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November 13, 2020 | OncoBone article

Experiences on virtual scientific events in 2020 and hopes for 2021

Due to COVID-19 pandemic, the year 2020 has been exceptional in many ways. One of the big drawbacks in biomedical research and business has been that all scientific events were transferred to virtual format. OncoBone representatives attended four virtual scientific events this year. In this blog post we summarize our experiences about them and present our hopes for events organized in 2021.

In-person scientific event typically includes the following activities: 1) preparation to the event (preparing presentation(s) and building itinerary), 2) travel arrangements and traveling, 3) registration, 4) scientific sessions, 5) poster sessions, 6) networking, 7) closing the event (preparing summaries and following up contacts). Notes about these activities in virtual events in 2020 and their comparison to in-person events in earlier years are presented and discussed from our own perspectives and experiences in the following chapters.

Preparation to the events:

Everything from preparing to submitting an abstract and later preparing the presentation(s) (oral or poster) has been the same and required similar amount of time as compared to in-person events. Minor cost saving has been made when no printing is required. Going through the scientific content of the event and building an itinerary has required as much time as in in-person events. However, there has been less content in some of the virtual events in 2020 compared to the same in-person events organized in earlier years.

Traveling:

The biggest change has been cancellation of traveling plans. This has of course the benefit of cost- and time savings, but the difficulty has been the timing of the events. As for a European, the events held in US daylight time have been starting at late afternoon local time and closed sometime after midnight. Truthfully speaking, such late hours are not the best time for learning. Luckily, recordings have been made available so that you can listen to the talks at a more suitable time. However, this has then prevented direct interactions with the presenters and audience, which has only been possible during the live presentations.

Registration and general notes about event administration:

The number of registered participants in virtual events is typically larger compared to in-person events. This is probably because many events have been free or registration has been provided with discounted prices compared to in-person events. However, less time has been spent in the virtual events. The registrants come to the events to listen to topics of their primary interest, and they do not typically listen to other talks outside of their key interest area. Event tough this is a cost-efficient use of working time, learning new science that is not directly related to your primary interest can broaden your view and help in being innovative in your own research.

A notable benefit in scientific events is stepping back from your daily work and busy schedules for a few days and just concentrate on science. As you are attending the virtual events from home or office, you easily switch back to the daily work mode, and in the end you notice that you did not get as much from the events as you had wished for.

One point to note is the change of event dates. Many events have not been held in the announced original time slot that was preserved for the in-person events. This has provided occasionally some difficulties in allocating time for the virtual events.

Arranging virtual events has provided cost savings upon cancellation of reservations of conference centers, which is the major cost in organizing in-person events. However, adaptation to virtual platforms has provided difficulties to the staff members in charge of the events. Many times changing to virtual format has been made on relatively short notice and planning and re-organizing the event has required a lot of time and patience from the organizing committee. I think we are all grateful that it has been possible to change the events to virtual and we have had the opportunity to learn and communicate new science even in these challenging times.

Scientific sessions:

The quality of scientific sessions has been great and it has not been compromised by the change of format. The sessions have been well organized. In some events, an ‘introductory talk’ has been given by a leading scientist in the field prior to the actual scientific session. This is a great way to get your mind settled to a certain topic before detailed cutting-edge scientific discussion. In many scientific sessions, it has been possible to ask questions during the live event and the questions have then been answered in a Q&A session held right after the scientific session. This has been a great way to provide direct feedback and discuss urgent issues (similarly as in in-person events), but the willingness to comment has been less active than in an in-person event.

Poster sessions:

Poster sessions have been well organized and well attended. Actually, some events adopted the use of e-poster format even before these exceptional times, so this concept was not new. However, the lack of good scientific discussions over the posters is a major disadvantage. Also, in virtual format events, you need to only select the posters mainly based on the attractiveness of the title or the results searched with an itinerary builder. In in-person events, when going through the poster presentation area you can accidentally meet people you know or find interesting presentations and have good discussions with the presenters. This kind of spontaneous encounters and discussions are totally lacking in virtual events.

Scientific exchange of results and ideas has decreased and many presentations of new data may have been postponed to future events. This is understandable because discussions at the presentations have typically provided great ideas and new insights into the data, but it is still a pity when thinking about progression and development of science and knowledge.

Networking:

Scientific events are a great platform in reconnecting with old contacts and gaining new. A major disadvantage in virtual format has been the almost complete lack of support for such activities in early virtual formats. Later there has been some attempts to create space for networking. Typically, these activities have been focusing on discussions around a certain scientific topic and sessions have been open to everyone registered to the event. As we see this, many persons are cautious in discussing virtually, especially if they have opposing opinions. To our knowledge, none of the virtual formats can still recapitulate so-called ‘free’ networking space for attendees. By free networking we mean discussing and networking with persons that you accidentally meet for example during a poster session and other discussions you have outside of pre-arranged networking sessions.

Closing of the event:

In a virtual event there should be a better possibility to follow-up with contacts while the event is still ongoing. As every contact occurs online during the event, you already have a line of connection open with the persons you have communicated during the event. In an in-person event such follow-up contacts can usually happen after you have returned home from the event. This is potentially a major advantage of a virtual event. As for preparing meeting summaries about the scientific content of a virtual event, you can always go back and watch the recordings again if you for example notice you are missing some information or would like to include additional content.

Future directions:

Adaptation to everything new in 2020 has been rapid and many changes have been made on short notice. We believe that most of us are happy and grateful for the efforts that have been made for recapitulating the experience of scientific events. However, it is fair to say that people are still anxiously waiting for everything to go back to normal. The biggest drawback at the moment is ‘not knowing’ what will happen next year. It is difficult to make good plans when it is not known if events are going to be held in-person or virtual, if they will be held in the original timelines, and if traveling is allowed. As the restrictions caused by COVID-19 do not seem to ease at least for the first half of 2021, below we present our ‘wish list’ for scientific events in 2021.

The wish list for scientific events in 2021:

  • Considering that it is safe and feasible, in-person events will be the preferred option for all scientific events
  • If in-person events are not the preferred option for all attendees, consider hybrid events where being virtually present is possible for those who prefer it
  • Part of the contents of scientific events, for example educational and keynote lectures, could be posted to everyone, even those not registered to the event. This would allow anyone to evaluate the content of the event virtually for evaluating if the event would be worth registering the next year. This would also be great in the sense of visibility and sharing of science, and it should be available also in in-person events.
  • Provide platforms for ‘free’ networking
  • Contact information of attendees and/or a platform for contacting attendees in electronic format during the event, also in in-person events
  • Access to electronic materials such as posters and exhibitor materials during the event, also in in-person events

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