Apart from the ‘aha’ moments, one of the biggest excitements in science is traveling to conferences and sharing your findings with other scientists. You get to present your research, gain valuable feedback, make useful connections, foster new collaborations, and just have a great time. However, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of conferences have been canceled, postponed, or adopted a virtual format.

All Abcam conferences have transitioned to the digital space. We discussed the virtual conference format with our in-house Events team and gathered some insights from the scientists they interviewed. Here, we’ll go through the benefits and limitations of the virtual format and touch on the topic of hybrid conferences.

Limitations of virtual conferences

We understand why you may not be as thrilled about virtual conferences as heading off across the world to in-person events. Instead of disconnecting from your daily routine, you sit for hours at your computer screen while watching a floating head. The virtual format does pose some limitations such as challenges with networking and keeping attention, and lack of spontaneous conversations.

“…Certain things just don’t work online, like poster sessions, coffee breaks, and other socializing. The casual passing and coincidental chats don’t happen online. I fear that we will have to develop new tools for networking beyond what the internet can provide.”

Prof. Gerd Kempermann, German Center for Neurodegenerative Disease (DZNE), Dresden, Germany.

“In-person events have several advantages, such as spontaneous networking, discussions, brainstorming, new collaborations, all of which I think are essential for progress in science, and that can be difficult to achieve online.”

Dr. Gonçalo Castelo-Branco, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden.

Benefits of virtual conferences

Despite all those challenges, virtual conferences can offer some important benefits to the science community. Firstly, virtual conferences are easy to attend, thus allowing for broader participation and inclusion of a more diverse audience. The digital format makes conferences more accessible for certain groups, such as scientists with disabilities or parents of young children, for whom traveling to a remote location can pose a serious barrier. Secondly, you don’t need a big budget to attend as many virtual conferences are free or have reduced fees, which removes cost-related barriers for international scientists from disadvantaged economic backgrounds.

The data from Science magazine suggests that virtual conferences have the potential to increase overall attendance and international participation. For example, when one of the world’s biggest scientific conferences, the American Physical Society April Meeting, adopted a virtual format in 2020, it experienced a 300% increase in overall attendance. Also, the number of participating countries jumped from 28 in 2019 (in-person conference) to 79 in 2020 (virtual).

“I have been co-organizing the conference “Developing Brains” every year for the last 7 years with colleagues at the Karolinska Institute. This year’s edition was online for the first time. It went very smoothly, and it was positive that we were able to reach a much wider audience, who under normal circumstances wouldn’t have been able to participate.”

Dr. Gonçalo Castelo-Branco, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden.

“Some meetings work quite well in an online format, especially those, where the main purpose is either mere information or a very structured discussion of something. I have heard excellent presentations online, and so many more of them have become available. I think this is a positive culture change. Also, I could attend a meeting of PhD students in Sao Paulo [Brazil] and interact with the students. That would not have been possible without unrealistic effort in the physical world.”

Prof. Gerd Kempermann, DZNE, Dresden, Germany.

Finally, virtual conferences are a much greener alternative for the environment compared to in-person meetings because they eradicate the need for air travel and thereby minimize the carbon footprint of participants. Also, you save a lot of time by avoiding travel to remote locations – win-win for you and the environment.

Is a hybrid format becoming a realistic future for science conferences?

There is an ongoing discussion on whether more conferences should adopt a ‘hybrid’ approach in the future and aim to accommodate both physical and virtual attendees. Many scientists our Events team talked to felt positive about having such hybrid events in the future.

“My feeling is that personal contacts cannot be easily replaced by online meetings. On the other hand, digital events allow more people to participate, also cutting down the costs for moving across continents. Hence, yes, I think that hybrid events could become a good solution in the future.”

Prof. Luca Bonfanti, Neuroscience Institute Cavalieri Ottolenghi (NICO), Turin, Italy.

“In-person events can also have their limitations. For example, many scientists are often not able to join due to the time spent traveling, which can be incompatible with family life. There are also the costs of registration, traveling, and accommodation which can sometimes be prohibitive, not to mention the impact of flying on the climate. In general, I do think that hybrid conferences will indeed become more standard, which can be one of the positive developments that might emerge in the post-pandemic period.”

Dr. Gonçalo Castelo-Branco, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden.

We hope this article could convince you to give a chance to virtual conferences. In part 2 of this series, we’ll share top tips on how to benefit the most from virtual conferences. What are your thoughts on the virtual format? Are you looking forward to having hybrid conferences in the future? We’d love to hear your opinion at tipbox@abcam.com.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash.

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