A good deal of the work of scholarly communication involves facilitating communities. Researchers and those who support them facilitate disciplinary communities, interdisciplinary communities, data communities, professional communities (including our own Society for Scholarly Publishing), and standards communities, among others. 

In this sudden shift to working from home and virtualized operations, some of the ways in which communities come together are suspended. Conferences in particular are largely cancelled for the next several months. Those with major lines of business in events are faced with much uncertainty. Already, O’Reilly has decided to cancel all “in-person conferences and close down this portion of our business.” In the scholarly publishing sector, the parent corporations of Elsevier and Taylor & Francis both have global businesses in events, which are surely suffering as well.

But there are opportunities as well. For example, there are a number of reports of growing meaningful engagement in virtual communities, including those that support various kinds of professional networking as well as preprint communities. A variety of tools make it possible for incumbent facilitators to engage communities virtually. Additionally, new players are stepping in to facilitate communities virtually, when they are at risk of being neglected through traditional means by pre-existing facilitators. 

Recognizing the importance of community engagement, but also some of the challenges facing traditional forms of engagement and incumbent facilitators, I asked several Chefs to reflect on how one facilitates a community amidst today’s crisis. I am grateful to Alice and Robert, who have contributed some reflections on this important topic. We look forward to hearing what others might have to say on this topic as well. 

graphic representing digital marketing

Alice Meadows

Engaging with your community is a critical part of every marketing and communications team’s work — but doing so meaningfully, especially during times of crisis, can be quite challenging, especially if you’re not a subject matter expert yourself (which many of us are not). In many communities, at least some of this work is typically done in person, most notably at specialist conferences, which can bring together thousands or even tens of thousands of attendees to learn from each other, share and get feedback on their research findings, catch up with old friends and colleagues, meet new ones, and more. Other communities work mainly remotely — for example, my own world of research infrastructure and standards featured multiple online meetings of working groups and committees every day, backed up by virtual conversations on Slack, collaborations via Google docs, etc., long before the current COVID-19 outbreak. So, with everyone now scrambling to follow suit, how do you build your own online community, brick by virtual brick?

First, more than ever, it’s important to think carefully about what you want to say to your community and why. If you’ve been paying attention to your community offline, then you should have the advantage of being seen as an organization they can trust online too — so don’t betray that trust. That means providing people with information that they genuinely need and will value, especially at a time when they are already being bombarded with marketing and communications from a multitude of other sources. So don’t try and market to your community, but instead use all the tools at your disposal to listen to and understand what they are interested in or concerned about, and respond accordingly. Are they looking for advice? Then connect them with your experts. Do they have training requirements? Look at what’s out there already, make some recommendations  and, if there’s a clear unmet need, this is a great time to address it virtually. Do they need help communicating with each other? Find ways to make it easier for them. And so on… 

Next, what do you know about how your community currently works and interacts digitally? While there’s no doubt that online collaboration and meeting tools like Google, Slack, and Zoom are essential, you do need to make sure you choose the right ones for your community. For example, in the tech/startup/infrastructure world, most people are very comfortable using Slack (even if we all complain about the proliferation of Slack workspaces), but for other communities something more “traditional” may be more appropriate — a Google group or simple email list. Opinions about video conferencing are often also divided but, even if you have previously avoided turning your camera on, now is a good time to reconsider. Seeing who you’re engaging with makes communication so much more personal (and productive — you’re more likely to stay focused if you know you can see and be seen!), so lead by example!

Social media also has an important role to play here so, if you don’t already have a presence, now’s the time to invest in developing one. Again, make sure you choose the right channels for your community. Twitter and (to a lesser extent) LinkedIn are obvious choices, but don’t forget that they may not be appropriate — or even available — for all demographics. Make sure you strike the right tone in your messaging, and the right balance between proactively reaching out to your community and listening and reacting to what they have to say. You may also want to think about which language(s) you use for your social media engagement. If you’re a global organization, you’re probably primarily — or even exclusively — using English. But imagine how much your multilingual community would appreciate you making an effort to use other languages. Compared with translating other types of information, it’s not difficult to tweet/retweet in other languages, so identify your multilingual staff members and get them involved in engagement efforts. It’s a great development opportunity for them, as well as a big help to you.

Last, but not least, take a leaf from some of the communities that have been engaging successfully online for years. You probably already have some in mind, but a few favorites from my own world include FORCE11, Metadata 2020, and the PID Forum. They each take a somewhat different approach, but all use a mix of engagement tools to ensure they are inclusive and welcoming of everyone, as well as being great sources of (free!) information. So sign up today and learn a thing or two from the experts!

