COVID-19: Virtual congresses could increase the number of participants while reducing carbon footprint

  • Hervé Maisonneuve, MD

  • Editoriale
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We thank the professionals, both healthcare and others, who are fighting the SARS-CoV-2 virus pandemic. Thank you, all of you. We are seeing changes that could become permanent. Here is an example: do we still need these scientific congresses on the other side of the world? These questions will be raised when the lockdown is lifted!

What about scientific congresses planned for the second half of 2020? They have to be cancelled, postponed or even become virtual.

Organizers are cancelling planned congresses up until this summer. Some are being postponed with the mention of “Date to be announced soon”. Discussions have begun and congress cancellations or postponements are being considered:

  • Cancellation: should registrations be refunded, or a voucher offered for the following year? what to do with accepted abstracts? Keep them for the following year, ‘cancel’ them, or put them online? Should exhibitors who have booked a booth be refunded? Should invoices from the convention centres be honoured? What about insurance?
  • A change of date beyond summer implies finding availability during periods when most of congress centres have already been reserved for other events... Postponing it too far is difficult since 2021 congresses are right around the corner.
  • Postponing implies reviewing the dates for abstract submissions, etc... and confirming that exhibitors will stay!
  • I am not even mentioning the train tickets, airplane tickets, and hotel reservations made by the participants who will ask themselves whether they will come if the congress is postponed!

Some examples:

  • The Endocrine society has cancelled its 2020 congress. It proposes to postpone the registration to 2021, at the 2020 rate, or even to make a donation of the registration fees already paid! Unless the authors wish to withdraw them, all abstracts will be published, without posters being exhibited.
  • The American Society of Clinical Oncology, which has 45,000 members, will not hold its congress at the end of May in Chicago and has advised members to keep an eye out for the alerts that will announce the decision to cancel or postpone... or even a virtual event.
  • The American Physical Society cancelled its annual meeting in Denver a few days before the scheduled date... for 11,000 participants who will be reimbursed.

Scientific societies have decided to organize virtual congresses

  • The American Association for Cancer Research plans to replace its San Diego conference with a free, streamlined virtual conference on the original dates (April 27-29, 2020). The originally planned congress will be held at the end of August 2020, but dates and venue have not yet been set ... 
  • The 27th annual congress of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society to be held in Boston (USA) has been rescheduled, in virtual form, from 2 to 5 May 2020 ( This 3,000-member society has announced that it expects 1,500 participants for this virtual conference, more than the usual attendance! Over 3 days, there will be 50 sessions and more than 1,000 posters. As for posters, it will be possible to attach video presentations, much like in the congress sessions. The usual events are still on: award ceremonies, and industry booths! Other scientific societies will be partners in this virtual event. Those who were already registered have had their registration automatically transferred. For new registrants, and non-members, the registration fee is $555! A bit expensive for a virtual event but I guess the circumstances are exceptional... The organizers predict more participants than expected and, above all, a reduced carbon footprint.

On the other hand, all small events (less than 100-500 participants), become virtual. There are quality platforms for these virtual meetings.

Can we still reconcile these large congresses with sustainable development objectives?

This arrival of virtual congresses, pushed by the circumstances of COVID-19, coincides with existing questions from researchers on the interest of these large congresses. Let us consider the behaviour of the younger generations:

  • Is flying hours to go and talk for 10 minutes, or to present a poster (which could be put online) justifiable?  To incur costs for three or five nights in Hong Kong?
  • Congresses focus more on form than substance. They are 'mass gatherings' with shows and various breakout events. The objectives of economic success are important. The periodic congress provides the main resources of the scientific societies. Scientific success is more difficult to evaluate.
  • Are electronic tools impactful when facilitating contact between researchers and collaborations, at the expense of congresses? In the past, mail used to force the program to be completed very early in order to send it by post... whereas now, programs are finalized almost at the last minute!
  • Some people notice that congress abstract books, when they exist, are not very useful. Unannounced lecturers learn that they have to write a text whose fate is unclear... and they create self-plagiarism that results in confusing publications!
  • Is there an impoverishment of conferences? There would be too many symposia, too many communications. It's a race to get good marks on CVs, even to organize “one's own conference”.
  • Researchers exhaust themselves by running the conference circuit and diluting their efforts when staying in the laboratory is more productive.
  • The editorial boards of journals do not take into account abstracts from congresses when it comes to citing sources... so would this production be useless? About 40 to 50% of congress abstracts are published as articles within three to five years after the congress!

Should the model of these congresses be reviewed with the goal of reducing global carbon footprint? Well, I don't know. What are the views of young researchers on this subject? I participate in congresses and meeting people is always useful for me, as long as I plan some of them. For some congresses, I have to admit that the location is part of my decision to go and participate... it would be a shame to make them virtual!