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I was wrong – online conferences

Photo credit: Feeepik

I admit: I was wrong. A few years ago, during my doctoral research, one of my colleagues wondered why we still travel the world to attend conferences. “After all, we have the internet, skype and other modern technologies,” he said. I immediately jumped on the conversation and passionately argued that physical gatherings are necessary for science: researchers must come together, network, present their findings and discuss results. This heated discussion came to an abrupt end to the shrill sound of a timer telling me to return to my laboratory experiment. We never picked up the conversation, but I was completely convinced that I was right.

And then the coronavirus crisis hit. Suddenly everyone is stranded at home and planes are grounded. International travel is impossible, and conferences and meetings have been postponed. But not all of them. In the past two months I attended an online conference, a webinar and an online symposium (online gatherings of different lengths). All from my living room. And although I initially had my doubts, all three were a big success.

First of all, an online conference saves travel time. Instead of a bike ride, an hour on the train, a two-hour wait at the airport, a five-hour flight, waiting for luggage and a taxi ride to the conference center, I started up my laptop five minutes before the start of the first presentation. That is more than nine hours of my life I saved.

Concentrating on talks all day can be tiring. Let me be honest straight away: I regularly fall asleep during conferences. Not because the talks are boring, but because huge piles of information are fired at you. In that case, sitting at home, behind the laptop, is a big advantage. A five-minute nap on the couch, a walk in the garden and a strong espresso work wonders. You will be fully refreshed back at the conference in no time. That’s a lot better – and less embarrassing – than drifting asleep in front of a researcher while he or she enthusiastically talks about the newest findings.

“Standing up or walking around when you long for a cup of coffee, need a toilet break, or simply want to stretch your legs. Uncomfortable at a live conference, but no problem in your living room.”

Another big advantage is that costs of an online conference are significantly lower than those of a physical conference. There is no flight, hotel or restaurant involved. Of course, the company or university pays for the expenses, but their budget for such meeting is limited. Online meetings are cheap or free of costs, allowing everyone to attend more conferences, courses, and symposia and to exchange more knowledge. That exchange is extremely important, as is illustrated now during the hunt for a corona vaccine.

And let’s not forget the environment. Flying less means less environmental impact. Nowadays, several universities already have a regulation for air travel: employees of the University of Groningen for example, are no longer allowed to travel by plane at distances of less than five hundred kilometers. When we don’t have to travel at all to meet each other around the world, we reduce CO2 emissions even further.

“You were right, and I was wrong”

Unfortunately, not meeting at all, is also a problem, as I tried to make clear to my colleague a few years ago. The one-on-one contact and networking are important parts of a conference. New ideas or collaborations are regularly formed during drinks at the end of a conference day. Those valuable moments are difficult to reconstruct online. In the future, organizers of every conference should take a critical look at whether physical presence is necessary. We must encourage online conferences and alternate them with physical ones. Hopefully, the corona crisis also convinces other skeptics that online conferences are an excellent alternative to many of the physical gatherings. And to my former colleague I say: “You were right, and I was wrong”.


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