Comment: Forum Physics World  October 2020

Redefining the scientific conference

(iStock/gmast3r)

Eleanor S Armstrong, Divya M Persaud and Christopher A-L Jackson argue that the COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to start making scientific meetings more inclusive

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led to the cancellation or postponement of many in-person scientific meetings that have historically been a key forum for scientists to present and share their ideas as well as to foster academic collaborations. In response, scientists have moved their meetings online, which has been met with a mixed response, despite offering the possibility to dodge bad coffee, rubbish Wi-Fi and awkward poster sessions where you’re ignored in favour of warm beer.

Based on our experiences of organizing and participating in many conferences both before and during the pandemic, we see many advantages that the “new normal” could bring, particularly for those from under-represented groups. Online conferences present an opportunity to challenge the problematic norms of existing conferences, which lead to the exclusion of already marginalized groups. They can also eliminate the environment that facilitates sexual or other forms of harassment and, when appropriate care is taken, also improve access to disabled people.

Many academics travel extensively for scientific meetings – to develop and sustain collaborative projects as well as undertake fieldwork. Although sometimes exhilarating, travel presents barriers. The opportunity to travel is not equally distributed and can be prohibitively expensive. Most large conferences take place in the Global North and entering these countries from the Global South may require costly visas. Potential delegates may be subject to countrywide travel bans and upon entry researchers of colour may experience racial aggressions. Alongside the physical demands and inaccessibility of travel, unfamiliar locations may present challenges to disabled researchers and their carers. Conferences held in countries with discriminatory laws and attitudes may be unsafe for people from marginalized groups such as LGBTQ+ researchers. Travel also contributes to the unnecessary release of CO2.

Virtual conferences have the benefit of eliminating many of these barriers, making conferences more accessible to delegates who otherwise would be unable to attend. For example, more early-career researchers from China, India and Latin America attended the 2020 Virtual Perovskite Conference than usual, and disabled academics took part in this year’s Space Science in Context meeting at a rate that reflected the 24% of disabled people in the US and UK.

Smile, you’re on camera

Video presentations – whether pre-recorded or live – provide an opportunity to showcase a more diverse range of speakers. As questions can be asked anonymously and in advance, video-based talks have been shown to encourage questions from historically marginalized members of our communities such as early-career researchers or researchers of colour. Online events also allow the value of different contributions to be reshaped. Poster presentations are disproportionately delivered by early-career researchers and those of minoritized genders and people of colour. Running them in the middle of the day rather than alongside other, typically alcohol-based “social” events, places a higher value on this research.

Conferences have typically been hostile to disabled and neurodivergent people. Combining pre-recorded and live events can improve accessibility for those who are disabled, chronically ill, neurodivergent and those with caregiving needs, who can access the material in their own time. Having a choice of format – for example, text or audio – also lets people choose how they engage with the conference based on their needs and preferences. Recorded meetings and having sessions repeat over the course of the conference can also overcome challenges related to time zones.

Disabled people must now be involved in conference organizing, especially as online conferences do not present a one-size-fits-all approach to accessibility. For example, lack of audio captioning, text that is not compatible with screen readers, video-based sessions without sign-language interpreters, and networking events conducted on inaccessible platforms will affect disabled researchers’ ability to connect. Evening events, meanwhile, may present barriers to attendees with caring or other responsibilities. These are important considerations for conference committees.

While online conferences lessen the burden for those in the most financially precarious positions, there will be additional costs linked to interpreters, captioning, Internet access and childcare. But this could be prioritized over travel, location and conference-funded socializing.

Some have suggested that going online only could hinder how science is conducted in the long term and affect the “culture” of science. Unsurprisingly, these commentaries are typically generated by scientists for whom the traditional conference format is not exclusionary. Switching to an online conference can threaten meaningful networking, but tools and mechanisms do exist to support such engagement, including the use of randomly allocated breakout “coffee rooms”, using virtual worlds, and different forms of “virtual booths” for networking based on shared interests. Much like in-person events, ensuring a high-quality, rigorously enforced code of conduct is central to the success of online relationships. Relationships that develop online can be just as strong as those formed offline.

In the face of COVID-19 we must be bold enough to redefine our norms. Rather than trying to maintain business as usual in an online format, we should ask ourselves who is not in the room where it happens. We should ensure that we share knowledge and opportunity in an accessible and inclusive way. Rather than representing an unmitigated disaster for the future of conferences and networking, COVID-19 is an opportunity to open up these spaces and make them welcoming to all.