Communication Committee: Past, present and future perspectives on science communication in OHBM
An interview by and with Nikola Stikov, Nils Muhlert, Ilona Lipp and Elizabeth DuPre
The OHBM communication committee (OHBM ComCom) works to improve communication both within and beyond the OHBM community, creating content for the OHBM blog, podcast and social media and reporting about current topics in our community and field.
Founded in 2015 from a Council Strategic Planning retreat chaired by Karen Berman, ComCom was originally envisioned as a way to improve communication between Council and membership, serving as a contact point for members throughout the year. Under its first chair Randy Gollub, ComCom established four initial teams: social media, blog, lay media, and website. From this strong foundation, ComCom has grown to include additional platforms such as the new OHBM podcast Neurosalience.
In this interview, the 2019 chair Nikola Stikov, 2020 chair Nils Muhlert, current chair Ilona Lipp, and chair-elect Elizabeth DuPre sit down together to discuss the history of ComCom, ongoing initiatives, and the importance of open communication both within OHBM as well as to the broader scientific community.
If you are interested in joining ComCom or contributing to the OHBM blog or podcast, please get in touch with current chair Ilona Lipp by email at lippi [at] cbs.mpg.de or on Twitter at @ilona_lipp.
Nils Muhlert (NM): I'm joined today by the past, present and future of the OHBM communications committee. We’ll discuss how the ComCom, as it’s known, evolved and about science communication more generally. In addition to the well-known OHBM blog, ComCom was originally tasked with improving the OHBM website with a lot of skills and time from [former chair] Jeannette Mumford, Lisa Nickerson and others.
There was also a lot of great lay media communication through the years - we had Kevin Weiner, who I think was the original lay media lead...
Nikola Stikov (NS): Yeah, the lay media team did an amazing job with putting out many Huffington Post pieces, covering topics such as an introduction to the cortical ribbon or peer-review from a child’s point of view. We had a broad reach.
NM: Exactly - so when we’re thinking about how it’s changed over the years, one thing I’ve noticed is that the style of written work has changed dramatically with the committee members. For instance you had Aman Badhwar, who has a deep interest in art. She would pepper her blog posts with quotes from poets.
NS: The committee really reflected what each member brought to it. Some were excited to write in lay language, some wanted more visual communication. We had some multimedia efforts. Probably one of the highlights was when we made it into the New York Times.
There was a furore at the time about the fMRI cluster failure paper, with many different reactions. So we said, we should probably write a response to this. We worked with a couple of the original authors, and we called it: ‘Keep Calm and scan on.’ And eventually, The New York Times had this article called ‘Do you believe in God, or is that a software glitch?’ which hyperlinked to us, saying that ‘neuroimaging researchers protested that the problems were not so bad.’ We’ve not had any more New York Times citations since then, but definitely way more interaction between the brain mapping community.
NM: And Elizabeth, you were probably next to join ComCom. Were you originally involved in other OHBM groups?
Elizabeth DuPre (ED): I was a secretary for the OHBM Open Science special interest group. We were really interested in promoting what open science really means. For us, a key issue was that open science sometimes felt like an in-group experience. It was important to fight that facade, to have open communication about what's really happening.
Kirstie Whitaker and I started carrying out these open science demo calls. The idea was to have open calls once a month, interviewing different community leaders and open science teams, and we used the OHBM blog as a platform to translate that message and make sure it was accessible to a larger audience. So I came into ComCom at a slant that way, and I was really happy to be able to stick around and get involved in communicating science more broadly.
Ilona Lipp (IL): We’re still trying to make sure we keep communicating what the SIGs and chapters are doing, in addition to reporting on each year’s keynote speakers and award winners. On the other hand, we also try to cover more broadly the current topics in the field and discuss them. The cluster failure would be one example. But also more recently, issues of reproducibility and work-life balance.
NS: One frustration I have with science communication in general, is that it often feels like we’re shouting into a void. I think that applies most to academic papers. We have the stats, we know how many people read them. I'm not saying that what we're doing with ComCom is not also shouting into the void—sometimes it is—but it's a shorter shout.
