The Retroviruses conference still has policy and technical barriers that impede effective communication among scientific colleagues, and with the public.1 This article will focus not on the problems, however, but on opportunities for all such conferences to better meet participants' needs by improving information flow. Business and political considerations will be addressed in later issues of AIDS Treatment News.
Good presentation is an important issue, since critical opportunities are lost if researchers who should know about relevant developments outside of their field do not find out about them. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on medical research, and part of the benefit is wasted if the results are not reported well.
After following AIDS conferences for almost 15 years, I believe that the most important single improvement would be to provide an online forum for the primary presentation of new results. Then the conference itself could move toward discussion among those interested in any of dozens or hundreds of different topics, and away from traditional lectures followed by a handful of questions at best.
The way to do this would be to give each potential presenter an account on the conference Web site to submit their presentation to the conference online -- and maintain it if they choose, allowing changes before, during, and after the meeting. (The version accepted by the conference's scientific committee would be archived unchanged, and be accessible through a special link from the updated abstract.) These searchable online abstracts would be released to the general public well before the meeting began. Researchers could check or uncheck a box to have a comment form included online with their poster, allowing readers to send them comments without the researcher's email address being revealed.
Note that this proposal does not involve any substantive change in how abstracts are reviewed and selected for the conference; that could stay the same as now. (Later we will propose a more flexible reviewing process, with two reviewer teams -- one providing signed and the other providing anonymous ratings, with optional comments. This system would give other scientists and the public far more guidance in knowing what is important to their work, and where they should focus their attention during the meeting, and before and after as well.)
Advantages of having the primary data presentation online include:
- Such a conference would be open to the whole world's scientific communities and other interested groups -- including the great majority of people who cannot fly to that particular city for the meeting. Working relationships could develop remotely as well as face to face. Online communication will never entirely replace face to face meetings, however, so there will always be a need for conferences.
- Those who do attend could arrive prepared, already oriented about what they want to see and whom they want to meet.
- Presenters could spend less time on background and supporting information, since all this would be readily available online. They could focus more directly on what they did and why it is important.
- Abstracts could link to the researcher's own Web site to provide supporting details, instead of cramming too much information into the abstract, at the cost of clarity.
- To streamline administration, abstracts could be reviewed online. Anyone could set up an account and password for themselves and submit an abstract to the conference; staff would quickly screen out anything obviously inappropriate before it goes to the scientific committee for review. The editing software would offer a few simple fonts and templates, and allow presenters to upload text and graphics in any common format; presenters could also upload their abstract as a Web page if they wanted to. In any case, for the sake of the reader every abstract would be limited to a maximum number of words, and probably a maximum number of images as well (although it could link to additional information).
- A side benefit of having the high-status reviewers use the same software that the public will use is that the bugs and other glitches will be corrected quickly. When the public gets online the technology should work perfectly. Today, most AIDS conference Web sites never do.
- Researchers could submit their abstracts early, well ahead of the deadline -- knowing that they could make changes later, any time up to the period when the abstracts are frozen for review. They could create a special password to let colleagues anywhere look at their draft online and make suggestions -- and use these to improve the quality of their abstract before it goes into review.
- Reviewers, or others appointed by the scientific committee, could mark any abstracts they consider particularly important in their field or worthy of attention, and add a comment if they wished -- at any time before, during, or after the conference. They could either sign their recommendations or leave them anonymous. This information would help other participants find the work that leading experts considered most valuable.
- Fewer of the heavy abstract books would have to be printed, as participants who did not have a computer could pick up photocopied sheets of just the abstracts they needed -- often a later version than what is in the book. Those who did want the book could order it in advance.
- The searchable, accepted abstracts would be released publicly well before the conference (as many conferences do already), avoiding any issue of giving commercially valuable information to certain investors first.
The biggest problem is that the detailed program and the abstracts are now kept secret from participants and the public until registration opens, shortly before the conference begins. Almost no one has time then to study the material adequately. The consequence is that most people never read most of the program or abstracts either before, during, or after the conference, and attend without knowing what is important to them or whom they need to make special effort to see.
The Retroviruses conference blames the SEC:
"As was the case last year, the Conference will not be distributing either the Program or Abstract books prior to the meeting. Based upon events in the financial markets, the S.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is concerned about advance announcements to select groups of individuals about material data pertaining to publicly traded companies." (Program & Abstracts, 11th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, page vi.)
But the SEC would not care if the conference made the information publicly available online, as it would get to everyone at the same time.
ISSN # 1052-4207
Copyright 2004 by John S. James. Permission granted for noncommercial reproduction, provided that our address and phone number are included if more than short quotations are used.