Robert Harington

What can membership societies do to provide support and resources for society members as we all adapt to remote working and self-isolation?

A society will want to consider ensuring that remote access to content for institutional users is enabled and provided without technical barriers. Many societies that publish are also providing certain free resources, and are generating special sales for e-books.

Society members of course are students, instructors, and researchers. Groups such as my society, The American Mathematical Society (AMS), are assembling ideas and resources to help with transitioning to online teaching. For example, at the AMS, we compiled the best resources we could find for practical strategies to help educators plan and run courses, including web-based resources for a deeper dive into assessment, learning activities, and other aspects of online instruction. There are a range of resources about online instruction that are more useful to parents, including those at the American Astronomical Society, American Association of Physics Teachers, and American Geophysical Union. In Congress, the House Science Committee has shared a list of STEM education resources from various science groups and agencies. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has highlighted supplemental teaching resources ranging from coding platforms to citizen-science tools. Scientific societies have also posted resources online. NASA has suggestions, ideas, resources. Other agencies will post too; check their websites for materials.

Researchers worried about current, or pending federal grants, or planning to submit a grant in coming months can look to Federal Funding Agencies for help. For example, they can turn to the guidance on NSF’s implementation of OMB Memorandum M-20-17, entitled, “Administrative Relief for Recipients and Applicants of Federal Financial Assistance Directly Impacted by the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) due to Loss of Operations”. Useful guidance from agencies more generally may be found at the Council on Government Relations site.

One piece of useful information t for students is that the Federal government is saying that borrowers with federally held student loans will automatically have their interest rates set to 0% for a period of at least 60 days. Borrowers will also have the option to suspend payments for at least two months

Another interesting development is that the Association of American of Universities (AAU) and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) together with other higher education groups sent a letter to the US Department of State seeking guidance regarding visa policy and processes for international researchers and students in the U.S. during the COVID-19 closures. The letter also requests clarification regarding procedures for processing visa applications for new student admissions. 

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is the vice president of organizational strategy for ITHAKA and of Ithaka S+R’s libraries, scholarly communication, and museums program. Roger leads a team of subject matter and methodological experts and analysts who conduct research and provide advisory services to drive evidence-based innovation and leadership among libraries, publishers, and museums to foster research, learning, and preservation. He serves as a Board Member for the Center for Research Libraries. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Alice Meadows

Alice Meadows

I am a Co-Founder of the MoreBrains Cooperative, a scholarly communications consultancy with a focus on open research and research infrastructure. I have many years experience of both scholarly publishing (including at Blackwell Publishing and Wiley) and research infrastructure (at ORCID and, most recently, NISO, where I was Director of Community Engagement). I’m actively involved in the information community, and served as SSP President in 2021-22. I was honored to receive the SSP Distinguished Service Award in 2018, the ALPSP Award for Contribution to Scholarly Publishing in 2016, and the ISMTE Recognition Award in 2013. I’m passionate about improving trust in scholarly communications, and about addressing inequities in our community (and beyond!). Note: The opinions expressed here are my own

Robert Harington

Robert Harington

Robert Harington is Chief Publishing Officer at the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Robert has the overall responsibility for publishing at the AMS, including books, journals and electronic products.


3 Thoughts on "Community Engagement Amidst a Crisis"

Thank you. This topic is critical to the future of membership organizations.

Scholarly societies add value by making available the infrastructure that allows their members to nurture and evaluate professional reputations. Without physical meetings, this job becomes much harder.

But, even BC V.2 (Before Corona) it was apparent that scholarly societies needed to rethink their reputation management infrastructure to make it more granular, accountable, transparent and standards-based.

Below are example links illustrating how one professional society (ESIP) is making a start in this direction by recognizing program committee contributions:


Richard Wynne – Rescognito

I am proud to say that Wiley launched an online customer community over a year ago for our entire customer base, and this community has now become even more important for keeping in touch with our customers/research partners to determine their struggles during this crisis and how Wiley can help them on a real time basis.

About 40 chief executives who are members of Fortune’s CEO Initiative gathered virtually yesterday for a discussion of how to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. One of the key takeaways is that the need for community is more important than ever, but the crisis is inspiring new digital methods for nurturing community that won’t go away. This observation ties in neatly with Alice’s comment about growing meaningful engagement in virtual communities, including those that support various kinds of professional networking as well as preprint communities. As an international scholar (Australia), it’s difficult for me to attend the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology conference each year in person BUT I’d love to interact more often in a virtual community with other org psychs. Check out Zapnito as an option for virtual communities for societies. They’ve helped societies such as FEBS and academic scholars such as Springer and Elsevier create virtual communities for their members and audiences.

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