefits of the virtual style of posters. Most significantly, it was nice to be able to “visit” as many posters as I wanted without having to worry about crisscrossing giant exhibition center rooms, scanning for poster numbers, and cramming in as many as I could between talks. 

That scurrying would only be an inconvenience for me, but it could be a major barrier to access for someone limited mobility. This is crucial as, according to a UK report, although 18% of the working-age population has a disability, only 4% of academic staff report having one (Fleming, 2019). One of the bright sides to virtual conferences is that they are more accessible to people with a variety of disabilities. For example, people with visual impairments can easily enlarge the text and figures on their computer screens. Virtual conferences may thus provide a means to help increase the representation of the disabled community in STEM. However, as virtual conferences tend to be more disability-inclusive by design, they cannot be used as an excuse for not adapting our physical spaces to be more inclusive as well. It’s great if mobility-impaired scientists can access a virtual poster session, but if they can’t access a laboratory, their prospects in the scientific community remain slim. Therefore, increasing attention must also be placed on making our workplaces (and society as a whole) more accessible. 

In addition to making meetings more inclusive of those with disabilities, the virtual format allows for inclusion of people from a broader range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Traditional conferences typically offer travel awards to selected applicants, but these awards are usually competitive and far from sufficient for covering the cost of transportation (especially if the participant is traveling a long distance) and lodging. Additionally, parents often face a larger financial burden as childcare is rarely provided by conference organizers. (Olena, 2020) There are no travel costs for virtual conferences and, since there is a greatly reduced overhead for the hosts, meeting registration costs can be significantly lowered. Many meetings have seen a dramatic increase in attendance since transitioning to a virtual format and reducing (or eliminating) cost of attendance. For example, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting offered free access to their 2020 virtual conference and witnessed nearly a 400% increase in attendance compared to their 2019 conference, with around 100,000 participants tuning in. (Almanza, 2020)

Many conference organizers who have taken meetings virtual have found that the geographic diversity of their attendants has dramatically expanded as well. Travel costs have been especially prohibitive for scientists who would have had to travel internationally to attend a meeting. Now that the meeting is virtual, instead of saving up to send one lab member to present, whole labs are attending conferences together with multiple members presenting. (Almanza, 2020) Some virtual conferences even offer bulk discounts to facilitate this and various labs and institutions have set up (socially-distanced) viewing sessions for conference talks. 

With an international audience, scheduling such talks can be difficult. This has led to conference organizers weighing the pros and cons of having talks live (synchronous) or pre-recorded and viewable on-demand (asynchronous). One meetings research talks were held live over Zoom, with morning and afternoon sessions. I liked having the talks live because you could ask questions in a less-intimidating fashion (through a chat box) and have a greater chance of getting your question answered than if you had to fight for a mic in a crowded lecture hall. Another benefit of having the talks live was that it felt much more “real” than the prerecorded approach taken by another virtual conference I presented a talk at. Additionally, as I was recording my talk for it over and over to try to get it “perfect,” a live format seemed much more appealing since, although there would more risk of making a mistake in a live talk, there would also likely be more acceptance of a few stumbles.

However, there are drawbacks of live talks – at a traditional meeting, all attendees are in the same time zone, but with virtual meetings it might be the middle of the night for many participants and mid-day for many others. To address this problem, the live talks were also recorded and posted a couple of weeks later. I feel that this format of live talks, but which are recorded and available to attendees later, is the best approach. However, I think that the talks should be posted as soon as possible after they’re given instead of at the end of the meeting. This way, if people missed a talk, they could watch it at a convenient time and still be able to discuss it with fellow scientists before the meeting ended.

Although there was no official communication platform for the pre-recorded-talk meeting I went to, attendees took it upon themselves to organize informal Zoom sessions. These were held in a “journal club” fashion, where people met and discussed the talks and posters given in a specific subfield. I think that having these sessions formally arranged for meetings would be a great benefit. 

In addition to research presentations, traditional conferences offer a variety of socialization and networking events, which can be especially important for students and early-career scientists looking to advance themselves and potentially find new job opportunities or collaborators. One conference tried to foster some of these opportunities virtually utilizing Slack and Zoom, with mixed success. 

