New technologies and scholarly communication tools may seem like a threat to the exchange of ideas that used to take place exclusively at academic meetings. Livestreaming enables scholars to attend conferences remotely, and content is often available online for less than the cost of attendance. That being said, conference organizers should not be fearful that technology will take the place of in-person meetings any time soon. Here's why:
Two researchers come across each other’s work on social media or another networking platform. They realize they’ve been using one another’s studies rather closely for their own research. What are the next steps after reaching out? It’s very likely a convenient meeting place will be one of the large, can’t-miss annual congresses in their field. Online tools can facilitate first contact, but successful relationships are maintained through personal meetings. Of the many purposes of an academic conference—from promotion and advertising to setting the roadmap for scientific progress—one of their main functions is to build trust and add a human element to what can sometimes be an impersonal enterprise.
Pre-Publication Sounding Boards
The first places researchers turn to when exploring a new topic are databases and online catalogs. However, the research process does not end after doing lab work and collecting data. The next step is to organize ideas and make them understandable to a wider audience, including by translating them into the scientific lingua franca of English. Details can get lost in this process—maybe the significance of the findings haven’t been emphasized enough, or perhaps the study needs to be placed into an engaging narrative that will attract listeners. Conferences are an important sounding board to practice effectively communicating scientific findings in a smaller, less intimidating environment. Working out these kinks early will aid the transition to other formats, including publication. And for many researchers whose first language isn’t English, these are also vital experiences for adapting abstract information into a conversational and digestible format.
Motivation and Validation
Some of the research presented at conferences has been years in the making. Researchers labor uncertain where the results will lead, often in relative isolation. It can be an emotionally exhausting endeavor. Conferences are a key venue for validation from peers. Discussing research and receiving positive feedback from academics in the same field can be hugely inspiring, especially for young researchers. There is no online substitute for a warm round of applause.
Exposure to the Unexpected
The amount of information on the web is vast. To protect ourselves from the deluge, we tend to confine ourselves to a small sliver of what’s available. Much like walking around the open stacks of a library, conferences provide the chance to peruse findings from a broad category of disciplines and make contacts for further collaboration. Interdisciplinarity is key to making breakthroughs happen.
Rather than worry that technology will encroach on meetings, planners should embrace it to improve the conference experience and help attendees keep the sense of community going between events.
Sami Benchekroun is the cofounder and CEO of early-stage research platform and conference management software company Morressier.