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Contemporary Concepts in Publishing

Coronavirus Impacts on Scientific Research Conferences


Dr. Avriel Licciardi, Associate Editor

May 2020

As the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to unfold worldwide, unprecedented measures to stop the virus’s spread are taking place, including the postponement or cancellation of academic research conferences. More than two months ago, one of the world’s largest scientific conferences, the March Meeting of the American Physical Society, was canceled less than two days prior to the event, providing an early forecast of the impact of the pandemic on the international scientific community. As such, researchers are now exploring alternative ways to share their work and interact with collaborators, many of which are turning to online platforms to disseminate their research findings, often through virtual conferences that strive to mimic aspects of an in-person meeting.

Lost opportunities?

There is no doubt that physical conferences play an essential role in academia, and recent cancellations, postponements or transitions to virtual meetings are resulting in uncertainty and anxiety for many would-be attendees who have spent months preparing for such events. Early-career researchers—who are generally more reliant on the networking opportunities and exposure that physical conferences offer—are particularly affected, as in-person collaboration is essential for furthering early-stage careers. While announcements of conferences being postponed or cancelled are disappointing news, the necessity for such amendments is clear: any infected attendees risk passing the virus on to colleagues around the world. The question is, however, how will the academic conference circuit respond? And, by extension, how will research and scientists be affected?

Will digital conferences become the new normal?

Digital conferences are already commonplace in the technology industry, with many live streaming services, such as Zoom or Panopto, allowing users to broadcast scientific talks or engage in meeting sessions or poster presentations. Moreover, specific content platforms, including LinkedIn’sSlideshare, allow presenters to upload slides once an event is over, allowing research to remain accessible to the community. As detailed in an article by The Scholarly Kitchen, although virtual meetings will likely not overshadow physical conferences, many easily integrable technologies are aiding in the transition to digitizing conferences, in addition to increasing the usefulness of the science that is shared.

Impacts of virtual networking

Regardless of the available technology services and digital content platforms, many conference organizers claim it remains difficult to recreate the experience of large scientific meetings in a virtual setting. Of the many challenges researchers are currently facing, such as shuttered laboratories or delayed peer review, digital conferences are unlikely to offer the same benefits of in-person networking. We note, however, that although technology services cannot fully replace the value of a real-life conversation, they can enhance the experience without facing health risks.

A positive outlook for digital conferences

While many view conference cancellations as a disruption to the academic landscape, a “silver lining” does exist. Virtual meetings can be more inclusive for individuals with accessibility issues, those who cannot afford travel, or researchers experiencing challenges with immigration. Online conferences are viewed positively for people concerned about climate, as the reduction in international travel promotes sustainability by reducing the global carbon footprint. Further, bringing research online has the potential to disseminate content to the broader research community, thus integrating science into wider scholarly communications.
As academia continues to navigate an uncertain future regarding the virtual sharing of knowledge, it is important to remain engaged in research if possible, even if that means online-only events.

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