Digital Access to APS Meetings: Serving our Overseas Members in the Information Age

Karsten M. Heeger

Email, the worldwide web, and social media have revolutionized our lives. Political and historical events are now shaped by access to electronic communication, and media coverage of world news comes in real time. We expect to be able to "Google" an event as soon as it happens anywhere in the world. Electronic communication, the dissemination of information in realtime, and the archiving of information on the web have fundamentally transformed society. Recent studies have shown that our brains adapt to the change in the way we deal with, share, and store information. Memorizing facts is nowadays less important than the ability to multitask and sort through streams of information. Why would this be different in science and research? And how does it change physics and meetings in physics?

Academia has traditionally progressed at a much slower pace. Information was exchanged at conferences, in the form of letters written amongst colleagues, and through journal articles photocopied and mailed to colleagues. Access to libraries and printed journals was key to scientific success. However, electronic pre-prints, web-based archives, and the electronic publication and distribution of journal articles now define the information flow. Digital technologies provide easy access to information in science and many areas of life. In its 20-year history the well-known pre-print arXive has become one of the most popular sources and archives for research information in high-energy and particle physics.

International collaborations and research across borders have always been part of physics research but are now common in many subfields of physics; large experimental projects such as collider physics have long relied on the collaboration of scientists around the globe. It comes to no surprise that the World Wide Web and many digital information technologies were pioneered by high-energy physicists to solve the problems of distributed sharing, archiving, and access to information. The digital revolution of the past decade has inspired FIP and the APS Committee of International Affairs (CISA) to consider options and opportunities for how to better serve APS members overseas in the information age.

The American Physical Society is one of the largest professional physical societies. A large fraction of physicists worldwide have worked at one point or another in their career in the U.S. and have been members of the APS. Nearly 25% of non-student APS members live currently overseas. This is an astonishing number for a national professional society. The fraction of overseas scientists who have been APS members at some point in their career and let their membership expire must be even higher. My own research activities have taken me to Japan, China, Taiwan, Italy, and Canada, and for many scientists like myself a 10-minute contributed talk at an APS meeting was their first conference experience in the U.S. – and the start of a career in physics.

The APS and its Office of International Affairs are continuously working to develop international relations within the mission of the APS and enhance services for their international members and those living outside of the United States. Travel grants and lectureship programs, international conferences, the network of APS friends overseas, as well as programs for physicists in developing countries have traditionally been the focus of the APS international program. Over the last few years the international activities of the APS have continued to grow and efforts are underway to include an international perspective into APS advisory committees.

In early 2011 CISA together with FIP started an initiative to evaluate and test digital meeting technologies for use at APS conferences. The goal of this initiative is to explore options for increasing online access to speakers‟ presentations at the Society‟s meetings and aid in the electronic dissemination of information presented and discussed at APS meeting. Our goal is to enable physicists to share their work using modern technologies, allow them to engage in scientific discourse that meets the standards and demands of the information age, and help develop the international reach of the APS. Ultimately, all of this will help increase the relevance of APS meetings in the physics community.

Electronic archives of conference talks as well as the recording of video and audio sound have become the standard at many scientific conferences and meetings. In particle physics we cannot imagine a conference without electronic access to the talks presented. The opportunities and possibilities offered by virtual conference access are numerous: Research results can be disseminated worldwide in realtime. Conference participation is extended to researchers who cannot travel to the meeting. The meeting‟s carbon footprint is reduced while increasing participation and scientific exchange. Young scientists share and distribute their research in economical ways, and we can build scientific relationships with colleagues without limitations of travel funds. The electronic conference record also becomes an invaluable resource for scientists across the globe including countries in the developing world. A well-done digital conference experience has the potential to transform the way we engage physicists worldwide in the same way email and the World Wide Web have changed our daily lives. By providing a state of-the-art conference experience we have the opportunity to define the professional meeting experience of physics in the 21st century while enhancing membership services to APS members.

At the 2011 April Meeting in Anaheim, California, CISA organized and conducted a trial of the usefulness and acceptance of online presentations. The effort was supported and advertised by FIP and the various divisions represented at the April Meeting. We provided online access to slides and presentation materials from a selection of sessions representing a diverse audience and a wide range of interests. Topics ranged from a historical perspective of particle physics (Weinberg), recent results at the Large Hadron Collider (Spiropulu), to presentations on nuclear arms control (Davis), and policy issues in research and education (Wieman).

INDICO, a user-driven, web-based digital integrated conference system developed by CERN, was used to upload and distribute electronic versions of the conference talks. The response was overwhelming: The talks posted online totaled close to 40,000 page hits. Every APS plenary talk was downloaded more than a thousand times, and we received numerous requests for talks that were not posted. The number of downloads often far exceeded the number of people present in the session hence increasing the exposure of talks. A web survey accompanying this test trial was used to collect and evaluate the response of meeting participants. Nearly 70% of all respondents felt that access to online conference material would enhance their research and professional development. Amongst senior respondents 80% found that this would be useful for the junior members they work with. The responses indicate that posting talks would be a substantial benefit to the APS membership, and many feel that this is long overdue.

I personally received many emails from APS members who could not attend the meeting who wished that additional talks had been posted. The feedback collected in this trial also demonstrated that people expect more than just the written, archival record of talks and slides. Audio and video were requested specifically for talks on historical topics or policy issues and a fair fraction of respondents indicated that having slides combined with audio or video would be most important. The test trial showed that the combined experience of written material, video, and sound, with perhaps even an interactive aspect is what defines an integrated conference experience in the digital age. The information and statistics gathered in this trial is now being analyzed and will be available to guide the long-term planning in the APS for providing online access to future APS meetings.

As the Chair of the APS Committee of International Scientific Affairs I am excited about the opportunity to work with FIP, its members, and the rest of the APS to develop new ways to better serve the international APS members. The pilot to post talks from the April Meeting online was a success. APS is now developing plans for making conference materials from future APS Meetings available online, and I am thrilled to see the benefit for APS members overseas and younger colleagues who are unable to attend the conferences.

Karsten Heeger is a member of the physics faculty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and Chairs the APS Committee of International Scientific Affairs

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on International Physics Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.