Keeping in touch during a pandemic

Springer Nature Group
By: Alice Henchley, Thu Oct 8 2020

How Nature Research editors are staying in touch with their academic communities

In 2019, Nature Research editors attended over one thousand conferences, gave 680 presentations and made 580 lab visits, not only representing their journals professionally, but also building their networks of active researchers and immersing themselves in the latest  developments in their fields. As labs and offices around the world have closed down, conferences have been shelved or moved online, and the ability to travel internationally (or even domestically) has dwindled, it has become increasingly difficult or even impossible for editors – and indeed the entire academic community - to engage in the same way this year.

Canvassing our editors, we’ve found that they have all sought to  remain immersed in their communities, establishing different ways to develop their networks, meet new researchers, hear about new research and, where appropriate, provide insights into their journals to lab groups. Here are some of their stories:

Stu Cantrill - Chief Editor of Nature Chemistry 

KIT Stu © Springer Nature
The day after the UK officially went into COVID-19 lockdown, I tweeted about going for a run. It had been a few days since schools had closed and I was glad to get out of the house. L.-C. Campeau (LC), who is Head of Process Chemistry and Discovery Process Chemistry at Merck & Co., Inc. in the US replied to say that he'd been working remotely for a few weeks at that point and that he needed some more people interaction – 'FaceTime beer anyone?', he asked.

A few days later, six of us got together for a virtual hangout, chatting about coronavirus, chemistry and lots of other stuff besides. I tweeted about it afterwards saying it had worked pretty well and then LC followed up by tweeting a picture of his iPad with the 6 of us on the screen. I then suggested on Twitter that we'd do some more of them, and it turns out that a bunch of other people wanted in on the act.

We've now done more than 50 of these social-isolation socials (as we call them) and they even have their own hashtag: #SocialIsolationSocial! Each one usually lasts around 2–3 hours (although I think the record is 5-and-a-half!). Anyone is welcome, although it helps to have some sort of chemistry background as that is often (but not always) the focus of conversation. We've spoken with people at all stages of their careers: undergrads, grad students, postdocs, assistant profs, full profs (including at least a couple of department heads and one Nobel Prize winner), as well as individuals who work outside of academia in other industries such as publishing and the pharmaceutical sector. Participants have called in from all round the globe, from Argentina to New Zealand - so far, we've chatted with more than 240 different people from more than 30 different countries.

It's been a great (and informal) way to stay connected to the wider chemistry community and to meet new people (and some old friends). It's been a very positive experience and if anybody reading this wants to join one of these socials, please send me (@stuartcantrill) or LC (@DrLCsquare) a DM on Twitter!

Michael White - Senior  Editor  at Nature 

KIT Michael © Springer Nature
When COVID-19 hit and all work activities outside of manuscripts came to a screeching halt, I started to feel cut-off from the communities I serve. Thinking through the possibilities, I figured that, although many scientists were now buried under a mountain of remote teaching, Zoom school, and everything else, some might welcome the chance, during incredibly dark times, to engage.  

So I reached out on twitter with a couple of ideas. First, I offered to conduct virtual lab visits. Normally these are a chance for editors to give a short “Publishing With Nature” presentation and to chat with the research community about exciting projects, upcoming missions, or concerns about the journal. I had no idea how this would work remotely, but to my delight, several groups either invited me to present, or asked for small-group discussions. I accepted everything and to my enormous shock, found that (at least from my perspective), the remote

visits were almost as effective as the in-person versions. As an added bonus, the remote version provides the opportunity to simultaneously visit all members of a research team spread out across multiple continents, or to reach a regional chapter of a national organization. 

Second, and with no small amount of trepidation, I solicited review articles, again via twitter. Editors at Nature are allowed to see through to publication roughly two reviews per year, so I was worried that I’d be inundated with submissions, many of which I would have to decline. To be sure, there were a lot of inquiries. Some weren’t a good match for Nature, but were ultimately transferred to another journal within the Nature family, which the authors hopefully saw as a positive outcome. I’m happy to report that a few others are at various stages of development. Quite possibly I’ll go over my review budget, but that’s a problem I can live with!

