Scientific conferences at the time of COVID

The social restrictions caused by the pandemic have annihilated the galaxy of scientific conferences as we knew it. Many conferences have tried to move online, in the same way we moved 1-to-1 meetings or teaching online: we applied a linear transposition trying to virtually recreate the very experience we were having when traveling physically (for good and for bad). I would argue that the linear translation of a physical conference to the virtual space, has managed to successfully reproduce almost all of the weaknesses, without, however, presenting almost any of the advantages. This is not surprising because we basically tried to enforce old content to a new medium, ignoring the limits and opportunities that the new medium could offer.

Online conferences like online journals

Something similar happened in science before, when journals transitioned from paper to the web: for years, the transition was nothing more than the digital representation of a printed page (and for many journals, this still holds true). In principle, an online journal is not bound to the physical limitation on the number of pages; it can offer new media experiences besides the classical still figure, such as videos or interactive graphs; it could offer customisable user interfaces allowing the reader to pick their favourite format (figures at the end? two columns? huge fonts?); it does not longer differentiate between main and supplementary figures; it costs less to produce and zero to distribute; etc, etc. Yet – how many journals are currently taking full advantage of these opportunities? The only one that springs to mind is eLife and, interestingly enough, it is not a journal that transitioned online but one that was born online to begin with. Transitions always carry a certain amount of inherent inertia with them and the same inertia was probably at play when we started translating physical conferences to the online world. Rather than focusing on the opportunities that the new medium could offer, we spent countless efforts on try to parrot the physical components that were limiting us. In principle, online conferences:

  • Can offer unlimited partecipation: there is no limit to the number of delegates an online conference can accomodate.
  • Can reduce costing considerably: there is no need for a venue and no need for catering; no printed abstract book; no need to reimbourse the speakers travel expenses; unlimimted partecipants imply no registrations, and therefore no costs linked to registration itself. This latter creates an interesting paradox: the moment we decide to limit the number of participants, we introduce an activity that then we must mitigate with registration costs. In other words: we ask people to pay so that we can limit their number, getting the worst of both worlds.
  • Can work asyncronously to operate on multiple time zones. The actual delivery of a talk does not need to happen live, nor does the discussion.
  • Can prompt new formats of deliveries. We are no longer forced to be sitting in a half-lit theatre while following a talk so we may as well abandon video tout-court and transform the talk into a podcast. This is particularly appealing because it moves the focus from the result to its meaning, something that often gets lost in physical conferences.
  • Have no limit on the number of speakers or posters! Asyncronous recording means that everyone can upload a video of themselves presenting their data even if just for a few minutes.
  • Can offer more thoughtful discussions. People are not forced to come up with a question now and there. They can ask questions at their own pace (i.e. listen to the talk, think about it for hours, then confront themselves with the community).

Instead of focusing on these advantages, we tried to recreate a virtual space featuring “rooms”, lagged video interaction, weird poster presentations, and even sponsored boots.

Practical suggestions for an online conference.

Rather than limit myself to discussing what we could do, I shall try to be more constructive and offer some practical suggestions on how all these changes could be implemented. These are the tools I have just used to organise a dummy, free-of-charge, online conference.

For live streaming: Streamyard

The easiest tool to stream live content to multiple platforms (youtube but also facebook or twitch) is streamyard. The price is very accessible (ranging from free to $40 a month) and the service is fully online meaning that neither the organiser not the speakers need to install any software. The video is streamed online on one or multiple platforms simultaneously meaning that anyone can watch for free simply by going to youtube (or facebook). The tutorial below offers a good overview of the potentiality of this tool. Skip to minute 17 to have an idea of what can be done (and how easily it can be achieved). Once videos are streamed on youtube, they will be automatically saved on their platform and can be accessed just like any other youtube video (note: there are probably other platforms like streamyard I am not aware of. I am not affiliated to them in any way).

For asynchronous discussion and interaction between participants: reddit

Reddit is the most popular platform for asynchronous discussions. It is free to use and properly vetted. It is already widely used to discuss science also in an almost-live fashion called AMA (ask-me-anything). An excellent example of a scientific AMA is this one discussing the discoveries of the Horizon Telescope by the scientist team behind them. Another interesting example is this AMA by Nobel Laureate Randy Sheckman. As you browse through it, focus on the medium, not the content. Reddit AMAs are normally meant for dissemination to the lay public but here we are discussing the opportunity of using them for communication with peers.

A dummy online conference.

For sake of example, I have just created a dummy conference on reddit while I was writing this post. You can browse it here. My dummy conference at the moment features one video poster and two talks as well as a live lounge for general discussions. All this was put together in less than 10 minutes and it’s absolutely free. Customisation of the interface is possible, with graphics, CSS, flairs, user attributes etc.

Claude Desplan’s talk at my dummy online conference on reddit.

Notice how there are no costs of registrations, no mailing lists for reaching participants, no zoom links to join. No expenses whatsoever. The talks would be recorded and streamed live via streamyard while the discussion would happen, live or asynchronously, on reddit. Posters could be uploaded directly by the poster’s authors who would then do an AMA on their data.

An (almost) examples of great success: The Worldwide series of seminars.

Both talks in my dummy conference were taken by the World Wide Neuro seminar series, the neuro branch of the world wide science series. Even though this is seminar series, it is as close as it gets to what an online conference could be and the project really has to be commended for its vision and courage. This is not the online transposition of a physical conference but rather a seminar series born from scratch to be online. Videos are still joined via zoom and the series does lack features of interaction which, in my opinion, could be easily added by merging the videos with reddit as I did in my dummy conference example.

Conclusion.

It is technically possible to create an online conference at absolutely no expense. The tools one can use are well-vetted and easy to use on all sides. This does require a bit of a paradigm shift but it is less laborious and difficult than one may think.

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