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Will virtual scientific conferences prevail?

Posted by Alba Ruzafa

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly changed the scientific meetings and events world. This industry has been intensely affected by the pandemic and it has had to adapt as the virus started to spread, leaving large face-to-face meetings out of the question.

Since March 2020, we have seen many societies meetings and scientific conferences going partially or fully virtual in order to save their meetings, with some of them streaming live in the hope for a more usual conference feeling and to keep delegates informed about the latest scientific data. After more than 6 months, this new strategy seems to have taken over and may become the new normal. It is clear that it will have to stay for a long time, until the risk of the pandemic is minimised; but are these virtual meetings here for good? Will we go back to in-person events when the current crisis has passed?

There are several reasons why one would think virtual events are better than the in-person approach. For example, one being environmental impact; last year Nicholas Rowe (University of Lapland, Rovaniemi, Finland) estimated that participating in an in-person conference of 2.5 days on average in Europe elevated the individual footprint of delegates by more than 6.7 times the normal European daily level of production1. In the current situation, where climate change is one of the major problems of the world, would it not make sense to keep this virtual trend? One can think that it is a bit counter-productive that healthcare professionals travel hundreds of kilometres to discuss health issues while ignoring the fact that these types of conferences are only making global warming worse.

Besides reducing the carbon footprint, virtual events also allow broader participation. Digital technology has promoted wide and global accessibility to these conferences. For instance, they allow people who cannot travel due to other commitments to follow the conferences on live stream from their homes.

Despite the several advantages that virtual congresses seem to provide, there are some associated disadvantages. In order to gain an insider’s point of view, we talked to Professor Mohamad Mohty (University Pierre & Marie Curie, Paris, France) and Doctor Maria-Victoria Mateos (University of Salamanca, Spain), who participated in the online webinar “Therapy of relapsed-refractory multiple myeloma: Challenges and current options” during the ASCO 2020 virtual programme. Doctor Mateos noted that one of the difficulties of virtual conferences is the need for being constantly connected. Moreover, “you lose the interaction with the audience; you are not able to capture if people [are] engaged or not or even if they are connected or not”, she pointed out.

It is also fair to say that virtual networking might not be as efficient as its face-to-face counterpart. While starting a conversation during, for example, a poster presentation is quite easy, sending an email or opening a chat conversation might seem impersonal and cold. Alongside these lines, Professor Mohty commented that while gaining time and efficiency with virtual conferences, there is a “lack of human warm interactions”.

Therefore, it is understandable why some experts prefer the in-person conference experience. However, we cannot forget or dismiss the important environmental challenge our planet is currently facing. Perhaps the solution is somewhere in the middle. Maybe we should consider keeping big conferences as in-person meetings while translating small or medium conferences to fully virtual or hybrid versions.

In my opinion, we need to be more conscious and use this critical situation to take advantage of the use of technology to continue, when possible, with online events, trying to improve not only the delegates’ experience but also contributing to a “greener” type of conference.

  1. Rowe, NE. Int J Soc Educ Sci (2019). 1(1):30-42