I still deeply miss the personal interactions with scientists, not least because many of the best papers I’ve handled arose from something like, “Hey Mike, do you have a minute for a quick chat?” One of my recent favorites, on an ancient rainforest in Antarctica, came to Nature after a five-minute discussion at a bus stop. But the remote visits and interactions on social media are proving a key way of staying in touch, and are opening as many doors as have been closed by the pandemic. 

Heike Langenberg - Chief Editor of Communications Earth & Environment

KIT Stu © Springer Nature
In February 2020, I left my role as Chief Editor of Nature Geoscience and took up a new position as Chief Editor of Communications Earth & Environment, in charge of launching this brand new journal. In March, lockdowns hit around the world, travel was banned and conferences cancelled. Starting up a journal is all about communication: understanding community standards, requirements and aspirations is key to success. Most valuable are often informal conversations over a drink. So when face-to-face meetings with scientists became impossible overnight, I was devastated. 

But just as birds have filled the void left by the hum of motor vehicle traffic in our lockdown world, we hastened to open up alternative channels of communication. We accelerated activity on our newly started Twitter channel @CommsEarth. We could not approach scientists after their talk at a conference, to flag our interest. Instead we highlighted just-published papers that piqued our interest on Twitter on an almost daily basis, and tagged the authors. 

Disappointing as it was not to be able to mingle and debate at the European Geosciences Union annual meeting in Vienna as usual, we reached out to participants in a blogpost, calling to protect those who are vulnerable, find out more about the challenges of early career researchers in lockdown (and use our voice to amplify these issues) and connect without clocking up airmiles. 

Instead of discussing alternatives to the established peer-review procedures in person, we put out a survey (open until 15 Oct 2020) to explore perceptions around making double blind peer review (where authors as well as reviewers are anonymous) the default, rather than an opt-in.

Rather than visiting a few select institutions, we will be presenting to early career researchers online, with tips for writing and publishing papers, and for navigating peer review efficiently – allowing many more interested people to participate whether or not they work where we happen to visit. 

The diversity of the people we can reach has grown as we have moved to more extensive online communication. Even once face-to-face meetings are possible again, we will continue to keep all channels open.

KIT Stu © Springer Nature
And Yang Xia (Ruby), Senior Editor at Nature,gives us some insight into how things may operate around the world in future…

As the pandemic in China has diminished, I’ve once again been able to arrange a number of physical lab visits in China, including at Peking University, Tsinghua University, University of Internal Businesses and Economics and Xiamen University, all of which have a particular interest in social science and economic research. One key common feature for these lab visits post-lockdown is that these physical talks are now normally combined with online talk, allowing those who are not on campus to attend. This has also proved to be an effective way to maximize the number of attendees who otherwise might not be able to join due to the room capacity. During the visits at Tsinghua and Peking University, there were over 600 in-person and online attendees for a single talk, which would not have been possible for a traditional physical lab visit. Whilst this inevitably requires more organization and preparation, it allows for much more feedback and questions. As the talk attendees online may come from different disciplines and even other institutes, the questions are more diverse than before, stepping away from specific research or publishing questions to topics such as the role of Nature in assisting policy-making.  I’ve also received some honest questions that I doubt would be asked during physical talks, which I hope make these sessions more valuable for everyone involved.    

For annual peer review week, we chose to return to online to deliver a webinar on peer review at Nature, organized by the Nature Research team in Shanghai. Along with promotion on our own social media network Wechat account, we collaborated with Sci-think,  a scientific news platform on Wechat, to reach a greater number of audiences. The online nature of the event, combined with the wider promotion, gave us a more diverse audience from different disciplines and across different career stages and once again, we received more diverse, direct and open questions than previously.

I’m so pleased to see that while the pandemic brought substantial difficulties to everyone’s daily life, the enthusiasm of researchers and our colleagues has remained constant and unyielding and we are beginning to be able to combine our online activities successfully with our more traditional face-to-face interactions.  

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Author: Alice Henchley

Communications Director, Journals & Editorial

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