In addition to poster channels, the Slack had channels for topics including general chat, job listings, and (my favorite) trainees only, where I got to meet some peers from around the world. It was great to meet the trainees, but it was also apparent that a lot of the “big-name” scientists weren’t on Slack. Without our PIs or others we knew to introduce us to these scientists, it was hard to really “meet” them. Therefore, I greatly appreciated that the meeting hosts organized virtual “Meet the Speakers” events – Zoom calls with two prominent scientists and three or four students or postdocs. It was a fantastic experience to hear their thoughts and advice on life as a scientist. Other conferences have taken “social mixers” virtual, randomly putting handfuls of attendees into Zoom breakout rooms for a set timepoint and then switching things up. Some apps have even sprung up to facilitate interactions between conference-goers. (Liu, 2020).

Despite the attempts to recreate the physical conference experience virtually, even the best virtual meetings I’ve been to have still left me missing the in-person format, because there are some aspects which cannot be recreated. There are so many happenstance interactions, overheard conversations that you can sneak into, networking, etc. that can only take place in person. And, just as importantly, there’s a sense of community at in-person meetings. I attended a small liberal arts school with no graduate program in science and when I went to my first scientific conference as an undergrad it was the first time I really believed I could be a scientist and felt that I could fit into the larger scientific community. Ever since, whenever I’m at a conference I make a point to talk to and support undergraduate presenters.

That sense of community helped draw me into research, but with the virtual meetings, as a trainee, there was a strong feeling that we were getting left out – that all the senior scientists already know each other and are just talking amongst themselves. For these, among other reasons, I sincerely missed the actual meetings – and this is coming from someone who is a strong introvert, hates socializing, and finds it to be incredibly exhausting!

I really hope that all-virtual conferences aren’t the new normal forever. But I also realize that my perspective comes from a standpoint of great privilege. I may “miss” in-person meetings, but many people do physically miss in-person meetings because of barriers like prohibitive costs or physical disabilities that make travel difficult. I don’t have all (or really any) of the answers, but I expect that the future of scientific conferences will be some hybrid approach, where there is a smaller physical meeting, with the content still available over the web. Of course, it won’t be the same experience for the web-attendees, which still leaves in place aspects of inequality based on affordability and disability, but it’s better than not going at all. Additionally, since the web version will be cheaper, people can “attend” more of them – which could enhance international collaboration and sharing of knowledge. On the flip side, however, we could see a cottage industry of low-quality meetings emerge a la predatory journals. 

So, no answers, but I believe that as scientific organizations stumble through their first virtual meetings, they will get better. These groups were thrown into having to change everything at the last minute without time to optimize. Similar to how taking school online on the flip of a dime didn’t work out too well, yet virtual learning can be effective, I think there definitely are ways to make virtual conferences better. My suggestions are: live talks recorded and posted soon after they are given, Slack channels (or some other talk platform) for discussion, “Meet the Speakers” sessions, and formal discussion group Zoom meetings. Whatever the format, I look forward to attending many more conferences in the future! 

Starting with this month’s!

References

Fleming, N. (2019, July 24). How to organize a conference that’s open to everyone. Retrieved November 07, 2020, from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02253-9

Liu, G. (2020, August 21). The Surprising Advantages of Virtual Conferences. Retrieved November 07, 2020, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-surprising-advantages-of-virtual-conferences/

Lorena Villanueva AlmanzaSep. 25, 2., Elisabeth PainMar. 21, 2., Sergio E. RamosOct. 8, 2., Katie LanginOct. 6, 2., & Elisabeth PainSep. 22, 2. (2020, September 25). Virtual scientific conferences open doors to researchers around the world. Retrieved November 07, 2020, from https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2020/09/virtual-scientific-conferences-open-doors-researchers-around-world

Morrison, M., Merlo, K., & Woessner, Z. (2020). How to Boost the Impact of Scientific Conferences. Cell, 182(5), 1067-1071. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2020.07.029

Olena, A. (2020, September 28). COVID-19 Ushers in the Future of Conferences. Retrieved November 07, 2020, from https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/covid-19-ushers-in-the-future-of-conferences-67978 

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