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Attending Online Conferences: Lessons for Early Career Researchers in the Global South

By Dr. Charles Kalinzi, PhD | Feb. 19, 2024  | Career tips COVID-19 Conferences

This post takes you through my personal experiences of having attended numerous online conferences, the “new normal” during and after the COVID19 pandemic. We will also consider the deep waters of journal publishing. These experiences reflect how the pandemic was catastrophic for PhD students, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, and how—surprisingly—it became a blessing in disguise for promoting free online conferences and webinars—and how typical young African scholars may have benefited from this new trend.

The goal of this post is to encourage young African scholars to continue searching for and becoming curious to attend online conferences, as a way of creating a firm foundation for academic publishing, and how this can foster a smooth and successful publishing career. We will also address the relevance of this new normal for organisations in charge of research units, and how early career researchers can benefit from online conferences to prepare for and translate research dissemination into better policy outcomes.

In this blog post, I will share my thoughts on why attending online conferences is important for young scholars, and how doing so can guarantee the continuity and sustainability of the publishing culture—not only now but also in the future, to ensure smooth scholarly integration which may eventually lead to an accumulation of research skills and wide academic exposure.

Genesis of the massive call for online academic conferences

Keeping in touch was greatly facilitated by the emergence of advanced technologies.

One contends that whereas the pandemic was devastating to the world globally, it also had some positive effects, especially for African scholars. The majority of research training institutions in the Global South were affected. In-person student supervision had to be curtailed for some time to comply with health precautions. However, supervisory arrangements were subsequently forced to adopt innovative ways of keeping in contact, which were greatly facilitated by the emergence of advanced technologies.

Conference organisers, students, and supervisors quickly adapted and progressively adopted these new means through which continuity in supervision could be handled. Unfortunately, this momentum didn't pick up immediately for the majority of African scholars. Nevertheless, eventually many researchers joined in the quest for online webinars, a quest that became rampant for free knowledge.

An open laptop, white cup of coffee, writing pad and pen, and phone, on a brown wooden desk.Before the pandemic, most conference organisers emphasized the physical presence of presenters and all attendees, but because of strict adherence to health guidelines across the globe, creativity and innovation promoted an online culture of virtual meetings, aided by applications such as Zoom, Vovex, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams, among others, as the "new normal". For instance, I attended many free conferences and webinars as a way of catching up with professional experts across the globe. The few conferences that restricted virtual attendance by imposing registration fees (which ranged between US$50 and US$100) charged fees that were low and affordable for African PhD scholars.

This phase of the pandemic greatly sharpened my data analysis skills by allowing me to become acquainted with a number of qualitative and quantitative software packages for advanced data analysis, to which I was exposed through online conferences and webinars. Interestingly, this trend continues to gain momentum as the majority of conferences today still offer both online and physical options.

Benefits of Online (free) Academic Conferences as a Cornerstone for Academic Publishing

One often asks a polite question: "Was COVID19 a blessing in disguise for African PhD students?" A second question is often asked in the form, “How did African early career researchers benefit from extended COVID19 lockdowns to attend free virtual conferences without the need to secure travel funding?” In answering these questions, it is important to note that there is no doubt that academic publishing remains the bedrock for assessing scientific productivity.

Those who benefited from online conferences gained a lot.

The proliferation of free online conferences created an avenue to catapult the spirit of academic publishing, which often required certain skills that every young scholar needed to learn, through regular interactions with professional networking groups at these conferences. Unfortunately, such skills had previously usually eluded young African scholars and PhD students, and therefore those who benefited from online conferences gained a lot in terms of developing the urge to push beyond scholarly boundaries and venture into academic publishing.

Incidentally, the mandatory skills required for this are rarely emphasized during normal PhD progression, regardless of the approach. Often, African scholars grapple with having to rely on self-discovery as this is not usually part of the mainstream PhD curriculum training and only emphasized towards the end of the “lonely” PhD journey. Skills including data organisation, data cleaning, data analysis—both qualitative and quantitative—and, most importantly, the interpretation of results, were explored during these free online conferences. Understanding of the “how and why” of research was thus almost always addressed.

