Escaping the Chilly Ballroom: Researchers to Attend a Biomedical Conference on Line
Participants can avoid the registration fees, hotel rooms, and travel costs
By VINCENT KIERNAN
When hundreds of biomedical researchers gather during the next two weeks to discuss findings in basic and clinical science, medical education, and public health, the conference will seem in many ways like an ordinary international meeting of scholars.
Scientific leaders will deliver keynote addresses. Other researchers will outline their latest work and field questions from conference attendees. Companies will exhibit their wares.
But attendees will not be shivering in hotel ballrooms or getting lost in the endless corridors of a convention center. Instead, participants in the Internet World Congress on Biomedical Sciences will meet and communicate solely in cyberspace. Using the World-Wide Web, researchers will be able to immerse themselves in the conference without taking a step outside their offices or laboratories.
"It's not just a meeting, but in effect an experiment in how to conduct one," said Henry Szechtman, the chairman of the conference. Mr. Szechtman is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario.
The conference features 56 symposia on 15 biomedical subjects, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, cell biology, ophthalmology, and biomedical education. Mr. Szechtman recruited senior scientists from throughout the world to chair each of the symposia, and they in turn recruited researchers to serve on panels of six to 20 speakers for each symposium.
Still, not everyone is ready to give up ballrooms and convention centers: Several of the scientists that Mr. Szechtman approached declined to chair a symposium. "Some people said, 'That's how things are going to be done in 20 years, but I don't have time for it now,'" he recalled.
This is the fifth on-line meeting sponsored by the Internet Association for Biomedical Sciences. Japanese universities were the hosts of the previous meetings, held in December of the past four years, and most of the speakers were Japanese.
This year's meeting is more international in scope. A total of 653 speakers from 49 countries have agreed to make symposium presentations, although Mr. Szechtman said he expected that some may drop out before the conference begins. Each symposium will be presented on its own Web page. Each speaker can submit text, photographs, and figures as part of a presentation.
When the Congress opens, on December 7, the pages will be made accessible to all Web users (http://www.mcmaster.ca/inabis98). Visitors to each symposium will be able to read each speaker's presentation, post comments about the symposium, and ask questions of the speakers, who can post answers. (A speaker can choose to be notified by e-mail when a question is posted for him or her.)
Keynote speakers also will post their "talks" on the conference's Web site. They include Henry Friesen, president of the Medical Research Council of Canada; Allen W. Cowley, Jr., chairman of the physiology department at the Medical College of Wisconsin; and Stevan Harnad, a professor of psychology at Princeton University and the University of Southampton in England. He advocates wider use of electronic communication by scholars.
Researchers who were not invited to speak at a symposium will have a chance to make "poster" presentations on the Web, and an exhibitor's page will provide Web links to on-line displays by Fujitsu, the Medical Research Council of Canada, and three academic groups at McMaster, whose computer system will be the host of the meeting.
After the conference ends, on December 16, the presentations and discussion will be permanently archived on the Web, as are presentations from the preceding four conferences (available at http://www.mcmaster.ca/inabis98/about/about.html).
Unlike most academic conferences, this one has no registration fee, and travel is
not required to participate. For those reasons, Mr. Szechtman said he thought that many graduate students and junior faculty members -- who may lack money for travel or conference fees -- would visit the on-line conference. And he thought the conference would be popular with researchers in developing countries, who are also unlikely to have funds to attend an international meeting.
"It really opens up opportunities," he said.
The conference will not include any video or audio, said Mr. Szechtman. "We're not ready for it yet," he said. In particular, researchers in some developing nations might not have hardware or software needed to play on-line video or sound files, he said. However, he said that future on-line conferences are likely to use multimedia.
"It's enough of a headache dealing with the text," said Mr. Szechtman. All Web materials for the conference are to be in English.
Staging an on-line conference also creates new controversies for scholars. Researchers who present papers at a face-to-face conference often subsequently publish those papers in a scholarly journal. However, researchers who present papers at the on-line conference may be barred from doing so because many journals will not publish a paper that has already been posted on the Web (The Chronicle, July 17).
To minimize that risk, organizers of the conference have offered to delete any author's paper from its Web archive and from a CD-ROM that will be distributed to conference "speakers." About one-fifth of the conference presenters have elected to keep their papers out of the archive, said Mr. Szechtman.
Ironically, one of the keynote speakers at the conference is Floyd E. Bloom, editor in chief of Science, who has taken a hard line against publishing papers that have appeared on the Internet. Mr. Bloom, a professor of neuropharmacology at the Scripps Research Institute, in California, will focus in his talk to the on-line conference on long-distance collaborations in neuroscience, said Gabriel Paal, a spokesman for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes the journal.
However, Science would refuse to publish a paper that was submitted to it after being presented at the meeting, including Mr. Bloom's own talk. "If the meeting presentation was, in essence, a preprint of the paper, Science would likely determine that it was ineligible," Mr. Bloom said in a written response to a question by The Chronicle.
Mr. Paal said that Mr. Bloom declined to be interviewed.
However, not all journals have followed Science's policy. A new journal, Neurotoxicity Journal, will publish all papers from one of the conference's symposia that deals with processes that attack nerve cells, for example. Richard M. Kostrzewa, a professor of pharmacology at East Tennessee State University, is both the journal's editor and one of the organizers of that symposium.
Mr. Kostrzewa said he was looking forward to the on-line discussion in the neurotoxicity symposium. "It's less intimidating to ask a question in this way," he said.
Moreover, time often is limited at a face-to-face conference, so audience members may feel it inappropriate to ask questions that run the risk of seeming elementary, said Mr. Kostrzewa. That will not be a problem at the on-line meeting, he added. "Here, time is not so much of an issue, so elementary questions are more suitable."
"You can ask a stupid question."
Mr. Szechtman predicted that on-line conferences would not replace in-person conferences. Instead, he said, on-line events will become "supplementary and complementary" to face-to-face meetings. Researchers will be able to use on-line events as venues for making initial contacts with one another, meeting later at face-to-face conferences to strike up collaborations, he said.
"There is something about random events over a drink," he said. "There is something about face-to-face interaction that won't be replaced."
Section: Information Technology