So to me, this is the fun part of talking about science: moving away from the jargon, making peer review a little more communal as we review each other's posts. We've really hit a sweet spot where people realize what we do within the blog, and where everything feels a bit more worthwhile. At least that's how I understood my role in the community.
NM: And thinking about the traction that some of the posts have got: we've got on-demand tutorial posts led by Ilona. They're a reference, posts that people return to time and time again to understand a topic. Ilona, how have you found that process?
IL: The idea was to create a resource; something that would last a bit longer and that people could consult. The OHBM educational material is a really great resource in itself. But it's historically been hard to find your way around. We wanted to create something that gives people a quick, but also deep, insight into methods they didn’t know. And that’s important—because sometimes you don't know what you don't know—perhaps when you’re new to a field.
These on-demand posts are, like the name says, demanding. They take a long time to put together and we're still in the process of covering some topics. But it's been really rewarding.
I've been hoping to continue along these lines, to reach out to a bigger community. These methods, on functional connectivity or diffusion MRI are used by many people. And it's nice to have something that's perhaps more creative than a standard scientific article.
NS: The posts are also very seriously peer reviewed by experts in the particular topic covered. Our aim is then to find these on-demand tutorials a home in Aperture, the OHBM journal. So I hope that Aperture getting off the ground will lead to more visibility for these posts, giving them a DOI and making them an official ‘publication.’
NM: That would be great. There was a recent twitter post decrying that the publication system has been turned upside down: rather than prestigious journals acting as gate-keepers we now have a preprint system. Anyone can post a preprint, share ideas and findings and get feedback. And the on-demand tutorial posts are another way we can get these ideas out.
ED: I think these OnDemand posts are an example of the exciting directions that ComCom is going in. And how much it’s needed as OHBM is growing so quickly. You have Aperture taking off, you have so many initiatives coming out. And we need to make sure that members not only are aware of those initiatives, but that we make the most from them.
We also need to ensure that OHBM retains its sense of community. The number of SIGs and initiatives in OHBM has grown rapidly in the past few years since I first joined, which wasn't very long ago. So keeping aware of these opportunities, and a sense of community, is non-trivial. The work of ComCom has been really important there, and will be even more important moving forward.
NM: Elizabeth, I think we can announce now that you’re coming in as Chair-elect of ComCom. What plans do you have to communicate the many goings on? This was relatively simple five years ago, but is becoming exponentially more difficult as time goes on...
ED: Well I'm really excited to see what Ilona does over the next year as Chair! And obviously, building on everything that's been done by Nils & Nikola. For the next year, I'll be paying a lot of attention to how we communicate what's happening on Council, across the committees and SIGs.
I know, for example, the Sustainability and Environmental SIG is brand new. It’s been really exciting to see that SIG get off the ground and set out their key goals. But it's hard to make sure that we're still communicating what's happening in OHBM more generally, and why certain decisions are being made.
NM: ...and Ilona, what are your goals for the coming year as Chair?
IL: We’ve started trying to cover some of the topics like visibility, introducing new SIGs and giving updates on their activities. I really want to continue that. But also I’d like to establish a more efficient communication structure maybe within OHBM so we make sure that everyone knows what they're meant to know. So, not just communicating to the outside or OHBM membership, but also between the different committees, SIGs and council members. At the moment I feel like it could be improved, sometimes information gets lost along the way. We want to help communicate everything and make it transparent. And in order to do that we need to have all the relevant information.
NM: Yeah, that would certainly make everything flow more easily. And I guess one major addition over the past year has been Neurosalience, the new OHBM podcast hosted by Peter Bandettini. There’s quite a lot of behind the scenes work that goes into the production of that by Rachael Stickland, Kevin Sitek, Anastasia Brovkin and Katie Moran.
