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Science Communication

Are Hybrid Conferences the New Normal?


Nathan Boutin, Associate Editor

September 2021

With vaccinations ramping up in the United States and beginning to roll out across the globe, we are beginning to come out of lockdown and view a world that somewhat resembles the pre-2020 era. We aren’t out of the woods, though. We are stuck in a kind of COVID-19 purgatory in which loose gathering restrictions still apply and the “new normal” of virtual engagement is beginning to emerge.

For scientists, this has meant acclimating to virtual conferences, which seem to be here to stay now that we are free to mingle again. As restrictions relax, many conferences are choosing “hybrid” options to accommodate guests, an action that has stirred up both glee and frustration in the community.

What are hybrid conferences?

Hybrid conferences are meetings with both an in-person event and a virtual component. The “live” portion is what you would expect from an academic conference. The online portion provides attendees a similar experience without leaving their home.

The concept is far from new. The entertainment industry has been implementing the hybrid model for years. Sporting events, concerts, and fandom conventions have offered livestreaming options well before the 2020 pandemic in the form of pay-per-view and virtual tickets. Such was a natural extension of events when venues were too small for the masses, and sales surged as the largest barrier to entry—travel—was no longer an issue.

Hybrid conferences are different in that interaction is given a top priority. In entertainment, the virtual option is largely just a viewing experience. With hybrid conferences, one of the biggest goals is enhancing the social experience by connecting physical and online participants. EvoDemo7, held this past October, had several amenities for virtual participants, including a platform for virtual participants to present work and a communication channel between the physical and online portions of the conference. Thus, virtual participants were given a more active role in the conference instead of being relegated to passive viewership.

Some hybrid conferences, however, will not be able to stream everything that goes on. For example, in August this year, the American Chemical Society hosted a hybrid conference in Atlanta, GA. With the size of the event, online participants only had access to specific presentations. Such limited virtual access may be the norm, at least in the near future. Nate Wambold, a representative of the American Anthropological Association, told Science that setting up online access for dozens of events in one conference would be “cost prohibitive,” not to mention a logistical nightmare.

What do hybrid conferences offer?

Flexibility. The greatest benefit of hybrid conferences is flexibility. Virtual attendance means cutting out the travel time and formalities, allowing you to take part from anywhere. This also provides the freedom of going in person if the location is suitable. Scientists can now pick and choose which events to attend remotely and which to dress for.

Affordability. Online attendance is usually provided at a reduced price. This benefit is especially good for students. A Nature poll showed that 27% of students regard cost as the largest barrier to entry, and the poll further showed that some registration fees have been slashed by as much as 96% for online attendance. What a bargain!

Data storage. The hybrid model naturally allows events to be recorded and archived for later use. Furthermore, analytics can be collected including audience engagement, attendance numbers, and average presentation watch time. These metrics are useful for both conference organizers and speakers.

Accessibility. Attending conferences can be particularly difficult for those with disabilities or other circumstances that prevent them from appearing in person. Further, underrepresented demographics and early-career researchers also struggle. This has been a longstanding issue, and last year, an article in Physics World argued for more accommodations to foster engagement from these communities amid the pandemic. With hybrid conferences becoming increasingly popular, these accommodations will more easily be met.

What are the downsides of hybrid conferences?

Networking. One of the greatest perks of meeting in person is being able to meet and converse with experts in your field. For graduate students or early-career scientists, it can be difficult to build a network from the ground up, so in-person meetings are important. While respondents in the Nature poll admitted that virtual events do not spark the same networking opportunities, 74% still believed that a virtual component should be a mainstay for scientific conferences.

Engagement. It can be nerve-wracking enough to speak at a conference, let alone present your work over a medium like Zoom. Speakers in hybrid conferences might find it difficult to talk to an “absent” audience. In person, they might only be speaking to a handful of socially distanced peers. Online, they might only be talking into a microphone and looking at frozen Zoom screens. The audience, particularly the online audience, might feel left out of the discussion if their questions are not heard. This difficulty of engagement has drawn some criticism from some scientists, who called it “the worst of both worlds.”

Growing pains. New usually means difficult. For hybrid conferences, it could take a while to work out the kinks. Costs are especially concerning for conference managers—software, tech setups, and extra employees to ensure things run smoothly don’t come cheap. Luckily, last December, a short guide was published to provide some guidance on running the show. This, combined with time and practice, will hopefully stem some of the growing pains.

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