May 28, 2020

Challenges and opportunities in transitioning in-person meetings online

On May 27th, I had the opportunity to speak at a webinar hosted by eLife focused on reforming academic conferences. Here are my talking points.

Challenges and opportunities in transitioning in-person meetings online

On May 27th, I had the opportunity to speak at a webinar hosted by eLife focused on reforming academic conferences. Here are my talking points, focused on challenges associated with conference planning, how we can turn those challenges into opportunities, and how the early career community in particular can benefit from a transition to virtual meetings.

The scientific workforce has had to learn how to maintain productivity at a distance from their labs, offices, field sites, and colleagues. We had to learn how to access our information and tools remotely and rely on online platforms for communicating with lab members, colleagues, students, and collaborators. Most of us haven’t received formal training in remote work and communication strategies, so this transition has been a learning process.

One of the areas of science that has been dramatically impacted is the scientific meeting. As scientists, we value opportunities to interact with our colleagues to share our research, build our skills, and launch new collaborations. These occasions are highly valuable opportunities for the early career researcher (ECR) community to showcase their work and make connections that can help them advance to the next career stage. These meetings may also provide opportunities for ECR’s to engage in workshops focused on science communication, peer review, and career exploration that are not available at their home institutions.

Because of the value placed on these gatherings, scientific societies and conference organizers have been reluctant to cancel scheduled meetings and instead have gone through great lengths to quickly pivot to online formats to continue to meet the needs of their members. We’ve seen local, national, and international meetings and workshops convert to virtual formats in just a matter of weeks with great success. We’ve learned a lot from this first wave of virtual events. The most important lesson we’ve learned is that virtual meetings can be done. And they can be done well. Conference organizers can no longer default to traditional practices, which can be exclusive to participants who may already feel marginalized in their communities. Rather, we’re at a turning point at which organizers can be proactive about innovating practices and working toward inclusivity. Today I’ll share with you some challenges in planning meetings, how we can turn these challenges into opportunities, and how the ECR community in particular can benefit from the transition to virtual meetings.

As the pre-print pointed out, virtual meeting planning presents many of the same challenges as in-person meeting planning. One of these challenges is accessibility. How can conference planners ensure that everyone who wants to participate can to the fullest possible extent? I encourage conference planners to arrange for sign language interpretation and/or professional closed captioning. Also consider providing opportunities for participants to engage not only over video conferencing, but also through written communication, for example over Slack or shared Google Docs, to take into account different communication preferences and allow for conversations to extend over a longer period of time. Consider how to engage participants from different time zones and allow opportunities for asynchronous viewing of presentations and participation. One could take a lesson from the Bioinformatics Community Conference, which will be held virtually for the first time this summer and will create schedules for eastern and western hemispheres to allow for equitable global participation.

Moving to a virtual format improves accessibility for members of the scientific community who can not easily travel, such as government scientists, caregivers, and ECR’s.  Members of these groups may already feel marginalized in their scientific communities and the difficulty of having to travel to meetings may exacerbate those sentiments. By hosting meetings online, all participants with internet access have a level playing field with regard to participation and can have their voices heard. The huge spikes in numbers of attendees at virtual events as compared to in-person meetings demonstrate that there are barriers to participation and when they are alleviated, the number, and likely the diversity, of attendees grows.

Another challenge facing meeting planners concerns building and sustaining connections among participants. In-person meetings tend to have plenty of opportunities for informal networking and socializing during poster sessions or at meal times that can be difficult to replicate in virtual space. However, there is variability in the extent to which all participants can partake in socializing. For caregivers, downtime is often devoted to kids and families. For ECR’s, particularly those traveling to a meeting alone, these times in the schedule can be awkward and intimidating. Interacting in virtual space with attendees, either synchronously or asynchronously, allows participants to engage in communication at times when it is convenient to do so and can lower the barrier for individuals who are newer to the community. One of the challenges of interacting in virtual space is being able to replicate the warm, fuzzy feeling that in-person meetings can create when participants are in an immersive experience for an extended length of time, but it is important to point out that meetings can also generate stress and anxiety in participants, particularly those who may already feel marginalized, and that it is possible to create meaningful connections using virtual platforms.

ECR’s are in a position of privilege in this regard because we are, by and large, just as comfortable communicating and community-building online as we may be in person, if not moreso. We engage regularly in Slack communities such as Future PI, Friends of Joe’s Big Idea, and scientific society leadership teams. Though we may have never met our colleagues in these spaces in person, we feel comfortable sharing career advice, peer editing, and collaborating on projects. With both in-person and online meetings, participants either hop on a plane or close their video conferencing window at the end and there tends to be little follow-up afterward. I encourage conference organizers to think about ways of engaging participants through more long-term avenues, such as Slack communities, that can sustain conversations and connections. I also strongly encourage the use of digital archiving of talks and posters so that attendees can provide feedback and ask questions after the event is over.

Another challenge facing virtual conference organizers has to do with technology, including what platform(s) to choose for the event and solving technical challenges that arise with speakers and participants. However, in-person meetings also have a strong reliance on technology, including AV systems, online programs, and archiving services. Successful virtual event organizers take the time to practice talks with speakers in advance to make sure that there are no issues or questions associated with the technology. I also encourage conference organizers to have a dedicated tech support team in place to handle issues that arise, in much the same way that in-person meetings have volunteers or staff on site to help presenters load talks and troubleshoot AV problems.

The last challenge that I’ll touch on has to do with creating and enforcing a code of conduct. While codes of conduct are becoming more common and expected, they may largely be written with in-person gatherings and interactions in mind. Conference organizers need to ensure that they have codes of conduct with clear guidelines for reporting that extend to interactions in virtual spaces.

Scientific meetings have become critical to advancing our careers. We need to show advisors, committees, and funders how we’ve disseminated our research to broad audiences. However, accessing traditional in-person meetings is costly and time-consuming. This is amplified for ECR’s with families or caregiving responsibilities and those living in remote regions. Switching to a virtual platform increases access to these populations and may increase the abilities of ECR’s as a whole to engage with other participants and disseminate their work. As a community, ECR’s are at an advantage because we are accustomed to learning new technology and comfortable interacting in virtual space. I encourage ECR’s who have the capacity to volunteer to be on conference planning committees so that you can get an inside view of the process and use your voice to advocate for meaningful change. If you’re not able to access the lab or your field site this summer, I recommend you look into the wealth of online training sessions and workshops that are surfacing focused on development of professional and technical skills. If there’s a training or engagement gap at your institution or within your scientific community that can be filled through a virtual conference or workshop, I encourage you, if you have the time, to collaborate with others to organize your own virtual event. Virtual events still cost money and take time to plan, but they avoid many of the financial and logistical challenges of in-person events, such as booking a venue and caterer. This format, therefore, can open up opportunities for new or emerging conference organizers and events. I encourage you to apply your creativity, innovation, and technological know-how to this emerging area and advocate for practices and values that promote equity and inclusion. If you are interested in getting involved in conference planning, Code for Science and Society will release a call for proposals this summer for virtual events centered on tools, practices, and communities in open data science that drives scholarship. We’re particularly keen to support organizers who aim to increase inclusivity and broaden participation in data science.