It seems strange to have chairs with nobody sitting on them, while the screen is busy; but better this than only virtual

Discussions will rage over the benefits and drawbacks of face-to-face and online conferences, but one way to deal with it is to offer both options simultaneously. This is the solution adopted by Mark Carden for his Researcher to Reader Conference, held at the BMA in London, 22-23 February 2022. Attendance was split around 50:50 in-person and online participants.

Researcher to Reader deserves full credit for attempting to break out beyond the usual conference format. Given that the academic workflow involves researchers, librarians, and publishers, you would think a scholarly communication conference would include all three categories; yet most conferences are skewed towards one group only, which of course reduces the value of the dialogue. Researcher to Reader scores more highly than most for wide representation: there are several librarians at the event, albeit few, if any, researchers.  

Researcher to Reader was ambitious on the technical front as well. All of the events: discussion panels, debates, workshops, were available simultaneously to people at the venue (about half the attendees) as well as online. Such an approach was not without problems. There was a noticeable lack of synchronisation between the speakers’ images on the screen and their words. Some of the presentations could not be heard in the hall. In my workshop, the online group had no interaction with the physical (I almost said real) group.

Compared to a full lockdown, however, all this counted for little. I felt like hugging everyone in the room who had travelled there. Attendees included several people from the US and from Europe.

The contents of the show were, inevitably, a mixed bag. There was no overt theme, but open access proved to form a component of many of the presentations. There was a very informative talk about new and innovative OA models from a researcher at CERN. Lisa Hinchcliffe gave a useful overview of the myriad licensing deals now available for journals in academic libraries, including a couple I had never heard of before. She pointed out that transformative agreements, intended to be transitional stages towards more content being published open access, have often had the beneficial effect of making more subscription content available. But researchers will hardly notice that this or that journal is now available from a library, compared to last year. The bewildering complexity of licence models is not something that any researcher should have to deal with.

Anthony Watkinson and his team presented further evidence from the long-running Early Career Researcher study. The sheer scale of the study is clear from Anthony revealing he had 24 interviewees for his part of the research. He interviews each of them three times, for two hours each session, and each interviewee receives a copy of the interview transcript for validation. And the study has so far only dealt with science and social science researchers.

The most shocking finding was how several early career researchers (ECRs) reported little use of the library. “The time when a library assisted research is past”, said one. “Libraries are only about subscription management”. Advantages of the physical library mentioned were fast internet and good coffee – probably not what the librarians at the conference were expecting to hear.

The debate, which in the past has proved surprisingly interesting, was not a great success. The speakers, logging in remotely, could not be heard easily, and unfortunately, the rules of the debate were not followed correctly. The four speakers were supposed to start by reading a prepared statement, but opponents of the motion skipped this stage. This was a shame, because I found it much easier to comprehend people speaking normally compared to reading from a script. The motion was that research funders, rather than  readers and libraries, should bear the costs of academic publishing. This proposal seemed self-evident to  me; the line of the opposition was that funders have their own agenda. Instead, we should have a plurality of agencies participating in the funding.

One of the most valuable sessions was about how we are changing our ways of working as a result of the pandemic. There were several useful tips for managing staff in the new hybrid environment. But for me, the most interesting thing I learned was how a university library in Botswana has shifted as a result of the pandemic and budget cuts to a new ratio of 90% online titles, and just 10% print. I don’t imagine any British university library having anything like that ratio.

Overall, a great thank you to Mark for his efforts beyond the call of duty to make this event happen. We need face-to-face events like this.