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Online vs in-person conferences: advantages, disadvantages and why we need both

Posted by , on 15 January 2024

All flavours of a conference – in-person, online, or maybe hybrid?

Thinking back to my first conference, it was a confusing experience for me. It happened well into my PhD around the end of the second year. Before that, I would prepare the posters, but it was my supervisors who would go to the conference and present them. The only directions I got for my first conference were to stay at my poster and answer questions.  It took me a couple of conferences, talking with friends, and internet surfing to crack the enigma of these scientific gatherings. I realised that conferences are much less about diligently listening to everything that is presented and much more about wondering, sharing, and learning.

Once I understood the rules, conferences felt like an ocean of information, with unexpected treasure findings waiting in the middle of a dive into a topic you have chosen on a whim. I can’t even count how many times I would go into a room, listen to a series of talks, and suddenly hear the solution to the problem I had been having for some time or a confirmation of my idea that sounded crazy.

I was in the process of figuring out how to network at conferences when COVID-19 turned everything online. And I was all in for this new experience. Now, after having a fair share of both online and in-person conferences I am ready to summarise what is the difference and what works or not so much.

The structure – what is easy to transfer to online and what is challenging

Online conferences mostly follow the same structure as the in-person conferences:

  • opening remarks
  • plenary lectures
  • multiple parallel oral talk sessions
  • poster session (not all online conferences)
  • industry booths/workshops (not all conferences)
  • closing remarks

Lectures and talks are easy to transfer to online settings; the talks are usually prerecorded or live, depending on the technical abilities of a conference. The part which is difficult to transfer to online settings is poster presentations. In-person conferences usually have many printed posters (sometimes e-posters displayed on a monitor) in one place and let people wander around with a book of abstracts. In online conferences, I saw two approaches.

  1. Try to replicate the experience of the onsite conference by creating a virtual space (like gathertown) where attendees can move their virtual selves to wander around.
  2. Give each poster presenter a very short talk or flash presentation (generally within 5 min) with a couple of minutes for questions.

In my experience, the first approach works well for small conferences, where you can easily read abstracts for all the posters in a short period of time. The positive point of this setup is that you can stay with the poster you like for as long as you want, giving you the freedom to have interesting conversations on the topic you like. When the number of posters is huge, it becomes difficult technically, as not everyone has a super-fast internet connection, and it is just difficult to navigate on a computer screen.

For some people, the second approach may be more logical. It allows attendees to hear the content of all posters in a structured manner, so you don’t miss anything interesting. However, having only several minutes for questions is rarely enough, and if you want to connect with a speaker, you will need to try catching them online afterward. So, in the case of the second approach, I wonder if there is a need to make a poster or just turn it into a short presentation with slides (which, to be fair, some conferences do).

The networking – difficult both in-person and online

For me, the biggest structural difference between in-person and online conferences comes from the way networking is organised. In-person conferences usually provide tea and coffee breaks when you can catch up with the person you were listening to right outside of the door or bump into some acquaintances, not to mention that there are some social events like dinners or workshops, which are specifically created for networking. Not that it makes networking easy; it just gives you much higher chances to strike up a conversation. There will always be an extroverted person who will go around and stir up some conversations. Hopefully, it will be your friend, and you will tag along (it was my strategy for networking in the early days of being a researcher 😉).

Thanks to the pandemic, I had a fair share of online and hybrid events (conferences, workshops, panel discussions), some of which I organised myself. My conclusion is that networking online is always challenging. In the case of a hybrid setting, when the conference is happening both in-person and online, the in-person and online participants are often not quite aware of each other’s presence, which creates two different audiences and the need to work with them separately. A lot of organisers naturally focus on an in-person audience, with no facilitators for online participants, resulting in a lack of networking and a feeling of being left out. Even in 100% online conferences, where you would usually have chats, forums, or virtual spaces, the absence of facilitators or specifically designed networking activities usually results in difficulties with networking.

The main reason, I guess, is that people are used to listening to something online, but not to communicating. Even in person, it may be difficult to master the courage to go to a person, introduce yourself, and start a conversation. It is several times harder when you don’t see their face and have no visual cues to rely on to see their expression and reactions so that you can understand whether they are up for a conversation, do they like where this is going, are they bored, do you need to finish, or can you continue. As a result – you give up even before trying.

