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Are Scientific Conferences Really Worth the Time and Money?

The simple answer is yes, even virtual events provide valuable interactions and drive collaboration

Trevor Henderson, PhD

After two years of not meeting with colleagues face-to-face at conferences and symposia, many are asking whether the time and money spent on conferences is actually worth it.

According to a new study from Northwestern University, the answer is simply, yes.

The study, conducted by Emma Zajdela, a PhD candidate at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Daniel Abrams, a professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics at McCormack, found that scientists who interact with others during sessions at conferences were more likely to form productive collaborations than those who do not.  What’s more, it doesn’t matter if the event is held In-person or virtually.

Daniel Abrams, Professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics
Northwestern University

Using a new mathematical model, Zajdela and Abrams were able to understand and predict how scientists form interactions and collaborations at both in-person and virtual conferences. The model was validated using data from Scialogs, a series of scientific conferences organized by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

The team found that individuals who participated in small-group settings of two-to for people were eight times more likely to form future collaborations and participants that formed productive collaborations were 63 percent more likely interact at conferences with other. This is important as research becomes more collaborative and globalized.

According to Zajela “Science isn’t done by individuals anymore. It’s more interdisciplinary and multi-institutional. We need these conferences because scientists can meet other researchers who they might never have met otherwise.” 

Emma Zajdela, PhD Candidate
Northwestern University

Initally, Zajdela and Abrams tracked patterns among hundreds of scientists during 12 multiday in-person conferences. However, the advent of Covid-19 shifting events toward virtual platforms allowed the team to compare both in-person and virtual events.

“From a scientific perspective, this provided us with a rare natural experiment and the ability to make a direct comparison between virtual and in-person conferences,” Zajdela said. “Before doing this study, we hypothesized that virtual conferences would be less effective at forming new collaborations among scientists. Instead, what we found was surprising.”

Study results of applying their model to six virtual events revealed that virtual conferences were jest as effective — if not more effective — at encouraging interactions and, thus, sparking collaborations.   Scientists who formed collaborations at in-person conferences interacted 1.6 times more than those who did not form collaborations. But participants who formed collaborations at virtual conferences interacted two times more than those who did not.

“We interpret these results as coming from the fact that scientists did not have the same opportunities for informal interaction (during breaks or meals) in the virtual conferences as they did in the in-person conferences,” Zajdela said. “Therefore, the sessions they were assigned to were the only place that they could meet people to form teams with; hence the greater importance of interaction in these sessions for team formation.”

Zajdela will present the study titled “The Physics of Team Formation: Modeling the Catalysis of Collaboration at In-Person and Virtual Conferences,” at 9:36 a.m. CDT on Thursday, March 17 at the American Physical Society (APS) March Meeting in Chicago. A pre-print of the study is now available online.