In early 2020 when the pandemic struck, many scholarly societies began to look for ways to hold their scientific conference online.

Even before the pandemic, some had been looking for ways to reduce the environmental impact of travel and to support those unable to attend in-person. The pandemic provided an opportunity to experiment with online.

The online format

Over the past two years, online conferences have shown several access benefits. The costs and time of travel has been removed for everyone, meaning that many researchers have been able to attend more scientific conferences than ever before. A Nature survey found that during the first year of the pandemic, 93% of researchers had attended at least one online conference and 75% of researchers had attended more than one. Researchers from low and middle income countries, those without funding, and younger scholars were often able to attend an scientific conference for the first time. Access was also increased for people with personal commitments that can make in-person attendance more difficult. This was especially true for women, who are mostly the primary carers for children. Online conferences also had a lower environmental impact and importantly, they were safer.

For many aspects of conferences such as sharing and gaining knowledge, getting feedback, and developing reputation, online delivered well.

The limitations of online

Online conferences came with limitations, mainly around the quality of networking and community building. Whilst most online conferences offered opportunities for networking, most researchers think that online conferences don’t completely match the in-person experience. Meeting and developing meaningful connections for career and personal reasons is very valuable to attendees. The informal, often unscheduled meetings that happen in downtime, the coffee breaks, social get-togethers, and impromptu discussions have been a difficult element to translate to online.

Looking to the future

The overall message is clear. Online scientific conferences have generated wider access and work well for many purposes. Researchers expect that some scientific conferences will be online in future, and that most conferences will continue to have online components.

As the pandemic recedes, scholarly societies are developing different approaches based on what they are trying to achieve. It is likely that hybrid conferences will be a good compromise for many. These will blend online elements such as scientific tracks and topics with in-person components such as social events, and enable direct interactions between those attending in-person and online. Whatever happens, it seems vital that blending physical and online spaces to encourage informal connections will be critical.

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