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You had to be there

26 May, 2023

I’m sure you’ve experienced the joys of an in-person conference – meeting like-minded peers, hearing from big names in your field, and coming away with a renewed sense of excitement about work. Nevertheless, the shift to online conferences during the pandemic led to discussions over the relative benefits and drawbacks of in-person versus virtual meetings. From a carbon perspective, online conferences have much lower associated emissions than their in-person counterparts, particularly those involving international delegates. Furthermore, there are also clear benefits to accessibility and inclusivity of online rather than in-person events.

However, a recent study (not yet peer reviewed) highlights a potential pitfall of virtual conferences – namely, that attending a talk in person appears to make a much stronger impression than simply reading about a talk, or watching back a recording of a session you were unable to attend live. Using data from a conference schedule planning app, researchers analysed talks 2,404 users attended at 25 conferences held between 2013 and 2020. They then analysed which presentations attendees had cited in work published within two years of the meeting. After taking other effects into account, the authors found that meeting attendees cited papers 52% more often when they saw them in person than when they didn’t.

Interestingly, this effect held for talks attendees hadn’t planned on turning up to, described by the study authors as ‘serendipitous diffusion’. Nearly 22% of the overall information dissemination brought about by the conferences studied were the result of serendipitous diffusion, demonstrating the value of in-person conferences for coming across information that you might not otherwise have discovered.

It’s clear that in-person, virtual, and hybrid conferences all have pros and cons. In the end though, the point of such events is to share insights that get used – and for this to succeed, there really is no substitute for being in a room together.

By Miriam Shovel

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