Over the past two years most research collaborations, from team meetings to large conferences, have moved online. What started as a temporary solution, has now become the norm. With the easing of Covid-related restrictions in many countries in the world, the debate on whether to “go back to normal” is starting again. In this blog post, I want to offer my opinion on the debate from the point of interdisciplinarity: what are the pros and cons of virtual meetings with regard to promoting interdisciplinarity?
Preserving International Connections
First of all, virtual meetings and events allowed the continuation of inter-institution and international collaborations in a time of limited traveling supporting the continuation of pre-existing interdisciplinary events and research projects. At the same time, as we experienced first-hand here at the One Health Center with the E-ellow Submarine group, virtual meetings provide opportunities to start conversations among groups of researchers belonging to the same network that would have not met in person.
Virtual meeting spaces, indeed, dramatically reduce costs; not just monetary costs, but also opportunity costs. This is extremely important to foster interdisciplinarity: while a researcher would have been extremely reluctant to attend a conference on a topic outside their field of research risking to spend travel money and precious time for no return, attending a virtual conference has no cost and can be “attended” from a personal laptop while grading papers or fulfilling administrative requirements. At the same time, this can result in less focus (i.e. lots of passive half-listening and very little active participation) and over-commitment (i.e. signing up for every event without thinking about which one actually could help my research or be interesting).
Less Time Commitment
From the perspective of organizers of interdisciplinary events, the normalization of virtual meetings has brought great benefits as well: speakers are more likely to participate in less prestigious or more “off-topic” events if they need to commit only a few hours instead of whole days, and costs have been dramatically reduced allowing for the organization of events on more unusual topics. As for attendees, however, quantity and convenience do not necessarily mean quality and effectiveness. In particular, online meetings are less conducive to informal networking, often the opportunity for new collaborations, due to the lack of “dead time” between sessions and coffee breaks typical of in-person events.
Speakers and presenters face both pros and cons when participating in online events as well. While they have to commit less time, they might also feel more isolated once their contribution is over: the video and audio move to the next speaker and it might be difficult for them to meaningfully interact with the participants. This could be particularly difficult for young presenters that would benefit from more questions and criticisms than what online Q&A chats allow. Travel-less meetings can be very good for people that cannot travel (i.e. disability, family commitments) but it can also create issues due to time zones resulting in speakers having to talk in the middle of the night or really early in the morning. For this reason, it has become more common to accept pre-recorded speeches (to mitigate connectivity issues as well), but this makes it even more difficult to receive feedback and engage in productive discussions that could result in interdisciplinary collaborations.
In conclusion, in my limited experience, virtual meetings have a positive impact on making academia more interdisciplinary and international. At the same time, more work needs to be done to encourage quality and effectiveness, as well as quantity and comfort. This is particularly true for interdisciplinary collaborations that are always more difficult to start given the still large “language barriers” across disciplines.
Additional reading: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2542519621003557
By Dr. Luca Mantegazza, Research Program Coordinator