Conferences and workshops are integral throughout all stages of an academic career but arguably they are most important for early-career researchers. They are a great way to exchange research and form new collaborations with others, whether that be leaders in your field or those at a similar career stage.
However, most of these networking events for 2020 have been postponed or cancelled due to the COVID-pandemic. Whilst more senior researchers will have time to present their research at a later date, postgraduates may only have a short window of opportunity to do so. Missing these events reduces networking opportunities, skill-sharing, and the chance to showcase their work.
In response, the research community has mobilised to bring these events online. Earlier this summer I came together with a group of early-career researchers and the Durrell Institute of Conservation & Ecology (DICE) to organise the first DICE Twitter Conference. We started with few expectations but by the end we’d hosted 58 presenters from 13 different countries including associate members, alumni, staff, PhD and masters students. Associate/honorary members also volunteered to chair the sessions. It was a roaring success! The conference hashtag reached a potential 1.3 million users with a staggering advertising value over £8300! All of this whilst also being free, publicly available, and carbon neural.
You can check out the conference website here.
Statistics over the use of #DICECON20 from Tweet Binder
We learnt a lot and with this in mind, I’d like to share some considerations for those interested in planning their own virtual conferences:
What type of virtual conference?
There are many ways to host virtual conferences, including live-streamed presentations (e.g via Zoom), ePoster sessions (e.g. Padlet), digital libraries, or social media conferences. The many virtual conferences held over 2020 offer instructive examples on the different types of conference methods available.
We chose to use Twitter as we wanted it to be as open-access as possible. There is no charge to hosting on Twitter which means no attendance fee is required and it allows the public and those in industry to be involved. Additionally, it supports researchers in different time-zones or those who may have caring responsibilities by allowing them to schedule their presentations ahead of time. Twitter also has a “translate” function for non-native speakers. However, this does open the conference up to the risk of trolling, as happened at the Ecological Society of Australia conference 2015. Whilst Twitter is currently working to prevent this from happening at future events, I’d advise that you make your school aware of the risk and have a plan in place should this happen.
Workshops and networking are also important parts of the conference experience, so you don’t need to limit yourself to one type of platform. The Bio-Diverse Festival is combining a Twitter conference with short vlogs, live-streamed talks, and Q&A conversations. The World Bat Twitter Conference also hosted a Bat World Cup using Twitter’s poll function which generated lots of international engagement!
Examples of several presentation tweets & our very own conference meme! How long should it be?
Conferences are exhausting and online conferences are no exception. The first day is often useful for rallying awareness as it begins to fill up social media feeds. Staying engaged for 3+ days is difficult and time demanding. We ran ours across two days to maintain engagement and to accommodate appropriate time slots for international presenters. Limiting the time of a conference does however limit the number of presenters. If you want to keep the momentum going for longer, consider breaking the conference up with other forms of online event to maintain interest.
What is the conference scope?
Who is the conference for? Is it for a global network, such as the World Seabird Twitter Conference, or for a single department? This will affect how people design their presentations, the conference structure, and the topic sessions. Have participants presented in a similar way before? Virtual conferences are completely novel for many presenters but also for chairs. Before our conference we hosted a zoom workshop and Q&A, introducing ourselves and answering any questions about how the conference would run. We also produced a guidance document and ensured there was at least one committee member to support chairs throughout the conference. Advertising the conference
Many universities will have budgeted funding for events that were cancelled, so ask if it can be reallocated to support your event. We obtained £100 which paid for a website, including mailing services to subscribers, and engagement tracking (TweetBinder). We used this for conference registration, providing the schedule and presenter affiliations, instructions for presenters, and the option to subscribe. It can also be used to display presentations once it is over.
As with other conferences, keynote speakers are important for rallying interest. We invited DICE associates to chair sessions, such as Prof. Erik Meijaard, to help student presentations reach a greater audience. High-profile speakers, such Cathy Dean (CEO of Save The Rhino), also presented alongside early-career researchers. This was crucial as we found specific users were responsible for a large proportion of the conferences reach (e.g. those with >1000 followers).
Those following the upcoming BES Tropical Conservation Twitter Conference will have noticed the hashtag evolve from #TropCon20 to #TropiCon20 after a stream of good humoured tweets from the French speaking community. ‘Trop con’ translates as ‘too stupid’! BES acknowledged their mistake and were able to graciously laugh along too. These kick-starter events will be a learning curve for the research community to design better and more inclusive virtual events in the future. Bridie Davies in her SciEnvy blog last year discussed the environmental costs of in-person conferences and how as postgraduates we often feel we have no choice but to attend them. The last few months have demonstrated that postgraduates do have the capacity to design their own events when they feel in-person conferences do not sufficiently consider environmental and societal impacts. Tiny speed bumps along the way will not alter the fact that these virtual events will forever change how we conduct conferences post-COVID.
The DICE Conference would not have been possible without the committee - Anna Jemmett (PhD), Michaela Lo (PhD), Prof. Bob Smith (Director of DICE), and Annabel Falcon (event’s co-ordinator), our chairs or presenters. For more information about this topic, check out Sarabipour et al. (2020). “Evaluating features of scientific conferences: A call for improvements” here.