Cross-pollination enables hybrid event to bloom

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Heather Staines

Heather Staines sums up proceedings at this year's Researcher to Reader conference

I’m thrilled to note the success of the 2022 Researcher to Reader Conference, which ventured into hybrid territory on February 22 and 23.

It seemed only fitting to enjoy the familiar setting of BMA House for my first international conference since Covid travel restrictions, as R2R 2020 had been my last live event.

Full disclosure: I’m part of the advisory board for this meeting, so I wore multiple hats in my efforts to make it valuable for all attendees. I started a new job a year ago, as senior consultant and director of community engagement for Delta Think, working on the OA Data & Analytics Tool, so I couldn’t wait to get out and start to learn more about potential collaborations and data needs.

Based upon the success of last year’s virtual R2R meeting, we decided to go for a hybrid event in 2022. At each stage of the planning, the advisory board did its best to keep the needs of both cohorts firmly in mind. The selection of the topics, session formats, and platforms naturally followed. For the virtual framework, we used a platform called OnAir which uses Zoom on the back-end, with the social and workshop components happening in a software called Spatial Chat.

In the months leading up to the meeting, we kept a keen eye on Covid-related developments, as they affected the prospects of gathering safely in person and the variety of travel options that would make such an event possible. I admit, the arrival of the Omicron wave in late 2021 had me a bit nervous, but with BMA House requiring proof of a negative test, as well as masking, I believed that the benefits would outweigh the risks. (It was also great timing for the UK to drop its arrival testing requirements.)

Breaking the ice

The event kicked off with an icebreaker facilitated by me and fellow advisory board member Danny Kingsley, who joined online from Australia. Attendees bonded by table in both spaces through creating team names and identifying something they all had in common. We then conducted a short quiz to identify logos and 'match the conference with the host city'. No prizes, but it got folks interacting. 

We enjoyed plenary presentations on a range of high interest OA topics, including a concise overview of transformative agreements (and related models) from librarian Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and CERN’s Kamran Naim who detailed the latest developments in APC-free open access, including the popular subscribe-to-open and related models. Expert panels organized by PLOS’s Alison Mudditt, Ithaka S+R’s Roger Schonfeld, and ASAPbio’s Iratxe Puebla offered lively conversation around what lessons to take from improved ways of working, what to consider in light of recent mergers and acquisitions, and new models around peer review.

We also heard from early career researchers around the globe through video highlights from a session put together by CIBER Research’s Anthony Watkinson, and about the importance of research data discoverability, deftly led by CLOCKSS executive director Alicia Wise. The two days were capped with a talk on intermediation in the outside world by De Gruyter’s Brian Bishop, who took a recent foray outside the scholarly communications industry but (happily) has now returned.

Collaboration is key

With collaborative workshops always being a key feature of the conference, planning built on the lessons learned in 2021 to combine onsite attendee participation with online brainstorming using Spatial Chat.

Six workshops offered something for everyone. Three sessions touched upon open access topics, including Implementing OA standards, influencing positive change for open data, and OA models for open books. Additional workshops stemmed from an increasing focus on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) with sessions on early career researcher insights, a disability toolkit for scholarly publishing, and global access to publications. Juggling the participants in the room and those online was a bit tricky, but with wonderful technical support most issues were resolved and workshops proceeded much as usual.

Another popular part of R2R is the debate, skillfully managed by Brigham Young University’s Rick Anderson. This year’s proposition: 'the world would be a better place if research funders, rather than readers and libraries, bore the cost of scholarly publishing'. Arguing against were ResearchGate’s Sven Fund and digital strategy advisor David Worlock. Speaking in favour were ACS’s Sybille Geisenheyner and Prof. Lynn Kamerlin from Uppsala University. Onsite and virtual attendees answered a polling question before and after the debate to reflect their stance. When the dust cleared those arguing against the resolution had won the day, shifting more attendees to their viewpoint. 

The return of networking

The thing I enjoy most about conferences is the networking opportunities, and certainly that’s one thing that has been lacking in the virtual space–although R2R 2021 used Spatial Chat effectively in this regard. I worried that uncertainty around Covid restrictions might mean that opportunities at the venue might be reduced. In the end we did enjoy a few coffee breaks per day and wonderful lunch gatherings. There were lightning talks conducted in Spatial Chat for those who wanted to learn still more during these interim times. Bernie Folan helped organise a Scholarly Social event at a nearby pub, and a number of speakers joined for dinner at an Italian restaurant down the block. It was very hard to part ways afterwards.

Ultimately, we saw 170 registered attendees (from 22 different nations), with about 40 per cent being in person, 60 per cent joining online, and a few doing both to suit their schedules. It was refreshing to see a mix of familiar faces and new folks. Preliminary feedback was that the event was a success for both groups, and, in workshops, as well as in the Q&A there were opportunities for cross-pollination. 

One lesson to take to heart about hybrid conferences: there is no such thing as too much technical assistance. You’ll need support in each room where there is a session, as well, of course, as support for the online participants. We’re grateful to Ruby Sweeney and the team from The Events Hub for helping things run so smoothly. The BMA House staff, particularly the folks at the front desk who advised the Americans in navigating the Covid testing, couldn’t have made us feel more welcome. Giggabox, supplemented by BMA folks, helped us meet our AV requirements. And a special shout out to Charlie Carden, son of R2R Conference Director Mark Carden, for his patience and good humour throughout. Until next year!