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Virtual Meetings a Natural for Scientists
B y C a r o l i n e H e l w i c k
Henry Szechtman, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, is one meeting planner who knows little to nothing about room blocks, registration procedures, breakout rooms, and the like. He's never made an on-site inspection, and he often attends his own meeting in his pajamas.
Just another quirky psychiatrist? By no means. Dr. Szechtman is past president of the Internet World Congress of the Internet Association for Biomedical Sciences (INABIS) - a completely virtual meeting that asks its attendees to know their way around the World Wide Web rather than a convention center.
The INABIS was founded in 1994 by Dr. Sumio Murase of the Shinshu University School of Medicine in Japan to promote the exchange of scientific findings and foster communication among scientists and health professionals on the Internet. Last year's congress, its fifth and the first to be organized outside of Japan, was held for one week in December, and attracted participants from 47 countries. The INABIS Web site suggests is was "possibly the first such event organized in North America."
The format of the congress was like any other medical meeting. Opening remarks were posted by the president of the Medical Research Council of Canada. Two internationally renowned scientists, including the editor of Science, gave keynote addresses. After a presidential address by Dr. Murase, delegates were free to visit any of the symposia or poster sessions (about 300 each) on 15 topics ranging from cardiovascular diseases to neuropharmacology and biomedical education. Visitors could query the researchers by dropping them an e-mail--like scribbling a note on their poster board, Dr. Szechtman said.
Even without a formal "call for papers" or announcement of the meeting, submissions were impressive: 644 abstracts, mostly coming via word of mouth through cyberspace. And even the submission guidelines departed from the norm. "You can submit graphics and animated gifs. Please keep pictures less than 20K in size. Animated gifs tend to chew up bandwidth," the instructions read.
Submissions were then reviewed and categorized by the review committee. "Our work was not so much to select papers as to assign them to the appropriate session," Szechtman explained. "We were just on the lookout for things grossly out of place."
All sessions were posted for the full 10 days, so viewers could attend any session at any time during the conference. (Even now, many posters are still "up.") Each session also included a lively discussion segment that changed daily as comments were posted. "So far, participants have been very polite," Szechtman noted. "They have made their comments in a fairly articulate, formal fashion. But I expect that in the future this will become more like other meetings. People will get less formal," he predicted.
In keeping with traditional medical conferences, there was even an exhibit hall where commercial sponsors made their pitches. (The congress was made possible through corporate funding, which included industry sponsors, the Medical Research Council of Canada, and McMaster University.)
Dr. Szechtman discounts any notion that his online meeting and others will spell the end of on-site meetings. "Never," he stated. "It's only supplementary. It cannot replace the face-to-face interaction that we need."
But the concept is catching on, he believes. "I've heard of some other groups now starting to do this, including an organization of chemists in England. But one thing about ours is different - it is completely open. You pay no fee. Anyone can come in."
Dr. Szechtman emphasized that the openness and accessibility of the INABIS is greatly appreciated by many in the worldwide scientific community. Researchers can publish quickly and easily (albeit not in a peer-reviewed fashion), a fact which Third World scientists particularly welcome. "Also, I know of a number of participants who were asked to publish their research, edit a book, or organize another conference as a result of their work here. Many things have grown out of this meeting," he said.
In his opening remarks, Dr. Henry Friesen, president of the Medical Research Council of Canada, said the groundbreaking conference is just the beginning. For example, the Council has proposed the formation of the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, a virtual network that would bring together all members of Canada's health research community - from university labs to emerging companies to established industry - in an effort to boost the exchange of scientific information.
"Five hundred years ago, the great explorers sailed the seas to discover what lay under the mantle of terra incognita," Dr. Friesen said. "Today, the great explorers are seeking not new lands, but new ways to see the world. This Internet Congress is opening a world of discovery … on a computer monitor."
He added, "I encourage all visitors to the Congress to attend the symposia, participate in discussion groups, view the poster sessions and exhibits, and realize how fortunate today's researchers are to have all this at the click of a mouse."
Dr. Szechtman invites planners to check out the INABIS Web site at http://www.mcmaster.ca/inabis98/index.html, and consider attending their next meeting. Come as you are!
Caroline Helwick is a New Orleans-based freelance medical writer.