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Opening up conference discussions to the virtual community

Should conferences become an open access activity?

The movement to promote open-access to information published in journals is now well established. However, much of the information we present at conferences is either missed or fails to reach the wider community. Conferences are traditionally closed affairs, limited by time and location, despite recent efforts to stream some of the keynote speeches on the internet. Yet, at large events vast amounts of information are presented through oral papers and posters. However, this communication is mainly linear and the interactive engagement of delegates is proportionally minimal.

Tech facilitation

Thanks to technology, it is now possible to create a service which would centralise the conference activities and information of a broad range of disciplines. Such a platform would not be designed to replace the one-to-one personal interaction of actual events. They would instead add a virtual dimension that affords scientists the time and space they need contribute their own work, view the work of others in a practical way, and disseminate their conference work to a wider audience beyond the conference attendees.

In other words, technology-supported conferences made open access would also act as a hub to which information could be added and disseminated in a manageable way.

Another advantage would be to stimulate conversation and display information ahead of events, thus priming delegates before their actual attendance. This is especially important when we consider the mass of information we are currently presented with, as it is impossible to digest 2,000+ poster abstracts or every single relevant 45 minute presentation that may be on offer at the event.

Opening up conference could help us communicate online, at a time of our choice, therefore increasing our networking and engagement capacity. Some conferences use software to act as a virtual conference proceedings. Whilst this can be made available to delegates beforehand, the inclusion of additional information such as the poster image and an introduction or podcast by the author brings more detail to the potential audience.

This type of solution is already available. For example, a recent FEBS Journal article on poster presentation — soon to be open access — is also accompanied by a podcast which gives more background to the published work. Also, the live ‘chat’ or ‘messaging’ facilities that are used on professional social media such as Research Gate can be used to establish advanced dialogue between delegates. This, in turn, could help maximise the short time they have available when they meet at the ‘live’ event.

However, the post-conference management of conference information is where an open-access approach could really make a difference. Mainly, conference presentations are limited to the sporadic publication of short abstracts; limited by nature in the information they can give and difficult to locate. Original conference presentations are rarely available. Sometimes, oral papers are more readily developed into formal articles. However, only 30% of posters are made available in this way, according to the FEBS article quoted above.

So, if we consider a large conference with 2,000 posters, then 1,400 of these may never be seen again. Centrally collating and hosting information presented at conferences enables those who are not present to also view and interact with those who contribute. Importantly, in terms of open access, it establishes a virtual location where this wealth of information can be found and accessed by all.

Better sharing

Better sharing of information presented at conferences can only be beneficial to the scientific community.

Opening a set of virtual doors to conferences does not have to impact the financial viability of events. Indeed, people will still attend conferences for the face-to-face benefits of networking, learning and social interaction. Opening up would offer added value to conference activities. For those who prefer not to share their work beyond the conference setting, any degree of visibility or access could be readily controlled on an individual basis.

Implementing this vision, however, comes down to money and perhaps changing our conception of the extent and inclusion of our peer communities. The self-regulating technology required to integrate open-access into conferences is readily available. For example, through the way that we can control who gets to see our posts on social media or what content we choose to upload onto a social media platform. Therefore, beyond setting up individual or central platforms, no great outlay is required in terms of developing new technology.

The scholarly conference industry consumes billions of euros from funders. Attendance and the presentation of research is often justified as an expenditure in grant proposals by saying that ‘we will also disseminate our findings at conferences in the field.’ Nevertheless, conference presentations currently reach a very small proportion of the peer community, so their financial return and efficacy can be questioned.

If conferences were to be made virtually accessible on a global scale and their content made available via open access, this would thus enable greater exposure of information, and thus offer a greater potential for its use. Individual presenters would also benefit from the wider exposure and communication related to their work. In turn, this would lead to a greater appreciation and value being placed on conference activities as a whole. Ultimately, widening the dissemination of research via open access would promote a greater scientific exchange within the European and global science communities.

Nicholas Rowe

Nicholas is currently researching a PhD at the University of Lapland on the practice and development of academic/scientific poster presentation.

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by kate_harbison

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3 thoughts on “Opening up conference discussions to the virtual community”

  1. Why stop half way? Why not abolish real conferences at all? You write: “So, if we consider a large conference with 2,000 posters, then 1,400 of these may never be seen again.” That means that at least 1,400 scientists wasted taxpayers’ money to travel to conferences, mostely by plane, and pay for quite nice hotels. And in addition they contributed to climate warming. Not considered the passive listening conference participants.

    Older scientists often argue, that it is important the make personal contacts. But it is clear that they are not as used to virtual socialising than the younger. It is a question of being used to modern communication technologies.

    And if it is really important to meet as physical persons, despite missing evidence, than make a short socialising event in a bar or pub ever now and then and leave the real work to virtual communication

    I would like to turn your attention to the call to action and petiton of scientists to universites and professional academic associations to reduce the conference air tourism of their scientists: http://www.flyingless.org. There is also a public online petiton with today 323 supporter: https://www.change.org/p/universities-and-professional-associations-call-on-universities-and-professional-associations-to-greatly-reduce-flying?recruiter=294645973&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink

    Best
    / Hanns