First impressions of an online academic conference
- Research and innovation
When I finished my PhD, I had already decided that a career as an academic was not for me. However I knew I did not want to turn my back completely on research and university life, so instead I turned my focus to supporting others with their research, and so applied (and was hired) to be a Research Support Officer here at Leeds University Business School.
One of the hardest things about making this decision was that I knew I would never be able to keep up-to-speed with all the incredible research taking place in my area of expertise. I could continue to read a journal article every now and again, follow academics on Twitter, have a nosey at conference abstracts, but my priorities would need to shift and as a result, something I had dedicated almost a decade of my life to would have to take a back seat. This is nothing revolutionary, almost all of us have to make sacrifices and realign our priorities throughout life, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
Three years on, I’m now working at home (because of the COVID-19 lockdown) and happy with the decision I made, and whilst the coronavirus lockdown has taken many things away from me, it has also presented me with the opportunity, over a single breakfast, to re-immerse myself in the research I cared so much about in a way that would not have been possible before. It has done this by forcing major international conferences to deliver their programmes online.
On the morning of Wednesday 6 May 2020, I joined this year’s European Geosciences Union (EGU2020). This is an annual conference usually held in Vienna, Austria, and was attended by over 16,000 researchers in 2019. This year, at incredibly short notice, EGU2020 successfully delivered a week-long co-ordinated online programme including 18,036 abstracts, 11,380 presentations, in 701 sessions, to over 26,000 virtual attendees from 134 countries, generating over 200,000 comments/discussion points. Phenomenal.
Below is a summary of my thoughts on the experience of attending EGU2020, which I hope will be of use to those considering attending or organising academic conferences that are to be delivered online.
Summary of the positives and negatives experienced at a recent online academic conference. Each are described in more detail in the main body of the blog post.
Increasing the opportunity for discussion
One of the features I enjoyed the most about EGU2020 is that organisers asked presenters to upload digital resources e.g. presentation slides, maps, animations, well in advance of the scheduled conference dates and these resources would remain online and accessible to anyone, even once the conference was over. Uploaded documents were linked to the submitted conference abstract and those viewing the abstract webpage with a Copernicus user ID had a two-month period (1 April – 31 May) to post a question or comment (which was also publicly visible). The abstract authors then had time to think about any posted questions or comments and give a comprehensive and considered response (also posted online).
Where a Copernicus user ID was required to post comments on abstract webpages on the EGU website, there was no requirement for this in the conference session chatrooms. All you needed to do to join a chatroom was to click on the specific session link (found on the EGU website) which opened 15 minutes before the session started, and input your email address, name and affiliation. Each session had conveners to help manage discussions, introduce speakers and keep to time.
So often at conferences the presenter is faced with a sea of questions following their presentation (a nerve-wracking experience for many) and I certainly found that the answers I used to give in these situations were a little panicked and rushed, in an attempt to step away from the microphone as quickly as possible and to ensure the conference schedule kept to time. Posting and responding to questions on the conference abstract webpage felt like a far more relaxed way to discuss the research – a bit like an email exchange, but publicly accessible. Questions posted before the conference session also gave the presenter an indication as to what others may ask following the presentation, and so tailored content could be included in the discussion facilitated over the (private) chatroom, as well as posted as a response on the (public) abstract webpage.
Engaging with those outside of the academic community
I am no longer a researcher, but that does not mean I am no longer interested in research. Moving the conference to an online platform meant that, for the first time since finishing my PhD, I was able to be part of scientific discussions and hear about new and exciting research in my previous area of expertise and ongoing area of interest.
At a time when researchers are looking to engage with policy-makers and industry, delivering a conference in this way allows all those with an interest in the research to hear about it first hand and take part in the discussions. It took just 20 minutes out of my day to see research related to my PhD presented and discussed in a (chat)room of 60 people from around the world. A government advisor, or a company director, had exactly the same opportunity.
Delivering a conference in this way not only allows those outside of academia to attend more easily, but also discuss and contribute. As is said time and time again, involving people with differing professional priorities and interests helps to develop the research agenda and has the potential to deliver greater external influence and impact for the research - online conferences could therefore become another mechanism for this form of engagement.
I’ve been in a privileged position in the past and have attended conferences across three continents during my research, supported financially by university faculties and research societies.
There is no denying that attending these conferences strengthened my research networks (particularly important as an early career researcher) and allowed me to stand in front of some of the best academics in the world and share my findings, however this came at a considerable cost, not just financially, but environmentally and personally.
I think the financial and environmental aspects speak for themselves, but something I hear less about is the personal sacrifices many have to make to attend conferences. Conferences are doing all they can to widen participation and make sure they are accessible to as many as possible, but by delivering a conference online, the only requirement is access to the internet. Although internet access is not a luxury everyone has, I would feel confident in suggesting that a greater percentage of the global population have access to the internet (either personally, or via public libraries), than the financial resource to attend international conferences or the personal situations which mean spending several days away from home is okay.
Zero cost (to attendees)
EGU2020 was free, but not all online conferences are. A charge makes sense, as although the physical spaces are not required, at least the same amount of staff resource, web development, digital assets etc. are. However, for me, as a member of the public who would not be able to request funding from my employer to cover conference fees, this would be a major restriction. I doubt I would have attended EGU2020 had there been a fee. For online conferences with fees, perhaps the organisers could include an opportunity for members of the public to apply to attend the conference free of charge (I know some already offer bursaries in this way). Yet this route still creates an access barrier that would not be faced by those with financial support.
