Monday, 27 April 2020

Virtual Conferences - Part II

The ongoing Coronavirus crisis has pushed several conferences into a hasty virtual version, with varying degrees of success.  As described in my previous post, there are opportunities to be inventive and imaginative, recognising the potential advantages of inclusivity and accessibility, and to offer something that people can participate in across the time zones.  So let's see what's currently on offer.

LPSC 2020 

LPSC was cancelled in early March, without enough time to shift to a virtual format for talks and posters.  Some virtual meetings were offered spanning topics of community interest (the planetary decadal survey, NASA townhalls, etc.), and a series of Virtual Early Career Planetary Networking Events are now underway, consisting of real-time online conferences via 'RingCentral' (3 slides, 5 minutes per presenter) that are hopefully being watched by prospective employers, and can then be shared online.  LPSC have provided hosting for e-posters, as has the Earth and Space Science Open Archive (ESSOAr), which is also used for the AGU.  

Leigh:  Despite the fact that you can then get a DOI for your contribution, there doesn't appear to have been a wide-scale uptake of this approach, as I don't see many papers on the archives.  I'm not sure how many people might actually be downloading and reading them, either, unless it was really close to my research area - it's not like browsing posters and chatting to authors in person.

EGU 2020

EGU (scheduled for early May) had more time to plan, so could be more ambitious. Using the #shareEGU20 hashtag, EGU runs for four days in May and became free to join, although uploads of presentation materials and commenting required authors and participants to have a Copernicus user account.  Abstracts had been submitted before the crisis, and charged a €40 abstract processing fee.  The conference would be entirely through uploaded "displays", comments on the presentations, and real-time text chats (08:30 to 18:00 CEST).  There would be no live presentations in the science sessions, nor video or audio chats.  Union symposia (one per day, 10:45-12:30 CEST), great debates, and some townhall meetings would be hosted through videoconferencing.

For scientific sessions, authors could upload presentations for a month before the meeting, then a dedicated, live, text-based chat for discussion would be held for the presentations of that session.  Presentations could have a variety of formats - PDFs or PPTs of the slides, or even mp4 files to record a video.  The important thing was that the appropriate Creative Commons License be included, and that presentation materials (and potentially comments) would remain online.  This shouldn't make any difference to future publication - most journals specifically allow posting on a (not-for-profit) preprint server prior to submission.  Journals allow, and usually encourage, that authors discuss their work at conferences prior to writing and submitting a manuscript.

Uploads of presentation materials were encouraged from 1 April to 31 May, and the same two-month period is valid for comments by the community and replies by the authors.  Then the May 4-8th session chats are in real time and are time-limited.  EGU opens one text-based chat channel per session linked in the online programme. The link becomes active 15 minutes prior to scheduled session start and disappears 30 minutes after the scheduled end of the session. All chat channels use the software sendbird run on servers of Amazon Web Services (AWS) located in Frankfurt/Main, Germany.  Chats are not recorded and archived. The posts are deleted after the session ends.  The text-based live chat neither involves live presentations, nor video or audio chats, in order to remain inclusive for all attendees.  All orals, posters, and PICO talks were converted to 'displays' that allow those who have submitted abstracts to upload presentation materials, opt in to commenting, and participate in a live text chat during the scheduled session time.

Leigh:  I set up a personal programme for the giant planet sessions, finding a large number of withdrawn abstracts or non-presented materials.  Even so, there were tonnes of talk titles, and I found little to motivate me to download and read each one.  There needs to be a bit of organisation, so that talks are assembled into sub-groups and themes, rather than big long lists of links.  

Those links I clicked on provided the full slide decks, but without someone talking me through the materials, I quickly lost interest.  I'd much rather listen to someone tell me the story, with the central narrative and rationale that you get in a talk, rather than just reading someone's slides.  I clicked through a few titles I was interested in, but there were no comments.  I'm interested to see how the text chats go.

AAS 2020

AAS were due to hold their 236th meeting in Madison in early June, and have switched to a 3-day version of their usual summer conference (slimmed down from 4 days).  The bulk of the meeting will be held in real time, restricted to those who register, and captured for later access by registrants who might have missed something in real time.  Recordings of the plenary talks will be made freely available to all AAS members.  Science sessions will be parallel 90-minute sessions of short talks arranged thematically, with iPoster (digital interactive) contributed posters and iPoster-Plus (presentations featuring short talks illustrated with iPosters), also arranged thematically.  There would still be press conferences, but they decided not to include splinter meetings.

AAS will be using Zoom Webinars (not Zoom Meetings) for science sessions and plenaries. A “host” and a small number of “participants” control the meeting and give the presentations, while the “attendees” (from dozens to hundreds) are not seen, heard, or able to control anything or share their screens. Attendees may ask questions and respond to polls initiated and controlled by the host or participants. I've seen iPosters presented at DPS meetings, where authors use standard templates to create a digital iPoster, which is then available online shortly before, during, and after the conference.  iPosters can include audio narration; high-resolution, zoomable images; videos and animations; and text with (or without) embedded hyperlinks. In addition, iPosters include a "chat" feature that allows someone viewing an iPoster to interact in real time with the author.

Leigh:  I really like the idea of the iPosters, and have seen these in action before.  Having the regular orals delivered realtime via webinars means a substantial inconvenience for anyone in a different time zone, but at least they will be recorded and so could be viewed later (by attendees at least).  Speakers will only be answering questions during the live sessions, but there can be virtual rooms after sessions to continue the conversation.

EAS 2020

The European Astronomical Society Annual Meeting (formerly known as EWASS) was due to be held in Leiden in late June, and has moved to an online meeting using a custom-built platform from their organisers, Kuoni.  It seems that registration fees are being refunded, but that the virtual meeting will charge a reduced fee (€80 for 5 days, €50 for one day).  According to their FAQ page, the meeting will still take place over 5 days, with some elements live, and some pre-recorded.  It looks like they'll also stick to the Central European time zone, just like AAS is sticking to the US time zone, making it a challenge for participants in time zones greatly removed.    For registered participants the presentations (platform and posters) will be made available after the meeting for a limited period of time (TBD).  They are aiming to use interaction options like chat, Q&A and live polling, and there will be ePoster sessions. 

Leigh:  The virtual EAS is still evolving, but also seems to be aiming to use the regular time slot for their meeting, rather than distributing it over a longer time period.  It'll be interesting to see how the real-time and asynchronous aspects of the conference blend together.

**This post is a work-in-progress, please check back!**

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