February 5, 2021

Supporting Open Research Communities During COVID

Supporting Open Research Communities During COVID

Emily Lescak, Robin Champieux (Oregon Health and Science University), Meag Doherty (Open Life Science and Tech, Rebalanced), Ted Laderas (Oregon Health and Science University), Samuel Guay (University of Montreal), Erin Robinson (Metadata Game Changers LLC), Isil Poyraz Bilgin (University of Reading)

The pandemic has impacted open research communities that rely on in-person events to build and engage members. In open research, the shift to online interactions has resulted in the rapid growth of virtual communities and an increased desire to openly share tools and practices. Open research community leaders are experimenting with a range of approaches to welcome and engage their members, including community calls, virtual hackathons, training and conferences.

Despite the increased challenges of working virtually, community leaders still want to welcome diverse participants, cultivate inclusive and accessible communities and events, and create open products. Our JROST panel discussion welcomed both new and seasoned open research community members and leaders to share how they have transitioned their community engagement online, onboarded new members, acquired funding, and stayed up-to-date on best practices in event planning and community sustainability, with an emphasis on inclusion and accessibility.

During our session, we explored several scenarios that community leaders may have experienced over the last year. We discussed challenges that were experienced in each situation and shared resources that have been helpful in overcoming them.

🎭 Scenario 1

I launched my open source community early this year and am struggling to build momentum. I have a vision for my project but am missing the processes to onboard new members and keep them engaged. After all, I am one person right now.

Starting a new community during COVID is not ideal. We recognize the difficulty in getting people to collaborate when they can’t meet face to face and are juggling life and work responsibilities. It is important to calibrate your expectations and try to lower the activation energy to participation by finding easy ways for people to contribute. We recommend getting to know your community members’ goals and how they want to spend their time. You can model the type of collaborative behavior that you hope to cultivate in your community. Cross-community interactions can generate more attention toward your community and allow you to identify overlapping values in the community ecosystem and work toward common goals.  

🎭 Scenario 2

We’ve decided to host our first online event. There are many checklists and blog posts on how to do this successfully but my time and resources are very limited. I am not sure how to get inclusion and accessibility right with limited resources.

When hosting your first online event, it is important to find ways for people to contribute and make connections rather than just passively listening to content. Effective use of Zoom breakouts and facilitation techniques like Liberating Structures or shared notes allow for more engaged participants. While Zoom breakouts can engage your community, it’s important to remind participants of the code of conduct, the ‘Ask for help’ button and to identify if they would prefer not to be put into a breakout (i.e. rename with a symbol in front so the host knows to leave out). If your members live in multiple time zones, try to plan your schedule so that there are both synchronous and asynchronous opportunities for engagement. Also bear in mind that events tend to have many more attendees when they are online rather than in-person and that it can be harder to focus during daylong online events than in-person events. Make sure there are enough breaks throughout the event schedule to provide flexibility for attendees with additional duties (e.g. caregiving, full-time jobs).  Codes of conduct should be adapted for online interactions and members of the organizing committee should be trained in how to uphold the code of conduct. Some good examples of online codes of conduct include Mozilla, OpenCon, and R Ladies Global. We recommend recruiting a diverse group of organizers and assigning each person a specific role, e.g. tech support, conveners, scheduling, advertising.

To make your event accessible, ask participants about their accessibility requirements in advance. This question could be included on the registration form, with potential options such as closed captioning, translation, interpretation, large print, or advance copies of materials. Arrange for translation, closed captioning, or interpretation as needed; be sure to plan in advance and provide materials to translators and interpreters ahead of time. Also ask participants how they will be connecting to the event and provide both web- and telephone-access instructions. Provide instructions on how to use the platform in advance and consider hosting a time for participants to drop in and explore the platform ahead of time or providing a video tutorial. If possible, provide recorded materials during/after the event, with appropriate consent from attendees and presenters, to allow for more flexible and asynchronous participation opportunities. Lastly, make sure that your website and materials are accessible by checking them against Web Accessibility Guidelines.

🎭 Scenario 3

My funding has dramatically decreased this year. Normally, I meet people at conferences and local meetups, and online events are not great for informal discussions. I’m not sure where to make new connections and ask for funding.

Community leaders may be voicing concerns about reduced access to funding, particularly from philanthropy. As a result, you might want to consider planning for a smaller operating budget.

There are also open source tools like Patreon and Open Collective that allow community members to feature their work to a targeted audience interested in raising funds.

Community leaders might look towards like-minded organizations to co-host events and share some of the expenses. In addition to traditional fundraising, community leaders could also seek out in-kind donations. Examples include access to video conferencing tools, sign language interpreters, and mailing cost to cover shipping “swag” to attendees.

Making new connections needs intentional effort when you aren’t meeting people serendipitously in person. If you are able, staying for Zoom breakouts or meeting virtual coffee breaks are ways to establish new connections. Post-event activities, such as writing collaborative papers, blog posts, or guidelines together with event attendees, might also provide a way to sustain and develop connections, while the products of collaborative work help to share experiences with the greater community. Connections can be made by following people on Twitter or LinkedIn or connecting through event or organizational Slack channels. If you appreciated a talk or paper or have a question, follow-up to engage. These are lightweight, low stakes and won’t require additional Zoom or telecon time. These virtual connections can result in real connections when you are back in person and run into someone you follow on Twitter.

🔗 Community Engagement Resources

👏 Acknowledgements

We thank the organizers of JROST as well as the attendees of our session for their valuable contributions. Many of the accessibility recommendations stemmed from a discussion led by Serah Rono for Event Fund grantees.