Peter obviously has a keen interest in fMRI, and that runs through the episodes, so there’s always great discussions about the challenge of clinical validity - getting views from MRI vendors, clinicians, journal editors and researchers. Nikola, can you tell us how the podcast came about?
NS: We’d been talking about running a podcast for years - Elizabeth, David Mehler, and I had even recorded a first episode at OHBM2019 in Rome. But there were always blocks to getting it going. This is partly because we weren't sure about the voice: Do we want to be controversial? Do we want people to say things spontaneously? Do we want it to be more scripted?
Peter got involved with this and he found the right balance. He had previously started a podcast at the NIH. He approached OHBM, and said, “should we keep going?” I was like, Peter, if you want to do this, it's the best thing. And now the podcast has happened, so my work here is done (laughs).
As for the podcast itself, I like how it brings some technical cutting edge issues to the table, but also some soul searching—discussing and convincing ourselves and others whether what we're doing really makes sense. I think academia in general is facing this issue. Because, again, our research articles are supposed to be very convincing, very grand, ambitious stories. But we know what kinds of conversations we have in the background. The podcast takes some of those behind the scenes conversations, maybe like the reviews of the articles, and actually brings them to the people. I hope that's what the podcast accomplishes, because it’s a conversation that we haven't had in public in a long time.
NM: Elizabeth, what topics or areas would you like to bring to the fore, either in the podcast or other mediums?
ED: Well, one medium I’d like to focus on more would be social media. Maybe it’s because I spend too much time on Twitter—though I do think that there might be others who, like me, spend too much time on Twitter (laughs).
We have the OHBM twitter account which is great for pushing out updates and announcements. But I’d be excited to think about how we can encourage more engagement and active conversations in that space, too.
NM: And Ilona, what would you like to see covered?
IL: I agree that using these different channels makes a lot of sense. Also we can tailor content, to make sure we reflect the diverse interests within ComCom. For example, we’ve had a few people join the group who are really keen on writing lay media posts. We push people to go with their interests. And Nils set up the podcast team, who are great at editing the podcast and giving input on that. It’s great just seeing and making the most of the creative minds we have on ComCom.
NM: And on that note - one thing we haven't yet mentioned is some of the artwork from ComCom. The logo itself was from Michel Thiebaut de Schotten, but we also have Roselyne Chauvin on ComCom. Those attending the annual meeting may have seen the sketches of keynote speakers each year that she creates. They’re really amazing pictures summarising their talks.
NS: We also should highlight Stephanie McGuire, who was with us from day one. She was the one professional on our team of many, many amateurs. Recently, she's moved on, and Alex Shun has taken over. So by all means, we have a lot of freedom. But none of us are full time on this.
NM: You meet so many interesting people on ComCom, who cover so many different methods. So if you’re stuck trying to learn a method you have people to reach out to directly. And sometimes this has led to new grants or papers - so there's definitely a direct career benefit there.
Science outreach also really teaches you to become a better writer. You have to learn how to get complex ideas across simply. This isn't a skill that everyone has, and that you don’t need during your PhD training or postdoc years. But those skills feed into your paper and grant writing, so it certainly pays dividends later on.
NS: All my life I've struggled with some form of writer's block. I'm capable of sitting down and spending literally a day thinking about how to write a tweet. And science communication really loosened me up.
In one of our years we had 52 posts in 52 weeks. That was brutal but we made it. I think I became a little less self aware. You’re initially so concerned about whether what you’re putting out is the best it could possibly be. But when you work at that pace, you can't belabor it too much. You realise it’s important to just get it into shape, let go and have the community give you feedback.
IL: I also find it helpful to just do the editing. It forces you to read through other people's blog posts. And that way, I think I learned a lot about what's happening in the field. Even if it was outside my area I still had to read these people's research, and it gave me a more global perspective.
NM: You also get a taste of team management. When you’re chairing the blog or even a subteam within the blog you pick up skills that you don't always get the opportunity to develop when you're an early career researcher. On that note, thank you everyone for your work on ComCom and meeting up together today — and hopefully the future will be as bright as the past!
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