Posted by: bluesyemre | January 23, 2021

What will #AcademicConferences look like in the post-pandemic paradigm?

In academic circles, social and physical interaction have always been crucial to information sharing among peers. Journal publication is often prefaced by poster and podium presentations at symposiums and conferences, where researchers seek early feedback and peers share comments on the research. Academic societies heavily depend upon their annual conferences both for sustaining revenues and to forge the sense of “community,” “mission,” and “purpose” that defines them. Similarly, for the publishing and pharmaceutical industries, facetime at conferences and symposia has been viewed as intrinsic to relationship building and business development.

In 2020, dozens of academic conferences, a number of them calendar events in the scholarly world, have been cancelled for the first time in decades. This has not only dealt an instant blow to organizers of scientific meetings but also injected a measure of uncertainty and financial pressure that may have ramifications for their future.

This last decade at least, we have been living in a digital age that allows us ways to collaborate and exchange ideas that do not involve flying down to a physical venue. Yet, while the options have been there, they have been at best cast as a distant second. The sense of a digital community in academic and pharmaceutical circles somehow has lacked sufficient allure.

Something changed with COVID-19. Many organizations immediately attempted to increase their outreach through social media, e-newsletters, podcasts, webinars, and other targeted communication strategies, but there was an obvious and immediate need for a switch to virtual conferences. This latter approach was the most critical, and yet was the least familiar territory for academic societies, and only a few were able to capitalize on the opportunity presented. In the wake of the pandemic, virtual conferences have emerged as the obvious and smart choice. But are they the future? Can virtual events holistically serve the academic community needs in the long term and will they replace physical conferences entirely? Which needs do they not meet, and how will efforts evolve to meet these unmet needs?

Academics and conference organizers alike are conflicted about this. While virtual conference attendance allows some elements of participation, one’s potential to contribute reduces as the meeting becomes larger, and someone who would typically be the life of the party at a physical conference may feel like a passive observer in a virtual setting.

The single most valuable draw of a conference is the opportunity to interact with and learn from colleagues and complete strangers through serendipitous meetups in meeting rooms, hallways, social events, or even at the bar in the conference hotel. In many cases, these encounters lead to new opportunities, collaborations, insights, and even life-long friendships. While a physical conference can be simulated in a virtual setting, whether it will carry the same “feel” remains to be seen even as virtual conferencing technology evolves to become more immersive, for example, with the integration of augmented reality.

Considering the benefits and limitations of virtual and physical conferences, the conference of the near future is likely to be a hybrid that offers the best of both worlds. Physical conferences will offer the culture and chemistry that scholars have grown to appreciate, but at the same time virtual conference tools may be increasingly integrated into conference offerings, allowing for a more holistic experience. Remote attendance will become a standard option. More conference sessions will be broadcast, recorded, and made available on demand. This will allow conference content to become not only accessible, discoverable, and perpetually archived, but also visible through derivative works created after the conference. In fact, the conference itself may become expanded in time, by having virtual components before and after the physical component. Options for streaming, downloads, subscription models interlaced with open content, and subsequent discoverable derivative materials such as transcripts and proceedings will all become the norm, as part of a conference legacy.

With the hybrid conference will also come increased stakeholder communication and marketing opportunities for academic societies. This extended global reach will likely drive revenue models beyond simple membership and conference fees. Organizations can be innovative with how they capture, package, and track the knowledge disseminated through a conference. This will accelerate science, increase brand awareness and value, and secure new revenue streams, which can be leveraged to meet the information needs of the future.

Scholarly communication is poised to become much more immersive, dynamic, discoverable, and multimodal in the years to come. A new learning paradigm will evolve, and with that will come greater opportunity for academic stakeholders worldwide to engage in more meaningful and more convenient dialog.

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