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A screenshot created using Miro

This was never going to be a pale imitation of earlier iterations of this conference. Mark Carden has always set his stall out to provide more interactivity than in other conferences. The standard format of workshops, debates, interviews, and chat couldn’t be translated into online form, however – could it?

Well, in the event the fifth annual iteration of the Researcher to Reader Conference (R2R) took place in a 100% virtual environment, and was a triumphant success. Yes, there were workshops. Yes, there were coffee breaks where you could chat to other participants. Yes, there was a debate. There was also the rather tiresome boosterism (“now over to fab Rob and Danny for the next session!”) but even that was in keeping with earlier iterations of the conference. Plus, the usual Mark Carden jokes (“Don’t message me to say it’s too hot in the hall and can we open a window!” he said triumphantly – I bet he’s been waiting to that for five years).

More seriously, there was an attempt to engage with some of the bigger issues in academic publishing. Instead of just mentioning China as something distant and threatening, there were fascinating interviews with academics giving insider accounts of what is happening in higher education. An academic from the Sudan revealed why they don’t use Twitter there (the government requires an international phone number for any registered Twitter accounts in Sudan).

Some of the ideas didn’t succeed entirely, as might be expected. The debate, about whether peer review should be paid or not, never really caught fire. Some of the “lightning poster” talks, even though only ten minutes long, managed to be nothing more than a product pitch.  It doesn’t matter that the product in question is not for profit, but the lack of engagement with the audience reminded you of other online events where you watched a presenter reading from a script, with all the lack of engagement that can be expected.

Highlights, for me, were the interviews with four academics. A very simple format: each academic is asked in turn about a topic (Covid-19, social media, and so on) and how it has affected their normal existence. That formula meant the responses were unscripted, and the respondents had to think on their feet, which made the session far more compelling. The detail about Twitter in Sudan mentioned above, for example, emerged almost accidentally from this session.

One trick that I’ve seen before, but still enjoyed, was the instantaneous poll (example above), where you can see the results building before your eyes. A simple trick, and the questions asked were hardly ground-breaking, but it provided some of the interactivity we realise we have craved for the last 12 months. As often happens with such instant polls, the conclusions drawn are sometimes dubious (I don’t think the above chart proves that we are all inveterate Twitter users.)

Another highlight was the workshop. Not one, but two conference apps were used: Spatial Chat (which I wrote about earlier), and Miro, an app that enables a workshop to create a kind of noticeboard with sticky notes, which can be dragged around into groups. Simple, but effective, even if several people all dragging their sticky notes on the noticeboard was enough to make me feel slightly seasick with all the movement. One or two of the plenary speakers were memorable, notably Ivan Oransky, who perhaps not surprisingly as an experienced journalist, knew he had a good attention-grabbing story, and told it well.

Not content with Zoom, the R2R Conference used a whole video presentation team to make the main presentations accessible via a dashboard, so as a participant, you could watch a presentation, go to a relaxation room, fire off questions, and many other things (quite apart from checking your Twitter account, which seems to be almost obligatory these days if you are going to call yourself a true participant).

Overall, there was a tone of relaxed interactivity. People said hello, much more so than at conferences with many more participants. I don’t know how to create a welcoming atmosphere at real events, let alone virtual ones, so all the more credit to R2R for trying new ideas, and largely succeeding, unlike the vast majority of online events in the last twelve months.