One of my greatest experiences with online communication was Zeroverse’s online workshop on carbon literacy. The structure of the workshop included lectures, which were divided into several parts, and breakout sessions after each part. Breakout rooms had only 4-5 people, and all cameras were on. The participants also had a specific task for the breakout session and a general script of how to start a conversation announced by the host (introduce yourself, say your opinion on the matter, summarise what everyone said, and choose a representative to present). The tasks and groups were designed in a way that each person would need to talk. I found that it was easier to talk and overcome the first shyness when there was a system of communication.

Why not just participate in-person?

Because it seems that it is difficult to organise hybrid events, and there are many troubles for online participants, I want to talk about the reasons why you may choose online over in-person participation. And why I think that, as a community, we need more hybrid conferences rather than returning to in-person only. 

A beige lynx-point cat sitting on an office chair in front of laptop and  a monitor. The impression is that the cat is working.
You can always leave your cat on duty when you need a break ;)

Financial reasons. There are some obvious reasons. Skyrocketing prices for everything: participation fee, airplane/train tickets, hotel stay. Now I often hear that, for example, in Europe, people try to encourage participating in local conferences or traveling by train. It is a good initiative if you live in Europe or North America. But I live in Japan, which is only at the beginning of its journey to create an international scientific space. Not many international conferences choose to be in Japan because it is not an easy destination. Many local conferences are only in the Japanese language, which means that you can participate only if you have quite a high Japanese language ability. In many cases, even if there is no requirement to present your work in Japanese if you present in English, people will generally try to avoid you, as they don’t feel comfortable speaking English. So, if you want to be part of the bigger international scientific community, you would be forced to participate in conferences that are not in your country and would need to fly there. And the prices of airplane tickets from Japan to Europe at the moment are astonishing, especially with the weakening yen.

Prices are one of the reasons the conference world seems extremely unequal. So, it is always great to see that some conferences choose destinations like Africa, Asia, or Latin America as places for their international conferences. But another obvious answer to the problem – is to host hybrid conferences with lower participation fees for online participation.

Financial reasons were also one of the main reasons I decided to join my latest conference – EMBL Symposium “Organoids: modelling organ development and disease in 3D culture” online, rather than in person in Germany. But were there any other reasons? For me – yes.

Communication reasons. Online participation allows you to be in a comfortable place. Usually, I would participate from home, where I can sit comfortably (which sometimes looks like half-lying on the sofa or snacking at the dinner table or sitting down on the floor and petting my cat), be relaxed, which creates an atmosphere where I personally can concentrate easier and feel more comfortable asking questions. In my experience, I ask many more questions in online settings than in onsite ones, and I pinpointed the reason – the ability to type it rather than the necessity to hold your hand up and become the focus of the whole room’s attention is what makes it easier for me. Now, I do understand that this is not true for everyone. I do know that for some people, it is difficult to concentrate at home. I just want to point out that people like me exist, and we also want to attend conferences, feel included, and communicate with others. I would actually go even further and propose that even on-site conferences have a chat option where you can type the questions during the talk and opt for the session chair to read your question rather than ask it yourself.

One of the nice touches of the Organoid Symposium was that panel administrators treated both online and onsite questions equally and tried to ask them in the order of appearance. They also transferred all the unanswered questions in the chat due to time constrains to the designated forum and actively encouraged speakers to go check and answer the remaining questions on forum.

Effort reasons. Conferences are an intense experience. I am quite perplexed about how we came to the programs that include multiple parallel sessions and the schedule from 8 am to 8 pm. I probably need to do some research in that direction, too 😉. Maybe it reduces the price of the event, but at what cost for our brains? Even if you consider conferences fun, a 12-hour time frame is exhausting. But in reality, conferences counted as work. It requires a lot of listening, thinking, understanding, and concentration. I guess not all people are participating all day long, but in my experience, there are so many interesting things going on that when you are done marking all the sessions you are interested in, you have a very packed schedule. And at the end of the day, you feel overwhelmed with information. Online conferences allow you to listen to at least part of the content on demand! Which allows you to plan in a much healthier way. You check all the sessions you want to listen to and then check which of them are available on demand. Attend only the ones that are not available, and then listen to others in your free time. This is exactly what I did last month when I participated in an Organoid conference online. I’ve listened to what was available only in live streaming and then spent three weeks listening to everything else that was available on demand. Why so long? Because I was listening to one to two presentations a day and not every day, only when I knew I was ready for the new information.

