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Communications of the ACM


Rethinking Conference Formats

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Conference travel is considered one of the main instruments to foster networking and to get feedback for ongoing research work. Here, I focus on engineering and CS conferences, which usually accept full and short papers, conference presentations (including workshops and other conference-style events), and published proceedings. Before the pandemic, almost all renowned conferences required authors to present on site and papers got excluded from the proceedings when authors failed to attend physically. During the pandemic, we were forced to rethink this organization and most conferences moved to the virtual space. In the current post-pandemic environment, some conferences returned to onsite meetings only, but most of the conferences were forced to go hybrid. The reasons for this are manyfold: Not traveling to remote conferences is more climate friendly; it is cheaper; many countries struggle with new visa requirements and authors do not get permission to enter the respective country on time; but the most cited reason is saving time and being more family friendly. These are all good reasons and I struggle to decide whether to restart going to conferences and to how many.

At the same time, everybody observes the same trend in onsite, hybrid, and virtual events: participants subscribe to all possible events and barely participate. What used to be a lively event with many questions to address slowly transitions to a dull screen with black boxes or half-filled rooms. I have even heard about people participating in several virtual events at the same time and have often experienced people leaving the main conference for some other virtual events. Hybrid events require an additional very high technical overhead and still exhibit frustrating delays and dropouts. Furthermore, even the most sophisticated tools for collaboration and online conferences cannot substitute for the spontaneous discussions during breaks and social events. The usefulness of conferences, even the top ones, is slowly diminishing.


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