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Building a better scholarly communications system: Part two

June 3, 2020

This is part two of our interview with researchers Dr. Esther Ndumi Ngumbi (Assistant Professor from the Entomology Department and African American Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign) and Dr. Brian Lovett (Post-doctoral researcher in the Division of Plant and Soil Sciences at West Virginia University), both of whom are passionate about changing scholarly communications for the better. Read part one to discover what inspired the two researchers to agitate for improvements in the research and higher education system and where they think we should begin. In part two, Dr. Ngumbi and Dr. Lovett reimagine the traditional conference format and discuss whether the current health crisis will impact how science is communicated long-term.

Do you have any suggestions yourself for how the conference system can be improved?

Dr. Ngumbi
: I see many ways the system can be improved – firstly, by doing online presentations and opening them up to the public. That allows so many people to access your presentation so you can reach the people who are interested in your work. Secondly, trying to have an interdisciplinary approach to how we present. Rather than being a one-sided approach, where I'm just giving a presentation, how do we make it more of a conversation? Also, why do we have to wait for the end of the year to discuss research at a conference? Can we develop a way to consistently share what's going on?

We also have social media and amazing technology. How can we use technology to amplify presentations or present them in a way that is more more inviting to the public? The posters that we make, most of the time, are really boring. How can we incorporate graphic design to make posters so that even a 12-year-old kid can look and take away an understanding of the science? Scientists, we are so creative in our experiments, why haven't we been creative in our presentation approach? It's food for thought…

Dr. Lovett:
I agree that technology offers a wealth of opportunities to revamp the traditional conference format. I would echo Dr. Ngumbi’s sentiments about shifting the one-way flow of information toward a conversation. Change to scientific conferences have been for the most part incremental, such as the addition of a new kind of session or an app that holds the scientific program. There is room for bolder changes that open the doors for more to participate and reimagines the format of scientific sessions to be more dynamic, instead of trying to simply transition what has been done onto a video conference. These solutions will require us to revisit the goals of scientists having conferences: is it to build network of collaborators? To share new ideas? To have dialogue with the media and the public about important issues? Each discipline may have different goals in mind, but reconnecting with these will help with us imagine ways to leverage existing technology or develop new technology to meet these goals. 

What are some of the major challenges that you see researchers and higher education systems facing due to the COVID-19 health crisis?

Dr. Ngumbi
: First of all, it's a huge transition. Most of the universities were not really prepared for this moment and to move every class onto the web. I know a lot of us just took PowerPoints and went on to Zoom, but online classes are totally different. There's a lot of preparation that's needed before you can deliver a good class online, which has not yet happened. 

Secondly, as a research scientist, a lot of our experiments cannot be done on the web. I know there are several programs that try to offer actual labs, but having worked in the lab for many, many years, I just don't think that you can recreate a lab study on the net. So that's a big, big challenge.

Dr. Lovett
: The financial and job insecurity I described earlier is only exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. Teaching and research rely on gathering in person and shared spaces that are not compatible with social distancing. Many were thrown headlong into virtual teaching with little or no experience in the previous semester, with no end in sight at some universities. This existential threat to universities on multiple fronts must be met with steadfast leadership that articulates a clear plan to researchers and prospective students. Without long-term vision, support for bold new ideas, and the cultivation of virtual community students will continue to ponder the value of online learning. I fear that the tightening of university and governmental purse strings will lead to an exodus of talented scientists with few options to leverage their specific skills. This would be an incalculable loss to the global research enterprise and the communities these scientists serve.

Do you see any long-term positive changes in the scholarly communications system post COVID-19?

Dr. Ngumbi
: That's a good question. I think only time will tell, because I know it's human nature to just forget. I think some of the things that I've appreciated is that conferences, webinars, PhD defenses have moved online. So it's possible for me to tune in and listen to a student who is defending in Europe, or defending a physics-related topic. This interdisciplinary aspect and ability to connect to webinars that you're interested in should continue. And, as a lot of conferences are happening online this year, there will be a lot of surveys to see what people's experiences are, and whether this format works. So I think it's too early to tell what is likely to stay and what isn’t. 

If we are able to innovate and push a lot of lectures online, I think that will be really good for people or students that are in different corners of the world, especially in developing countries. I come from Kenya, I grew up in a rural village and I did not access a lab or enjoy science until I was in university. So if we are able to at least share basic education both online and offline, that would open up education as a whole. Also, for people with disabilities; if we are able to ensure that they get materials and do not need to come to class, when there are all these other challenges they face, why can‘t they just do their classes at home? These are areas where I see the potential for positive change – for people with challenges, disabilities, and people who do not have access to all the resources, like the developing countries.

Dr. Lovett:
It is too early to tell if this few-month experience has changed the trajectory of scientific communication. However, there has been a willingness, out of necessity, for people to attend events virtually, including seminars, degree defenses and even entire conferences. I hope this culture continues to flourish for those reasons Dr. Ngumbi mentioned above, particularly to increase accessibility to scientific information. I would like to see more scientific societies embracing virtual conferences, by retooling their business model to be resilient to this new normal, and technology companies working together to design resources for to enhance virtual science. If the right companies worked together, virtual conferences could one day offer live translation across multiple languages and instant sharing of protocols, data and papers. This is a tumultuous time, and I will remain optimistic that our new normal will be better than the last.

Image credit:
Leo Reynolds

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