Space reasons. Continuing on the comfort and overwhelming experiences — there are no overwhelming crowds of people when you join online. I know that many people love to be in a bustling place with everyone talking and mingling, but I am one of those people who get tired very quickly in these environments. The flashing slides in a dark room, people talking everywhere, especially during poster sessions, and the constant flow of information with often no planned activities for relaxation or proper rest (let’s be honest, 10 min break between 1 h sessions which you are supposed to spend on connecting with people or checking and going to the next session is hardly a rest). It is often difficult to find a quiet spot to recharge and have peace when attending in-person conferences. On the other hand, online conferences easily solve this problem. You have a 5- or 10-minute break – mute your laptop and have your quiet time. You can have a short breathing session, go talk with your partner, spend several moments with your pet, or just stare into a wall if that is what you need. Which, in my case, leads to enjoying the whole process much more. I can take a break when I feel that I need it. Going back to my last online conference on Organoids, I think that what they did great was give more time for breaks. The coffee break was 30 minutes, and the lunch was 1 hour and 30 minutes. The online participants would also see a banner that proposed yoga or some exercise to do during the breaks. I think that this kind of planning shows respect for our body’s needs. It takes into consideration that the intense brain work is still demanding on our bodies, and we need our rest.

Some of my favourite talks at the Organoid conference. I also wanted to talk a bit more about the Organoid conference, as it is because of this conference I decided to write about online participation.

The Organoid conference was also the first small conference I attended. Usually, as I said, there are a lot of multiple parallel sessions, but for the Organoid conference, there was only one. What I’ve realized is that this way, organizers can control the program much better, which means that the quality of the talks was fantastic! There were so many interesting results, ideas, and inspiration! Of course, conferences that allow more participants, even though the results may not be as groundbreaking, are also important; they just have different goals. But now I fully understand why several senior professors would recommend attending specific small conferences to keep in touch with the latest trends.

It was so good to hear Madeline Lancaster addressing the problem of reproducibility in biological research. The usual approach to the problem is – just to check several lots of cells and choose the ones that work. Which is a kind of “treat symptoms” versus “treat the cause” kind of solution. It does not answer the question, “Why do some cells work, and others don’t?” Can we really call it reproducible if you need to try several makers and lots of cells until you find the one that allows you to reproduce the results? It was refreshing to see a person who decided to answer the question: “Why are some iPS cells allowed to form organoids and others not? Is there a way to turn a bad iPS cell line into a good one? What is the mechanism behind all this?”. I do hope that more researchers will go into such details. As a researcher from the tissue engineering field, I feel that too many articles are concentrated on their techniques and know-how rather than on the fundamental process underlying all of it. This sometimes creates bizarre situations when some techniques work only in some labs, with certain reagents, and in the hands of certain people and practically cannot be replicated.

Another one of my favourite takeaways from the conference – is the video of the T-cell killing cancer from Anne C. Rios group. And I love it for completely unscientific reasons. It often feels futile to try and change something. There are so many inequalities around us. And sometimes it feels like nothing can be changed, nothing can be done. But looking at how one brave and energetic “Super engager” T-cell destroys the whole clump of cancer cells and, in the process, influences and triggers another not-so-energetic T-cell to go and do the same… Sometimes, it’s baffling how such human stories can happen even at the level of cells😊 You can change things; it is tough to do it on your own, but what you are doing can inspire others, and with time, you may even get help from unexpected sources, who will notice what you are doing and will be like – this is cool, this is what we need, let’s try to find a way to help.

Here you can read the article by Anne C. Rios group and check out the supplementary video 1, my favourite part starts around 1:45.

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Categories: Discussion, Meeting Reports

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