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Video Conferencing Services for Scientists  

Image of a group of scientists communicating with collaborators via a video conference

Video conferencing software has rapidly gained popularity and will no doubt continue to be widely used. In this article, we will explore the features of several video conferencing platforms to help you choose the right one. But before considering which video conferencing platform is best for you, first consider why you’d want to use one.

Why Do You Need to Use a Video Conferencing Platform?

There are many reasons to use a video conferencing platform. Perhaps the most obvious is to collaborate with people in different locations. Science is a team sport, and your teammates are frequently not in the same place, or even in the same country. International collaboration is a fact of life when it comes to science. Conferencing platforms like Webex and Zoom make it easy to speak with and see others from anywhere with an internet connection. Video conferencing also allows multiple users to get on the same conference call at once in ways that are difficult, if not impossible, to do over the phone. Imagine multiple remote collaborators who need to have an impromptu meeting about a publication but only have the ability to conference over the phone (no video!). It would be very tricky to email the latest version and have the attendees comment verbally on edits with one poor soul trying to take notes. Compare that to using a video conferencing platform where one user can instantly display the manuscript for all to see and add edits in real time.

Another reason to use video conferencing platforms is to enable telework. Not all science is done in the lab. The ability to work remotely allows you to be productive when you need to be absent from the lab or office. With video conferencing, you can discuss results in a lab meeting or conduct a seminar from home. This can be convenient when you have to work from home, even for something as simple as signing for a package or letting the plumber in.

Some scientific roles are not lab based and can be done from anywhere. Think about hard-to-find talent, like bioinformaticists or medical writers. Video conferencing platforms allow you to find and work with fully remote employees who might not otherwise be available where your office or laboratory is based.

And finally, video conferencing lets you save those frequent flier miles for when it really matters. Not all meetings require you to meet face to face, especially when you have already met someone in person.

Why Not Just Email?

You might be wondering why bother with a fancy video conferencing platform when you can just send a bunch of emails. While email is certainly an important tool, it has several limitations:

  • Misunderstandings. A quick email lacks many of the social cues you get from hearing someone’s voice or seeing their body language and facial expressions. Written communication, especially when written quickly, can be misunderstood.
  • Communication lags. You send an email, then you start to do something else. The next thing you know, dozens more emails have filled your inbox, including the reply to the one you sent earlier. And of course, if you are corresponding with someone in a different time zone, you could be sending an email to someone who is sound asleep!
  • Impersonal connection. Video is a great way to establish a personal connection when remote. Many interactions, such as a job interview or an online class, benefit from seeing and hearing the other person.

Hopefully, we’ve convinced you of the many benefits of video conferencing platforms. Now let’s get into how to use them.

Tips for a Successful Teleconference

First, consider if a meeting is needed. While I listed the limitations of email earlier, nothing is worse than spending 45 minutes on something that could be solved with a quick two-paragraph email! However, if you really need to have a teleconference, here are some steps to follow:

  • Decide who needs to be on a call. Even video calls lack many social cues compared to conversing in person. On teleconferences, it is not uncommon for people to inadvertently speak over each other for this reason. Less is more when setting things up.
  • Consider time zones. Taking calls outside of normal business hours is a fact of life when working globally. For example, if you want to get colleagues from New York, Paris, and Shanghai on the phone at once, scheduling a call at 1 PM in New York is probably not going to work for your colleagues in China. World Time Buddy allows you to see what time it is across multiple times zones on particular dates, allowing you to schedule meetings at times suitable to everyone. It also takes into account daylight savings (which comes into effect on different dates, and some places don’t even do it).
  • Develop an agenda, and consider how much time is needed. You can only concentrate for so long on a single teleconference. You also need to allow time for the inevitable connection issues that can delay participants.
  • Assign a leader and be mindful of back-to-back meetings. A meeting leader can call on others to speak, initiate introductions, and keep the agenda moving. It is also helpful to end the call early if the participants have back-to-back meetings. You need time to prepare for the next meeting and for the occasional biobreak!

Considerations When Choosing a Video Conference Platform

The table below lists several video conference platforms. When choosing one, consider what you wish to accomplish with your teleconference. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Cost. Always a consideration, especially if you are using these for personal use.
  • Screen and File Sharing.
    • Screen sharing. You can share applications and your entire desktop.
    • File sharing. Some platforms are integrated with Microsoft or Google products and enable simple and secure file sharing.
  • Access.
    • The number of people on the call. Having the appropriate bandwidth and sound quality for the size of your audience is essential, as is the ability to “mute all” if you have a large audience who does not necessarily have to speak. You should also check if the platform imposes any restrictions on the number of attendees.
    • Geography. Consider whether the platform is available globally or only in certain regions.
  • Operating systems of all attendees. Attendees will likely have different operating systems and may even be on mobile devices instead of a computer. You will want to check if a specific application is required and if there are any limitations on browsers or operating systems.
  • Key features.
    • Security. If you are sharing privileged or sensitive information, you will want to maintain restricted access to the call using passwords and specific invites.
    • Recording capabilities and text-based commenting. If you want to replay or make the teleconference available for those who could not attend, look for a recording function. If there are numerous attendees, a text-based commenting section is a great way for the presenter to field questions.

The table below summarises some of the most popular video conferencing platforms.

 ZoomCisco Webex BlueJeans Skype Microsoft Teams
Cost Free and paid plans Free and paid plans Free trial; range of paid tiered plans Free and paid plans Integrated into Office 365; free and paid plans
Screen and file sharing Desktop and application sharing; whiteboard application

Desktop and application sharing; whiteboard application Desktop and application sharing Desktop and application sharing Desktop and application sharing
Access Up to 1000 participants and 49 on-screen videos; dial-in or VoIP 5–200 participants, depending on plan; dial-in or VoIP 25–100 participants Up to 50 participants; dial-in or VoIP Up to 300 participants; dial-in or VoIP
Operating system Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, and Android Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, and Android Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, and Android Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, and Android Windows 360
Key featuresSession recording; “mute all”; “raise hand” while muted; specific invites; meeting passwords Session recording; “mute all”; “raise hand” while muted; option to have Webex call you; specific invites; meeting passwords Option for associated hardware for room support; Dolby Voice; real-time screen capture; automated transcription Live subtitles; session recording Session recording

If you have experience with these or have others to suggest, leave a comment. We’d love to hear about them!

Image of a group of scientists communicating with collaborators via a video conference

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