Research Relevance in the Sub-Saharan Context

Many government organisations in different countries in the sub-Saharan region have now established fully fledged research units. These tend to rely mostly on their corporate office to communicate the organisation's innovative achievements and developments to internal and external stakeholders. What is often called organisational research is sometimes nothing more than self-centered observations and personal opinions, yet the work pursued by many government organisations requires thorough and rigorous investigations to arrive at conclusive insights for effective decision-making. Within such a framework, employers (and researchers), who sometimes show an interest in digging deeper through advanced analytical skills and progressing their organisation’s research agenda, can engage with these research units as sources of comprehensive and updated information about a given entity and its innovative activities, which is presently rarely available or reinforced.

When young researchers are absorbed into such research units, freshly graduated with advanced analytical skills, they help organisations to increase and disseminate knowledge about their area of specialisation and strengthen the research environment for addressing emerging and challenging issues. These could be research institutions or even academic institutions in sub–Saharan Africa. In many cases, research results, besides benefiting the local community, could be published in leading journals at local or international level or as policy briefs, thus opening doors to innovation and advancement.

In this information era, research can no longer be left primarily to academic institutions.

In this information era, research can no longer be left primarily to academic institutions but rather a collective effort is required towards eliminating challenging bottlenecks to achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness. Therefore, government organisations that recruit young scholars should find a way of taking their “complicated science” to "the general public" for meaningful societal impact. Research should be used as a mechanism of effective communication and tailored to societal challenges while supporting newly recruited young researchers with more training and funding for projects that impact society's well-being. This could be one of the criteria for assessing government performance in the future.

Translating research into better policy outcomes

By engaging internationally witA photo of a person from over their shoulder, as they use a pipette-like instrument over a small clear and white plastic piece of equipment, with small amount of blue liquid in it. The person wears a white labcoat and blue gloves. Two other people are partially visible, wearing the same clothing. They are standing and sitting around a laboratory bench, with various other glass and plastic pieces of equipment on the bench. h experienced scholars, you learn about researcher experiences in terms of the techniques required to perform world-class research. Here young researchers learn to address several questions, for instance: "What was the motivation for the research project?" "What did they find and how to report the results?", "What are the implications of the results?" "What did they personally learn from their research journey?" "Which hurdles did they encounter and how did they overcome those hurdles?"

It is obvious that policy intervention connected to research needs to be explained well, including how this relates to programs at the policy and strategic levels. This could be done in terms of answering the questions of “how” and “why”, and by addressing the best ways these could support the vibrant energetic, and excellent brains that are pragmatically, economically, arithmetically, and most importantly transformatively handling government programs at local, national, and strategic levels. 

Research should be translated into policy using simple language.

Research should be translated into policy using simple language. The moment you use extravagant words in policies that you could not easily break down into figures, such a policy is bound to have operational challenges. This is therefore an urgent call to strengthen central/regional publicity offices by providing young researchers' brains with support to perform good work in articulating great government policies through well-thought-out expert guidance. Such new ideas must be fully translated into policy strategies, their mode of operationalisation, and their measurable indicators for clarity to ordinary citizens.

A word of caution to young scholars in their pursuit of a successful academic career

It is worth noting that many young African scholars started on the academic journey of their publishing career through trial and error or through such collaborative networks gained by attending online conferences mostly during the pandemic. Since then, the sky has been the limit.

It is also worth noting that as these young scholars progress into their new fields, they should be concerned about "predatory" journals, with their unsolicited messaging, and gain confidence in identifying them, as their only motivation is to make money. Most often, such journals end up publishing almost anything submitted, without the usual rigorous scrutiny of the critical peer-review processes that have been the foundation of the scientific process. Many academics, given the pressure to publish, have fallen victim to this below-par scientific publishing enterprise. Adding to the challenges is that many scientists in the Global South have not learned the basics in relation to the overarching goal of academic publishing and the processes and strategies to achieve success.

Charles Kalinzi, PhD, is a Public Sector Procurement Specialist, a senior Teaching Fellow, and a post-doctoral researcher in the field of purchasing and supply chain management at the University of Portsmouth (UK) focusing on strategic procurement management. He holds an MBA (Management of Government Procurement) from the Maastricht School of Management (Netherlands), a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics degree from Makerere University (Uganda) and a Post Graduate Diploma in Education from Kyambogo University (Uganda).


First photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Second photo by James O. Isaacs, AuthorAID member.

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