My Views on the ‘EGU2020: Sharing Geoscience Online’ Virtual Conference

In May 2020, the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly was held as a massive online virtual conference in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The new format would serve as a large scale experiment to understand the pro’s and con’s of virtual conferencing, potentially changing the nature of academic conferences forever. In this blog post, I would like to share my own experience of participating in ‘EGU2020: Sharing Geoscience Online‘ and comment on how this can be used to improve future academic gatherings.

Did the Experiment Pay Off?

I am in absolutely no doubt that ‘EGU2020: Sharing Geoscience Online‘ was a resounding success. The number of individual users that actively participated in the virtual format was greater than a standard EGU General Assembly; 26,000 compared to 16,000. This is an incredible achievement and the organisers should be incredibly proud of their hard work. It is amazing how much was achieved in such a short time period; I’m led to believe the entire virtual conference was arranged within 6 weeks! And we shouldn’t forget that ‘EGU2020: Sharing Geoscience Online‘ has benefited from the very active engagement of the wider geosciences community, leading to a new style of academic discussion and potentially changing the face of academic conferencing as we known it.

Live Chat Sessions: The Virtual Replacement for Academic Presentations

At the heart of ‘EGU2020: Sharing Geoscience Online‘ was a live chat room for each EGU2020 session. It would be fair to say that many of us were unsure exactly how this would pan out, and I was apprehensive entering my first ‘chat room’ on Monday morning. But there was a clear desire from everyone participating that they wanted this to work and, as a result, the level of participation improved as the week went on.

With more and more people engaging with the online chat sessions, the live chat-based discussion became ever more exciting, with an increasing number of interesting questions posed to the authors of each study. Frankly, by the end of the week, the discussions were exhilarating! At a standard face-to-face conference, a speaker would present their results and the audience would ask a couple of questions, with some limited discussion within the room. In the virtual set-up, the audience were free to discuss the work at length, leading to an array of interactions between specialists in that field and those wanting to simply know more. This is what science is all about: free and open discussion about topics that you are passionate about and I think ‘EGU2020: Sharing Geoscience Online‘ really helped to encourage an environment of open knowledge exchange.

That said, the fast-paced nature of the live chat sessions were difficult to follow at times and sometimes led to a slightly confusing set of posts on the chat stream. This is not a criticism, on the contrary, it was great to see cross-disciplinary discussions taking place. However, it may have put some people at a disadvantage; for example, a non-native English speaker or someone with dyslexia may have struggled to keep pace with the continuous posting of questions and answers. EGU have attempted to rectify this potential issue by creating a discussion forum for each EGU ‘display’, something I am eager to see in the future (read on to find out why!), but they appear to be underutilised at present.

Inclusive discussions, and lots of them!

I want to make a very important point about the inclusivity of online conferences. The cost of a standard EGU conference in Vienna is in the range £500-£1,000, maybe more, and this prevents many willing participants joining the face-to-face conference. With this barrier removed, ‘EGU2020: Sharing Geoscience Online‘ welcomed researchers from across the world to join in and participate. This allowed for a more diverse range of people getting involved and actively engaging with the geoscience community; something we all want to see more of in the future.

Another very important point: online discussion makes it easier for ECRs to get involved. As an ECR myself, academic conferences are usually quite daunting and it takes a lot of confidence to ask a question in front of 200 people. This barrier was removed and levelled the playing field, leading to a diverse array of discussions that may not have been possible in a face-to-face context. Though we must be careful here; there were also instances where the relaxed format led to the use of phrases with unconscious bias, something we should continue to try improve across the geosciences. While the open discussion was generally a playground for science to foster, we shouldn’t become complacent and should be aware of the dangers open discussion forums can bring.

We still miss the social interactions

In evaluating ‘EGU2020: Sharing Geoscience Online‘, there were two main points that seem to resonate with most people: (1) the virtual conference exceeded expectations, but (2) they still missed the variety of social interactions that come with an international conference. But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Through engagement with the online chat sessions, discussion forums and virtual networking events I was still able to meet a variety of ECRs and established researchers that share the same passions that I do. I even gained a host of new twitter followers! So can a virtual conference completely replace a face-to-face meeting? This leads me to my final point…

What does the future of the EGU General Assembly hold?

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a major revaluation of workplace practices. EGU2020 has laid down a marker to other international conferences that shows virtual conferences can work and can work well. The usual format of ‘presentation and posters‘ was abandoned, ensuring each contribution was given equal treatment and removed any biases that people may have regarding their quality. Enhanced diversity of discussion and inclusivity has really been the stand out improvement for me, and participating in something completely new has been a thrill.

But what does this mean for the EGU General Assembly going forward? One things for sure, the success of this virtual conference cannot be ignored, and it won’t be. A virtual conference will have a much smaller environmental footprint than a face-to-face meeting, with fewer people travelling to a central location. For a geoscience conference, we should be striving towards minimising our own environmental impact and a virtual conference meets these standards. It also allows people who cannot afford to travel to Vienna a chance to get involved, although differences in time zones will always be a problem!

The main disadvantage of having a virtual conference is that you simply cannot meet people in person. ECRs in particular enjoy the chance to meet their peers and discuss their work with other members of the community, and these international conferences often provide a platform from which they can be recognised for their contributions to the field. A further disadvantage of virtual conferencing is that it becomes very difficult to take yourself away from emails, admin and other tasks at your institution. At a face-to-face meeting we may check emails, but we rarely get involved in university admin. So where does that leave us then?

My personal view is that future EGU General Assemblies should try to incorporate the advantages of both formats. Face-to-face sessions continue to have a lot of value, and if it can include an element of online discussion then it may serve as a better environment for dissemination of science. I would also like to see presentation materials uploaded online in future General Assemblies. This will allow interested participants who were not able to join the session live to review the material in their own time.

Overall, ‘EGU2020: Sharing Geoscience Online‘ has been a triumph and I look forward to seeing how academic conferences evolve in the future.

Will Harcourt, PhD Student, University of St Andrews

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