Moving conferences online: lessons learned

New research from the University of Oxford, in collaboration with 15 other institutions and NGOs around the globe, outlines the opportunities and challenges associated with organising virtual meetings.

The global pandemic of COVID-19 and associated human-movement restrictions has resulted in mass postponements or cancellations of in-person meetings. An essential part of any academic career, conferences offer a unique opportunity for scientists to interact, network and form partnerships. 

Their absence is likely to impact early-career researchers the most because they have time-sensitive academic paths that rely on conferences to disseminate their work, connect with established researchers and ultimately advance their academic careers.

In this work, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, a team of 14 authors describe their experience of organising a medium-sized (<400 participants) international meeting held online in August 2020, and outline the logistics involved in administering such an event. In addition, they present the participants’ perspective, drawn from a post-meeting questionnaire and finally, compare demographic data from this meeting with past, in-person meetings of similar-themed symposia.

'We felt that outlining our lessons learned from organising an online meeting and providing information on actual costs and platforms would be useful to future meeting organisers planning similar events, since online meetings are here to stay', said Dr Paris Stefanoudis. 'We certainly wish we had that information available when we started organising our meeting.' 

A post-conference questionnaire indicated that participants regarded live talks as a key component of online meetings and were preferred over pre-recorded talks, although most supported the option of having the latter to cater for those with broadband issues or time zone conflicts. Respondents felt that the virtual meeting did not fully replicate the in-person experience, as for example, they were not able to engage with other researchers as much as with past in-person meetings, and received less feedback for their presented work.

In addition, most could not allocate as much time as for in-person meetings and almost half said they were less concentrated. Although not specifically identified in the study, the authors suggest that that personal commitments, time zone differences, online fatigue, and lack of care for dependents - all of which have been augmented during the COVID-19 pandemic – may have played a role in that. Despite those caveats, the vast majority of respondents enjoyed the online meeting and indicated that they would join similar events again.

From a financial perspective, cost for participants as well as for organisers was a fraction of that of in-person meetings. The meeting organisers reduced costs by not hiring a commercial conference company, and instead using ‘off-the-shelf’ software products, largely volunteering their time, and only spending some funds to pay for three researchers to take on coordinating and technical support duties.

‘While we have shown that it is certainly possible to minimise organising costs for online meetings, it is not sustainable in the long run to expect online meetings to be run on a volunteer-basis. It is also not equitable as well, since inevitably this will lead to future online conferences being organised predominantly by researchers in the Global North that have the financial luxury to volunteer their time for free.’ 

‘Going forward, online meetings of this size would require hiring more paid organising and technical support staff or a professional company, which would somewhat increase online participating costs. In any case, a tiered registration or registration waivers should be used to offset costs for those in financial need,’ said Dr Stefanoudis.

Moreover, the online meetings’ demographic composition compared favourably to that of a similar-themed, past in-person meeting held in a high-income nation in 2018, with the former doubling the number of participants from low and middle-income nations. Interestingly, demographic data were comparable to an in-person meeting held in an upper-middle-income nation, indicating that holding in-person meetings in developing economies can be as effective in widening participation as virtual meetings.

 


To read more about this research, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, please visit: