eLife and COVID-19: Getting more out of the online workplace

Virtual brainstorming is a form of remote online working that offers a more flexible and inclusive approach to collaboration than video calls.

By Julia L. Riley, Charlotte M. de Winde, and Tracey Weissgerber.

Tired of a workday full of online meetings? Have important projects stalled because they are too complex to discuss on a conference call? Are some of your research team members hesitant to speak up in (virtual) meetings? When we faced these and similar problems, we found a solution in virtual brainstorming.

Researchers have moved their labs, groups and activities online to protect public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many universities and research institutes have closed, undergraduate and graduate teaching is now delivered remotely, and social distancing is becoming the new normal. All around the world, we are relying on emails, online discussion forums and virtual meetings to connect with colleagues, collaborators and students.

As we adapt to changing circumstances, the limitations of emails and virtual meetings are becoming increasingly apparent. An online ‘meeting’ format that we have successfully used in eLife’s Early-Career Advisory Group (ECAG) and the eLife Community Ambassadors program before the COVID-19 pandemic is virtual brainstorming. This is a multi-day group event where everyone contributes ideas and questions, and gives feedback about a particular topic or theme. The conversation is conducted asynchronously on a shared online discussion platform (we use Discourse, but there are many others like Chanty, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Slack, etc.).

As we adapt to changing circumstances, the limitations of emails and virtual meetings are becoming increasingly apparent.

Within the eLife Community Ambassadors, we coordinated virtual brainstorming over two to three days to enable Ambassadors to develop and explore ideas for how early-career researchers could change scientific publishing or research culture. These then became the initiatives they worked on during the programme. In preparation for the annual in-person ECAG meeting, we used virtual brainstorming to prioritise the topics we would include in the meeting agenda to concentrate our efforts and make the most of our short in-person meeting. We have found that this format brings many advantages to our volunteer groups, which include people living around the world that are multilingual, have different personalities, and many responsibilities to balance as early-career researchers. This meeting format helped us solve several challenges, and we realised it is a great alternative if:

  • Your research team has gone virtual because you are social distancing.

  • You can’t find a time to meet because of differences in time zones or schedules. International collaborators may be based in different time zones, and many people are juggling work, childcare, and/or care of other family members. Virtual brainstorming allows everyone to join the conversation by checking in a few times over the course of the session, at times that are convenient for them.

  • The topic is too complex for a call. Time constraints mean that calls are often focused on directed problem solving, rather than creative thinking. A longer format allows time for individuals to think and respond, consult and share resources, or steer the conversation in a different direction.

  • You want to equalize the playing field within your group. Calls can be dominated by a few individuals who are comfortable speaking up. Virtual brainstorming makes it easier for everyone to contribute, including junior team members, team members who have limited expertise on the topic, and team members who are uncomfortable speaking up during meetings. Non-native English speakers can use online translators to follow the discussion and have more time to prepare responses. Video conferences often require a steady, strong internet connection, whereas virtual brainstorming sessions also allow those with limited internet access to participate.
Restricting creative discussions to short and scheduled online calls can make it difficult for early-career researchers working from home to contribute and participate for a variety of reasons – where possible, we encourage the use of more flexible and inclusive online collaboration formats.

How does a virtual brainstorming event work?

You can find detailed instructions for organizing your own virtual brainstorming session here. These instructions can be adapted to suit the needs of your activity and research group. Briefly, there are a few basic steps:

  1. The organizer(s) prepare a few topics, questions, or themes for the discussion and select(s) a time and duration for the virtual brainstorming session.

  2. The organizer starts the virtual brainstorming session by posting the discussion topics, questions, or themes on the online platform. These topics can be released all at once, or gradually throughout the brainstorming session.

  3. All team members review the discussion two to three times over the course of the virtual brainstorming session to contribute their ideas and respond to others.

  4. After the brainstorming is complete, one team member prepares a brief summary.

  5. The group reviews this summary at a video conference call and decides how to proceed.

We have found that [virtual brainstorming] brings many advantages to our volunteer groups, which include people living around the world that are multilingual, have different personalities, and many responsibilities to balance as early-career researchers.

We think that virtual brainstorming could be adapted for many group activities. For example, they could be an inclusive way for research groups to involve their members in Journal or Book Clubs, discuss new project ideas, or explore ways to revitalize stalled projects. Some of our colleagues (Dr. Kirsty MacLeod, Twitter @kirstyjean and Dr. Ben Jarrett, Twitter @bjmjarrett) have already been using a similar format in an online journal club they organized last year focusing on research in ecology and evolution (Twitter #EcoEvoReads). This club is hosted bi-monthly and using Slack they talk about the selected journal article over a couple of days. It has been a great success so far, with over 80 members across time zones participating! Educators could also use this format to engage all students in discussions of course material, journal articles, or presentations. There are also other new ways we have observed research moving online, and we have been inspired by how our community has adapted to working virtually!

Some examples include:

  • Virtual work days: This follows the same approach as virtual brainstorming sessions, however, team members work together at the same time to complete a particular task over the course of the session. We have found working together on grant applications and research articles over a restricted time period a productive way of moving projects forward quickly within the ECAG. Alternatively, team members could use this to work together on separate tasks, like writing (e.g. one to two-hour ‘writing retreats’ that are hosted weekly). One of our colleagues (Fonti Kar, Twitter @fonti_kar) moved the writing group they participated in during their M.Sc. degree online during their Ph.D. when members moved onto new institutions throughout Australia. Now this writing group meets bi-weekly using Zoom meetings to socialize during five-minute breaks between 30-minute writing sessions that are facilitated using an online virtual workspace called Complice.

  • Social check-ins: In the R Ladies Remote Chapter (Twitter @rladiesremote), monthly ‘Coffee Chats’ are held on Slack across a longer period of time and in alternating locations (time zones) to maximize participation. COVIDCafes (Twitter #COVIDCafe), organized by the Global Consortium for Academic Mental Health (Twitter @GC4AMH, academicmentalhealth.com), allows researchers from around the world to connect and share experiences via virtual meetings. Researchers can sign up to get information about upcoming cafes here.

  • Online conference poster session: An undergraduate course that one of us participated in included an online mock conference poster session. Students uploaded their mock conference posters to the institute’s online teaching platform. During a one-week discussion period, each student was able to ‘ask’ questions to poster presenters using online comments. This gave presenters time to address each comment thoroughly and encouraged all students to participate. Although this example arose from teaching, it may also be applicable to academic societies that are considering moving their conferences online in response to COVID-19 travel restrictions (i.e. uploading posters or pre-recorded talks online to allow more time for attendees to interact using an online platform to make and respond to comments).

We all face unique challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many researchers are expanding their toolkits to adapt to working in virtual teams. Virtual brainstorming helps to address some of the limitations of emails and virtual meetings, while allowing teams to creatively tackle complex topics. This may be another tool researchers can use to establish equitable, flexible and inclusive working environments during these uncertain times.


All the authors are part of eLife’s Early-Career Advisory Group, and contribute their time to make positive change in the peer-review process and our scientific community from the perspective of an early-career researcher.

We welcome comments, questions and feedback. Please annotate publicly on the article or contact us at hello [at] elifesciences [dot] org.

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