04 May 2022

Academic conferences need "Codes of Public Health"

2020 was a year of conference cancellations.

2021 was a year of online conferences.

What will the 2022 conference season be like? I’m not sure.

On the Better Posters Twitter account, I have been tweeting people’s reactions to the prospect of the return of academic conferences in person. And people’s feelings are... all over the place. 

On the one hand, I see people’s pent up desire to get to meet their colleagues again. This is consistent with reports I’ve seen that air travel volume is at an all time high. People want to get out. Some people are gushing about how the face-to-face interaction is so much more productive and inspiring than video calls. Rebekah Rogers tweeted:

In person conferences are like a breath of fresh air. New ideas and collaborations from incidental discussions. New colleagues with different perspectives.

There's just no match for that community in the online world. Hoping we can keep it going for years to come.

On the other hand, some people are freaking terrified. The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. It’s now clear than about one in twenty people who get COVID-19 get symptomatic long covid, It’s debilitating and we don’t know how many people will recover or when. Long covid is not something you want to screw around with.

While this tweet isn’t about academic conferences, I think this sentiment from Chelle P. holds for academic conferences:

Hearing about an SF/F con where folks tested + for COVID and still blithely attended panels and meals really continues to hammer home that people like me aren't going to be able to participate in events again anytime soon. Because other humans just cannot fucking be trusted.

People who have kids who can’t be vaccinated, people who are immune compromised, are feeling left out and upset that conferences are going to push back to face-to-face with no consideration for them. Sebs Echeverri tweeted:

Super cool to see lots of conferences rolling virtual attendance back to a stream of the keynotes and maybe some plenaries, with limited or no ability to present research.

Totally excellent that academia has doubled down on punishing poor / disabled / immunocompromised scientists.

As if to exemplify this, Katie Greifeld tweeted that she had COVID-19 a mere four days after tweeting that she loved conferences.

And on top of that, there are a bunch of people who have found that online conferences have big advantages. They enjoyed the greater flexibility and accessibility and (often) lower costs. When you taste success, the tongue wants more.

Christopher Neugebauer is on to a really important idea: a public health code for conferences.

Public health policies are just as important a tool for in-person conferences as codes of conduct. They're a contract with the community that organisers are making to provide a safe place to gather.

I hope the community starts treating these as non-optional, just as for CoCs.

In the last decade, academic societies and conference organizers realized the importance of having a conference code of conduct. It was important for them to take public positions against bullying and harassment.

It’s shaping up to be a very fraught, complex, and conflicted year for academic conferences.

Update, 11 May 2022: Katie Mack’s summary of conference season 2022:

Conference hashtag during conference: Talks, updates, photos

Conference hashtag after conference: Rapid test pics, symptom updates, contact tracing

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