Life as an Extreme Sport

Suggestions Forward for Science Online (“Where Do We Go From Here?”)

In the wake of Bora Zivkovic’s multiple resignations last week (amazing index here, if you were out on a research cruise and missed it), I was asked if I was going to participate in offering further advice or recommendations to Science Online, since I had been visible and vocal in my impression of what needed to happen. My silence on the blog, save to discuss the difference between con(vention) and con(ference), shouldn’t be read as disinclination to proffer my opinion, but the much more prosaic: holy fuck, I’m tired.

I also wanted to pull back and let other people have the conversation; science online is a community that I am (I would argue marginally) a part of, but the issue with Twitter and blogs is that sometimes the voices that are amplified are the ones that are most present, not the ones with the most thoughtful things to offer.

…okay, fine, and Maryn McKenna beat me to the punch, posting five recommendations for the science communication community to consider moving forward; I unreservedly support her suggestions. I also have a few more.

While I have emailed these suggestions to Karyn Traphagen, (per request), I am also listening them here because the very first suggestion I have is the most important one: transparency.

Right now, an awful lot of trust has been violated, and strange things happen to a community when your ability to trust is shaken. We navigate life based on trust, and we make a lot of decisions based on the very simple feeling of whether or not we trust something, or someone. In a lot of ways, trust is a limiting factor; it helps us make decisions because it automatically narrows down the choices available for us; we can discard many options because we have no trust in the person or the process associated with those options.

When emotional trust is broken,

our options become limitless, and we are paralyzed, not in fear, but in choice. We have no way of narrowing down the potentiality of an event/situation without the ability to trust. But we trust – or not – based on prior events, and to override those prior events that taught us that we cannot believe our instincts is something that can only be done on faith.

Above all else, this is probably the most threatening thing for Science Online right now: broken trust, and the threat of becoming stuck. Right now, the best way I can see towards overcoming broken trust and fear of “what if,” is to continue the very public and transparent discussions.

The rest of my suggestions can be broken down into those that are immediately applicable, and more generalized future changes. The one thing that I think must (yes, back to that word) happen for Science Online 2014 is that some sort of reporting/anti-harassment committee must be set up, easily identified in conference literature, and promoted to all members.

• Anti-harassment Committee – A committee of 5–7 (odd numbered) people should be assembled with the express purpose of being there to handle any harassment going on at the conference. This should be a diverse group of people; half of the group should commit to a single-year term and the other half should commit to a two-year term. Replacing half of the group next year, then, with new people who are also committing to two-year terms, should create an institutional memory, as well as remove concerns of cliquishness. These people should not be (or be related to) any conference organizer or board member.

Essentially, the idea here is for a group of people who are present on Twitter and eMail (likely via a single, shared Twitter and eMail handle) to be easily accessible if someone is feeling harassed. This group should determine whether or not someone is violating the Science Online anti-harassment policy, and have the authority to remove someone from the event, if necessary.

• Offer non-alcoholic socializing options – This has been amply discussed on Twitter, but I wanted to throw my endorsement behind it, as well. Right now, one of the things that blurs the line between convention and conference for Science Online is that the drinking appears officially endorsed. As has already been extensively discussed, clarifying the line between officially endorsed event and “event happening in conjunction with” would be useful. Removing the focus on evening drinking and creating more options would also, at least per Twitter feedback, give more introverted people chances to socialize on their terms.

• Have a buddy system for the opening night social – Partner up new attendees with old hands for the first night mixer, so that the newbies have someone to talk to, show them the rope, and help them get settled in. This is a several hour commitment at most, but would go a long way towards preventing groups of people clumped in corners at a science museum, not knowing anyone (as did happen in 2013). Having someone to go “hey Chad, have you met Allie?” will go a long way in helping newbies integrate, place Twitter handles to faces and names, and have familiar faces around over coffee the next morning. Plus, it’s just nice and helps to build community!

• Have a strong, clear harassment policy, and be willing to enforce it – Signing off on having read the Science Online sexual harassment policy should be required before allowing anyone, old or new, to register for Science Online 2014. While I was inclined to say that sexual harassment training should be mandatory, the reality is, that’s not possible on the scale the conference has grown to. However, resources are readily available online and for free; these should be prominently visible on the Science Online website, and people who are uncertain as to precisely what is harassment is–which is okay, not everyone has been through multiple iterations of harassment training from human resources–should be encouraged to view and take training videos without stigma or shame.


The other suggestions I have are likely more long-term, not implementable for Science Online 2014. I still think that they are important to include.

• Decide on the unconference – I’ve heard “it’s an unconference” associated with Science Online, but the reality is, by planning the majority of sessions ahead of time, SciO is not an unconference. Continuing to call it such creates an incorrect image of what people should expect. It’s one of those things that either needs to be fully embraced (which could be interesting) or fully dropped. Because of how planning has worked, and the fact that a small committee makes the choices on what presentations are ultimately available, it seems to me that “unconference” should be dropped for either con(vention) or conf(erence).

• Ditch the size limit – As many people have pointed out, limiting the size of Science Online creates an exclusionary atmosphere. Chad Orzel has had some great things to say about this, from pointing out that random registration times are difficult for those with jobs, families, and other obligations, to noting that because of the prominence Science Online appears to play in helping people get started in online/science communication–an event that helps shape careers–it cannot even have the appearance of being exclusionary. In fact, Orzel said it so well, I’m just going to quote him:

The problem is that #sciox seems to have become an important, even essential meeting for people getting started in online scicomm. If #sciox is going to have that kind of must-go-to-make-it role in community, the bar for inclusiveness has to be much higher. If #sciox is an event that shapes careers, it can’t also be or even appear to be an exclusive party for a select in-group.

I realize that conference centers are booked several years in advance, and a change of size will take time. But as Science Online continues to grow in popularity, and be seen as the place to attend to make connections (and a career!), it will be necessary to make sure that the conference grows proportionally. Not doing so, and making attendance based on a combination of opaque session suggestion acceptance, luck of the draw when registering on the internet, or literal luck of the draw with a lotto, creates different classes of people, and perpetuates the feeling of exclusivity.

Why is the path unclear,
When we know home is near.
Understand we’ll go hand in hand,
But we’ll walk alone in fear. (Tell me)
Tell me where do we go from here.


(With thanks to Eva Amsen, David Dobbs, Maryn McKenna, Nicholas Evans, Alice Dreger, Emily Willingham, Rose Eveleth, Karen James, David Shiffman, and oh, about 300 other people I’ve had what feels like almost on-stop Twitter and email discussions with this last week. While many of these people discussed these ideas with me and helped me refine them, if you take issue with anything, that’s my fault, and should be taken up with me.)


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