The public are often baffled why environmental journalists attend climate conferences in person, using the rationalization that they do their jobs better if they can talk to people outside formal interviews.

What salesperson doesn't feel the same way? 

Science conferences are also well-attended, groups hosting them even note their high attendance, but the belief that any benefit from flying there and staying in a hotel is meaningful is usually held by people who enjoy going to conferences rather than empirical data. 

A new paper finds that advocates and critics are right; there is a benefit to conferences when it comes to networking, but that benefit also occurs if attendance is virtual. Emma Zajdela, the study’s first author and a Ph.D. candidate in engineering at Northwestern, and colleagues created a mathematical model hoping to understand and predict how scientists form collaborations at both in-person and virtual conferences. They validated the model with data from Scialogs, a series of scientific conferences organized by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, aimed at promoting research, dialog and community.

They tracked patterns of interactions among hundreds of scientists during 12 multiday, in-person Scialog conferences over the span of five years, including room-level participation data. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, most conferences, including Scialogs, shifted to a virtual format.

The results were that participants who formed fruitful collaborations interacted with one another 63% more at in-person conferences than participants who did not form collaborations. And participants who interacted with others in small-group settings (two to four people) at in-person conferences were eight times more likely to form new collaborations than those who did not join small-group discussions. After applying its mathematical model to six virtual Scialog conferences, the team found that virtual conferences were just as effective, and sometimes more, at encouraging interactions and, thus, sparking collaborations. Scientists who formed collaborations at in-person conferences interacted 1.6 times more than those who did not form collaborations. But participants who formed collaborations at virtual conferences interacted two times more than those who did not.