Analysing the effectiveness of Twitter as an equitable community communication tool for international conferences

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Scientific conferences increasingly include online aspects. Some are moving to be entirely virtual whilst others are adopting hybrid models in which there are both in-person and virtual elements. This development of opportunities for people to attend conferences virtually has the potential to both reduce their environmental impact and to make access to them more equitable. An issue with virtual conference participation that has been raised, however, is that there is a reduction in informal communication between attendees. This is an important deficit as informal contacts play a significant role in both knowledge transmission and professional network development. One forum where some informal communication around conferences does occur is Twitter, with participation there being encouraged by some conferences. It is not clear, however, how effective Twitter is as a community communication tool in terms of equitable participation amongst conference attendees. To investigate this, we looked at Twitter usage surrounding four international conferences between 2010 and 2021. It was found that engagement with conference hashtags increased steadily over time, peaking in 2019. Users represented 9% of conference attendees and were primarily located in Europe and North America, communicating primarily in English (97% of tweets). Hub nodes within the interaction network were also primarily located in these regions. East Asia had fewer users than would be expected based on neuroscience publication numbers from that region. What users there were in East Asia were engaged with less than were users in other regions. It was found that the overall interaction network showed a rich-club structure, where users with more connections tend to interact more with others with similar connection numbers. Finally, it was found that users in Europe and North America tend to communicate with other users in their own regions whereas users in the rest of the world direct their interactions out of their region. These results suggest that although conference-related Twitter use has been successful to some degree in opening up access, there are some notable limitations in its usage that may mirror aspects of inequality inherent to in-person conferences. How to build equitable informal communication networks around virtual conferences remains a challenging question that requires further discussion.

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