Digital conferences – how might they work?

In the past week we had an interesting experiment: putting the largest European Geo-scientific conference onto a virtual stage. In a short time frame, EGU managed to switch from a huge gathering of people in Vienna to an exchange of scientific ideas on digital channels. And taken together, they did a fabulous job. The channels ran smoothly, the feared chaos induced by trolls didn’t happen and ideas got exchanged quite friction-less. So is all well? Not quite. Under those circumstances it was close to the best what was possible, especially due to the limited time to put it up and running. Nevertheless, as we are part of climate science and the calls to limit travel gets louder, the question arise, how a digital conference might look like in cases in which there is enough time to prepare (so a year or more). So what happens and where are the dangers, when conferences get generally put online in the future.

To get to this topic and to explain my thoughts on it, let’s see what worked and what not worked this week.

Displays

So let’s start with the displays. The idea was obviously to have those displays replacing poster and presentations and most scientists have tried to make some form of a classical presentation. I would argue, a display is more a poster than a presentation. Most attendants in a session will look at the slides for the first time when the display is announced in the chat session and usually will have only a minute to look at it. As a consequence, the information have to be extremely condensed, as it is usually done for a poster. This also means that  lengthy presentation, and especially all presentation requiring some effort by the viewer will be more or less ignored. Therefore, it might be an idea to make very clear to authors, that power-point files and voice-over-presentations are not welcome. Keep it short and simple. A presentation with more than five slides will not be valued anyway, when nobody is forcing you to watch through it (so when you sit on a chair in a conference environment).

Sessions

The organizers of the EGU went with the concept of chat sessions. They worked very well, but as every convener team had to experiment with the new format, we had several different approaches to it. First is the classical format. While the EGU in their first announcements made clear that there shouldn’t be any form of presentation and later weakened it in their communication, many sessions worked like a high speed standard conference session: 3-5 minutes per display, a short introduction and then a couple of minutes for questions. In many cases that meant that when the first readers started to ask their question the time was already up. No discussion, no real value. In some sessions this led to quite chaotic chats, where convener tried to stop discussions on a previous display, while the current one did not get any attention at all. The second format was more a group discussion. So let several scientists in a thematic block start there introduction and then give a longer discussion time for all together. We ourselves did it in our session this way (6-7 displays per block, each block 20 minutes) and we were quite happy with the results (smaller blocks in number might be advisable, but the 20 minute was from my view the right timing). Yes it was a bit chaotic in between, but the one-after-another sessions had that as well. The third option seen was to get, against the advise of the EGU, out of the current chats and switch to video conferencing (mostly zoom). Of course this was much more in a way we are used to and many said it was the best format. But it also was not really fair as some were able to do this option, others not (and some with limits in participants). The biggest advantage of a chat is that you can follow several sessions in parallel, which of course not really works anymore when you have a video conference going on. All in all, given the used chat software and its limited options, being creative in choosing a proper session structure was key. When you have 20 or more (we ourselves had 19, more than 10 is certainly to much for a 100 minute session) displays to show, the classical format does not work. It becomes stressful and especially for ECR, it becomes simply a mess (even when many conveners did a fabulous job in making it work anyway).

ECR involvement

This also leads to my main criticism at the format run by EGU this year. Already last year there was a massive reduction in accessibility for ECR by in effect getting rid of the nightly poster sessions (which most scientists used for getting earlier in town instead of networking on site). Many ECR need the little bit longer to get to a question they feel happy to ask than the established scientists of the specific field. When they get unprepared into a session (meaning: not have spend the night before going through all displays and making their notes), they usually will not ask questions when there is just a very short time to do so. And that is what we have seen in the last week: Questions were asked by those scientists, who are established and from the fields and there was not much involvement of ECRs in most sessions. And this is not good. In the classical format it was even more apparent then in the more discussion-block-like sessions. This would be acceptable, when you would see the chat session as a replacement for the presentation sessions and then the comment on the display, which was offered alongside the conference, as the poster session. Nevertheless, this is not a valid view. By making the comments non-anonymous and visible for the long term, students and ECRs in general will hardly use the system. Many do not want to be put under the spot, and we all know that search-engines never forget. So effectively, EGU has scrapped the poster sessions all together. With that I mean not the presentation of content, this was elevated by putting posters onto the same level as talks, but the access of young scientists to the established ones in a relaxed and quasi-anonymous situation.

This is very worry-some, as we have to see how we keep this access alive. As this problem became so obvious for us in the first days of the conference, we changed the structure in our session and included an extra discussion slot as a ECR priority time, so inviting ECRs to start the discussion with whatever question they might have on specific presentation or the field. And we were lucky, it went great. Convener will have to think in digital conferences much much more about how to get ECRs involved. It is done at the conferences up to now by poster sessions, whether this system works or not is a different question. By eliminating this in a digital context, the topic has to be rethought and solutions have to be found.

Chat software

The chat software worked quite well. Some hick-ups at the start, but much less as feared beforehand. So what should be changed? First of all what is needed is a way to address scientists directly. Be it a direct messaging system or by a more integrated system of user names, where messages are marked when they are meant for somebody directly (with this you could also get rid of some users who are only online via a nick name). We all know that there is always a risk of misuse of anonymity and secrecy, but some questions or convener coordination is not meant for everyone. It also would offer a help for ECR, as non-public-questions would be with it on the table again (so far, everybody uses email as an alternative or within the session @name). This worked alright, but is not really the proper way to work in the digital world. Also it would be great, when not only the conveners get an extra colour, but also the authors (e.g. blue). Chats are chaotic, even when everybody was really keen on making them as structured and being as disciplined as possible. But software could be a help here. Some extras like citing a specific post (instead of copy and pasting it, which always delivered different results) or a function for convener to directly insert the name/title/id of a display by a click would also certainly smoothen the discussions. And while we think about it, might a more live-forum view instead of a classical chat not be a bit more effective?

 

So all in all, a successful conference in an extreme situation will not be a role model for future conferences. As the personal elements were completely cut out, which is in the end the most important part of a conference, digital conferences cannot be seen as a replacement for the real ones. Also: doing a conference online requires a complete rethinking of every step. Classical session schemes do not work when you have not enough time, classical presentations have to be condensed to a much shorter display. To all who are saying that this year EGU proved that traveling to conferences is not necessary and it gave us everything we need from it, I have to say: please think again, we are a long way away from it. Let’s hope the next EGU happens with personal involvement again, wherever it may be.

 

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