Preparing and attending a conference takes time. Not just creating a presentation, but everything else that comes with it. Arranging travel and accommodation, the actual travel time, familiarising yourself with a place you may never have been to before, submitting an expense claim for the various costs you’ve incurred whilst attending the conference once you return.
There are joys and stresses linked to the activities I’ve just listed, but by attending a virtual conference, the focus becomes solely about the research – preparing and delivering the presentation, and the discussions that precede (in the case of EGU2020) and follow. And it’s not just the individual researchers time; it’s the support staff at universities who have to arrange the travel on your behalf, the finance team who process your expense claims – the time savings associated with attending a conference online may benefit more than just the person attending.
Note: many of the negative aspects listed below are undoubtedly a result of EGU2020 conference organisers having to completely overhaul the delivery method in just a few weeks. An incredibly impressive achievement and so a few minor technical and communication difficulties are to be expected.
For EGU2020, I found it was a little difficult to navigate the conference website and to have various internet browser tabs open for presentations and chatroom discussions during sessions (perhaps integrating a PDF viewer into the chat interface could be a consideration for future conferences of this style). There were also the classic technical problems of presenters with poor internet connection and laptops running out of power at inconvenient moments.
Facilitating a discussion over a chatroom rather than face-to-face also seemed to present difficulties – there were a couple of occasions in the session I attended where questions were posted that were meant for the previous presenter, mostly likely because typing a question takes a lot longer than saying it. Having said this, the session conveners were quick to respond to any late incoming questions and suggested this question should be asked again at the end of the session, once all presentations had been given.
Time zone mishaps
When you travel to a conference, you are (often) able to adjust to the local time zone, but when joining a conference online there’s nothing stopping your session of interest being in the middle of the night, based on your local time. Joining an online conference session outside of normal working hours blurs the line between work and home life, and it is unlikely attendees would be at peak mental performance at a particularly unsociable hour. It can also get a little confusing when looking at the programme. I almost missed the first part of the session I was interested in as the conference proceedings said it was scheduled to start at 8.30am, but this was Central European Summer Time (CEST), which is one hour ahead of the UK, meaning for me the session actually began at 7.30am.
Last minute changes more difficult to communicate
In the 48 hours-or-so leading up to the conference session I attended, there was a significant amount of activity/change to the programme, including a lot of last-minute presentation uploads and session running order changes. There was also a change to the running order during the session itself (I’m not sure exactly why, but perhaps linked to the technical difficulties I gave above?). These last-minute changes can occur at a traditional conference too, but it did create some difficulties online in terms of knowing who would be speaking next, which uploaded materials to have open, making sure you didn’t miss presentations you were particularly interested in. It is far easier to pop out to make a quick coffee, nip to the bathroom or check emails during a 3.5hr online conference session than it is when attending a traditionally delivered conference, but doing so can result in you missing a presentation you were interested in, if the running order changes without you realising. This last point brings me to my final ‘negative’ for online conferences...
Losing a part of established research culture
As I mentioned above, attending an online conference means I can “pop in” and “pop out” of sessions whilst juggling the various other things I need to do, but is this ease of multitasking in fact detrimental to the conference experience and what I will take away from my attendance?
Conferences deserve an attendee’s full attention and should be an opportunity for those attending to immerse themselves in the research culture. So many academics have to deliver much more than research in their roles and have competing daily demands – by attending a conference, they can, and should, take the opportunity to switch off from all these other demands and focus solely on the research. Attending a physical conference brings with it the opportunity to network, learn, socialise, and much more. Does delivering a conference online lose some of these elements?
To go at least some way in delivering a more “face-to-face” feel, a few more virtual talks at EGU2020 delivered through Zoom/Microsoft Teams/other video conferencing providers might have been beneficial. I am aware EGU hosted a number of sessions in this way, but the vast majority of sessions were delivered using typed chatroom content to supplement previously uploaded digital content, such as presentation slides. Being able to see people whilst presenting and discussing research would make online conferences feel at least a little more like the traditional conference format. Having said that, there’s something rather liberating about tuning in to a conference whilst in my pyjamas (remember, my session started at 7.30am!).
A disclaimer, of sorts
I have written this piece as a way of summarising my first impressions of an online conference - not in my capacity as a Research Support Officer, but as a member of the public interested in research. However, what I can now do through my role as a Research Support Officer is share my experience of EGU2020 with those I work with who attend and organise academic events, and to look to incorporate learnings from EGU2020 in the events I organise (albeit on a smaller scale), such as the Business School’s Festival of Ideas. After all, although we will not be in lockdown forever, the way we deliver events may look very different from now on.
There are costs and benefits to both the traditional face-to-face and online method of conference delivery, and this article has been written to reflect this. The main thing I have learnt after attending EGU2020 digitally, is that there are ways to successfully deliver a world-leading international academic conference online, and I applaud and thank every single one of those responsible for delivering it in this way. You have allowed me to be part of something that, in “normal” circumstances, would not have been possible.
Online research events at Leeds University Business School
We are already seeing the shift to delivering research-focussed events online at the Business School. Many of our Research Centres are now delivering their seminars as webinars and School-wide research series, such as the ‘Impacts on Business: Lockdown’ webinar series, which began with a series of five events between Monday 11 – Friday 15 May 2020, have received high numbers of attendees and facilitated engaging and timely discussions.
Future events, including the ‘Impacts on Business: Lockdown’ series, will be advertised on the Business School’s events pages.
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