What have we learned from virtual conferences? Perspectives of organizers, speakers, presenters, and attendants, and take-home message for physical conferences

We are now in the era of virtual conferences. This was actually not planned but has become a necessity in the scientific community with the COVID-19 outbreak. Recently, we also organized a small symposium on twitter, International Symposium on Brain and Cognitive Science (https://twitter.com/isbcs2020) in which the speakers attended with pre-recorded talks that were made available at specified times, and then they were available on twitter for a certain time period to answer the questions from the audience. Right after the conference, we solicited feedback from the organizers, speakers, poster presenters, and attendants about their experiences in the virtual conference. Here, we would like to share what the symposium attendants think about the pros and cons of virtual conferences and close with some take-home messages.


ORGANIZER PERSPECTIVE

Good:

  • Less costly: You usually have almost no cost if you can get a free web domain service from your university. If you use twitter, none; if you use Zoom or a similar platform, you may need to get a license to accommodate a certain size and minutes. No funding needed for speaker flights and accommodation, conference venue, sponsors, lunch, coffee breaks, etc.
  • Less work in the organization: You do not need to worry about the conference venues, multimedia systems, poster boards, sponsors, speaker flights & accommodation, etc. Of course, you need to do a different type of organization but you will probably spend less time on it. Possibly just through emails. 
  • Conference venue: You don’t have to worry about finding a hall that is suitable for the size of the conference: there is no upper limit in terms of the number of people who can attend a virtual conference, especially if it is done on twitter or youtube. This may change if you use Zoom or a similar platform that may have an upper limit.
  • Easy moderation: It is easy to moderate the timing of things. Everything can start and finish on time, especially if you use pre-recorded videos. You do not need to worry about whether people come back from the coffee break on time as it happens in physical conferences.

Bad:

  • Lack of networking with the invited speakers: Conference organization may be a great opportunity to network with the invited speakers, to start possible collaborative projects, to introduce your lab, etc. This will be missed in a virtual conference. 

SPEAKER PERSPECTIVE

Good:

  • A wider audience:  The talk is more accessible to a wider audience.
  • Accessibility after the conference: Since the talks remain online, if people would like to reach you later, it is possible.
  • Ease to refine your talk: Pre-recording gives you the opportunity to refine what you want to say. This may be especially helpful for material that you never talked about. You could work through the slides a few times to see what explanation works best.

Bad:

  • No physical audience: If the conference asks for a pre-recorded talk, pre-recording may feel weird because there is no audience so you can’t read the room. It may be relatively better with live talks over Zoom or similar platforms since you know that someone is watching and could interrupt and ask questions. 
  • Networking: No physical interaction is possible so you don’t have the chance to really meet people and network. For many scientists, this is their favorite part of the conferences.

POSTER PRESENTER PERSPECTIVE

Good: 

  • A wider audience: You can reach a wider audience as people can watch your presentation whenever they want and wherever they are.
  • Accessibility after the conference: Availability of your presentation can also help you to be in contact with people and make discussions even after your presentation time. 
  • Possibility to see the other posters in the same session: As a poster presenter, it is usually impossible to visit the other posters in your session at physical conferences. However, in online conferences (especially with pre-recorded posters) you can watch the presentations of others while you also answer the questions for your poster.
  • No funding necessary: You do not search for any travel funds to attend the conference as you do not need to pay for accommodation or flight tickets!
  • Present only once: In physical poster presentation sessions, you usually have to present your poster multiple times, and tell the very same things again and again to different people. In addition, people join in the middle of a presentation and do not get a chance to listen to the full presentation or ask questions because there are so many other posters to visit. The online availability of presentations in virtual conferences helps the presenters to present once and get less exhausted.
  • More prepared and better responses: The biggest advantage of online conferences for a poster presenter with a pre-recorded poster is that it gives you a better chance to think about the question you are asked and give a more prepared and thoughtful answer. 
  • Connect with many people through social media: If the virtual conference is done over social media such as twitter, it is easy to connect with people and follow their work. 

Bad:

  • Networking: You cannot physically meet with other people to discuss your work.
  • Intensity and depth of discussions: Poster presentation sessions in physical conferences are usually intense, and you can discuss your work in depth. In a virtual conference (e.g. twitter) you are restricted by the character limit of twitter. Even though you can have discussions with people over long threads, it may not be as effective as it is in a physical conference. 


ATTENDANT (NO PRESENTATION) PERSPECTIVE

Good:

  • Attend at your own pace: For conferences that have pre-recorded talks, a lot of the conference can be “attended” at someone’s pace. You can stop the video and watch again anything that is not clear. 
  • Free (or less costly) attendance in your comfort zone: You don’t have to pay anything (most of the time) just to attend a virtual conference. Everything is free and accessible in your comfort zone wherever you are.

Bad:

  • Networking: You can not really “meet” like-minded people.


TAKE-HOME MESSAGE

  • When we go back to physical conferences, we should record the talks and posters, and put them online so that they are accessible after the conference.
  • There is no substitute for physical interaction when it comes to networking with like-minded scientists. So, we hope that we will have physical conferences in the near future.