This blog post - written by Shruthi Venkatesh, JSTOR Labs Innovation Fellow - is part of a series that reflects on the experiences of scholarly society leaders who participated in the "Future of Scholarly Meetings" cohort. The Future of Scholarly Meetings was a collaboration between Ithaka S+R and JSTOR Labs.
In Summer 2023, Innovation Fellows at JSTOR Labs revisited the work that had been done on the Future of Scholarly Meetings, in collaboration with Ithaka S+ R. This past year of collaborative work sessions with representatives from 17 academic societies resulted in a Design Jam. This session led to the generation of a couple paper prototypes of websites that would address the pain points of organizing and hosting academic conferences in virtual and/or hybrid formats. We sought to further ideate on this existing work through our fellowship. We brought in the voices of early career scholars, who comprise a major user base at academic society members and conferences, and whose voices had not been included in the project yet.
What did early career scholars have to share about their experiences at academic conferences?
We first interviewed 5 early career scholars, including graduate students, postdocs, and individuals within three years of their graduate degrees, to understand their experiences relating to conference attendance. All scholars we spoke to had attended at least one virtual conference and had experience presenting at conferences. The scholars expressed that the primary reason they attend conferences is to build a professional network and hopefully become part of an academic community. Additionally, they spoke about the financial burden of funding conference attendance, acknowledging that "conferences are an expensive commitment!" A couple scholars also faced challenges learning about upcoming conferences in their disciplines due to a lack of centralized sources of information.
In February, April, and June of 2022, team members from JSTOR Labs and Ithaka S+R hosted focus group sessions with representatives of academic societies, and facilitated in-depth conversations about the goals, challenges, and financial considerations of hosting conferences in various formats (in-person, hybrid and virtual).
In our analyses as Summer Fellows in 2023, we aimed to explore the overlap of experiences and pain points between the previously interviewed society representatives in 2022 and the early career scholars we interviewed recently. We found that both groups highlighted similar pain points, including the lack of engagement and participation, as well as limited spontaneous networking opportunities in virtual and hybrid conference formats.
What ideas were generated in the Design Jam with academic society representatives?
There were two paper prototypes that emerged during the Design Jam with members from academic societies in late 2022. We collected initial feedback on wireframes of the paper prototypes from the early career scholars. The first idea entailed developing a platform for scholars across disciplines to share their research in 5 minutes or less, with the option to either host a live session or upload a pre-recorded video of their poster or talk. Scholars expressed apprehensions about low engagement in these presentations and concerns about plagiarism if their academic work "lives on" in this virtual space. Considering this feedback and the highly competitive market for platforms that already host poster sessions for conferences, we decided to shelve this idea for now.
The second idea was a service that connects scholars across disciplines to engage in 15-minute virtual chats with each other based on matching criteria to help foster community building. The early career scholars revealed delight in this concept, with one participant stating, "I’d have loved to use something like this, especially in the earlier years of graduate school." Given that there is a dearth of such a service for academics, apart from formal mentor-mentee programs for senior and junior scholars (organized by academic societies or graduate programs), we decided to proceed with the development of this idea, called "Mixer.ly."
What is the defensibility of Mixer.ly?
Over the next couple weeks, we spoke to another 5 early career scholars, 1 prospective graduate student and 2 academic society organizers to further understand the needs and business modeling considerations for Mixer.ly. This involved showing users our built-out prototype of Mixer.ly, getting feedback, and working through cost-revenue analysis.
The value add for a service like Mixer.ly was reinstated through all the interviews we conducted, especially given the potential for it to be an “evergreen '' service, or outlast the duration of a specific academic conference. One scholar described it as “dating for scientists, it’s very cool.” Moreover, a service like Mixer.ly could provide a space to build an academic community, given the current tumult at Twitter, and by extension, academic Twitter.
We spent a considerable amount of time thinking through the defensibility of Mixer.ly from a business standpoint. We envision Mixer.ly to be a fruitful and reciprocal partnership with academic societies. We expect that societies could serve as revenue sources, platforms for marketing, and to facilitate connections to scholars using their existing databases. In return, societies will have access to meta-data on members and connections made through Mixer.ly, and also have a chance to advertise their upcoming conferences, which relates to a pain point illuminated earlier about a lack of centralized information.
What are the recommended next steps moving forward?
One potential revenue stream worth exploring is approaching graduate program admissions offices to gauge their interest in having an ambassador connect with prospective graduate students on Mixer.ly. We also recommend conducting further research to understand the budgets and varying needs of academic societies, considering their different sizes and disciplines. That said, we believe in the imminent need and intangible return on investment Mixer.ly offers, based on our work through this project. Therefore, it would be beneficial to proceed with the development and beta testing of Mixer.ly to gather more accurate feedback on its utility.
– Shruthi Venkatesh, Innovation Fellow