Virtual meetings promise to remove geographic and administrative barriers and increase accessibility, diversity and inclusiveness
Due to the ongoing pandemic, we have witnessed a shift from a world where face-to-face meetings were the norm to a new reality in which almost all of the last year’s conferences were held virtually. There are positive aspects of this new format that support its continuation in the future. Online conferences increase the participation of scientists from under-represented groups and from developing countries, and offer advantages such as flexible schedules, reduced registration fees and the removal of barriers to travel. As a result, in our analyzes, we observed a dramatic increase in the number of participants from under-represented minorities, as well as international participants, including those from developing countries. Virtual conference platform offers increased accessibility, reduced administrative burden and more flexible schedules compared to in-person meetings, especially for international participantsseven. The remote format has enabled more people to present their work and attend events by delivering recorded lectures through on-demand online services and eliminating physical space limitations. Many conferences now provide recorded videos and workshop material for an extended period after the conference ends, and even post some of these materials on public media channels such as YouTube, which are open to the public at all times. In addition, select conferences such as Symposia Keystone have published all recorded conferences online for free for its members in developing countries, removing financial, administrative and geographic barriers. An open science environment was also promoted through Slack channels for conference reactions, conversations, and comments. The advantage of these online communication channels is that they are free, sustainable and supported for as long as participants need them.
An important feature of virtual conferences, which was not available in face-to-face meetings, is live on-screen captions, as well as real-time computer-assisted transcription (CART) and language interpretations. American signs (ASL). Real-time captions provide better accessibility for participants with disabilities and non-native English speakers, and improve participants’ attention and precise understanding of the content covered by the speaker. However, we should note that live captioning might be an additional expense and might not be an option if lectures are to be kept affordable. Deferred crowdsourcing has been seen as an option by some conferences to provide such a service. The inclusion of a communicator for the hearing impaired is recommended and has been implemented in some conferences and webinars, improving accessibility for all participants. Additionally, conferences often upload recorded lectures to online video platforms. One example is the BIOC conference, where automatic caption creation is available through speech recognition technology. This is extremely beneficial and should be taken into account for future conferences.
However, this change was not without its challenges. We have witnessed new challenges associated with the virtual conferencing platform, including high speed internet requirements, reduced interactions with peers, “screen fatigue”11 the need to spend long periods in front of a computer, interference from work and household responsibilities, lack of social interaction12 this would be possible in an in-person setting, and the complications of connecting across time zones. In addition, virtual conferences have two significant drawbacks: first, the reduced possibility of collaboration and networking between specialties; and second, the limited networking opportunities of the occasional interactions in bulletin rooms or social events, which can lead to new collaborations, awareness of new discoveries, and career advancement. This implies that in-person conferencing will always have an advantage when it comes to these aspects, and when we conceptualize the hybrid conferencing format in the future, we need to make sure that they are maintained. Disability, visa requirements, travel time and cost, and rigid schedules are some of the barriers preventing researchers from under-represented groups and developing countries from attending in-person scientific and medical conferences at internationally.13. Therefore, we believe that the organizers should continue to strive to offer travel grants and servicesseven (such as child care and disability services) to allow broad access to the in-person experience.
While virtual conferences reduce costs for attendees, financial considerations for organizers are also a significant issue. Academic conferences are usually organized by professional societies (e.g. AACR, International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB) and so on) and contribute significantly to the income and membership of societies, which in turn benefits the mission, programs and initiatives such as lobbying for research funding, developing statements and standards, promoting and providing education to its members, organizing events awareness raising and the provision of travel and other types of scholarships. For one thing, compared to in-person events, virtual conferences translate to savings in food and beverage costs, billboard costs, and rental fees. Audiovisual costs, however, are comparable between in-person and virtual events, and virtual events add logistical complexity and require more time on the part of organizers, technicians and presenters for rehearsals and for capture, download. and quality control of videos. Another downside for organizers is that virtual events may not generate buy-in in the same way as in-person events. For example, ISCB memberships declined in 2020 compared to 2019 and do not appear to be on track to recover in 2021. Additionally, some of the costs and revenues of academic conferences are often covered by industry sponsorships. and other organizations. It has been difficult to convince sponsors that they will receive an equal return on investment in virtual conferences, and when sponsors participate, their contributions are smaller. When combined with reduced registration fees, virtual conferences generate lower overall revenue for organizers than in-person meetings.
We noticed that despite the increase in the number of participants in virtual conferences, the engagement on social networks during these conferences did not increase as the number of participants (Figs. 1 to 4). However, we recognize that our methodology may not reflect all of the social media activity of these conferences, as some also have their own communication platforms outside of Twitter. One possible explanation for such a phenomenon is that, unlike in-person conferences, some virtual conferences may use different means of communication for participants in addition to social media. Additionally, in-person conference attendees might be more involved in live sessions, be less likely to experience technology fatigue, and conversely, be more likely to share their experiences and thoughts on social media than conference attendees. virtual. We also recognize that our Twitter data does not normalize for increasing use over time. Additionally, different time zones can present logistical challenges for participants from other countries. While we have observed a higher number of virtual conference attendees, those who are active in social media may be lower than those attending in-person conferences, potentially due to challenges such as the difficulty of separating work completely. day-to-day or family-related tasks of participating in an online virtual conference, which could prevent participants (especially caregivers) from fully participating in the conference. Thus, it can be assumed that even though the attendance has increased considerably, it does not necessarily mean that all participants engage in the conference to the maximum extent. Since it is convenient to attend the conference from home, participants can focus only on specific conferences that are of interest to them, rather than attending as many conferences as possible, as is common in in-person conferences. Therefore, virtual conferences, compared to in-person conferences, can attract a larger group of participants including less engaged people.
Our results provide evidence for a hybrid format for future conferences, combining the strengths of in-person and virtual platforms. This would expand the reach of the conferences to more communities and more countries. In the future, we advocate a hybrid mode of organizing conferences. While we strongly believe that in-person conferencing has its own advantages and that no online communication tool can completely mimic the in-person experience14, we cannot overlook the multiple advantages of online conferencing: in addition to offering previously under-represented groups the opportunity to attend global conferences, using a hybrid format will help decarbonize conference travel after the pandemic3.15.16. In fact, several conferences have started to implement such a hybrid mode. The Medical Image Computing and Computing Assisted Intervention Society (MICCAI) announced in-person and virtual plans, although it ultimately had to cancel the former due to uncertainties about the pandemic. The Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer, Society for Melanoma Research (SMR), Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) Genome Informatics, Basel Computational Biology Conference (BC2), and AGBT (Advances in Genome Biology and Technology) Precision Medicine have all announced hybrid formats for their meetings. These demonstrate the growing need and acceptance of the hybrid conference format. Taken together, the results of our study justify the continued evaluation of data from future conferences with different platforms (in-person, virtual or hybrid) to assess its influence on accessibility, inclusion and diversity.