Making (neuro)science accessible world-wide: Online seminars for the globe

World Wide Neuro reconnects researchers and facilitates scientific discourse in the times of the pandemic.
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By Panos A. Bozelos1,2, Tim P. Vogels1

1Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3SR
2Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, Foundation for Research and Technology-Hellas, Heraklion, Greece

Scientific progress is a social process, with a lively culture of conversation and dissent. Publications are the silent milestones of science, unerasable and for the ages, but the journey from one stone to the next is all but quiescent. Conversations about science are typically held in increasingly wider circles: first in private, then at lab and institute meetings and finally as posters and talks in seminars and conferences, and of course, in a cacophony of gossip at social after-events (Fig. 1).

The circumstances may vary in formality, topic and context, but invariably, we scientists talk about our research. A lot. And we listen in equal measures. We cherish speaking and listening, at conferences, meetings, and seminars. These events are long-established channels of science communication and networking [1]. Somewhat problematically, though, the entry to these circles is costly, requires expensive travel and many days of missed productivity while away [2]. As a result, tight-knit scientific circles remain exclusive to those who can afford to join.

A diagram showing the modes of scientific exchange
Fig 1: Traditional modes of scientific exchange, ranging from one-to-one and group meetings to seminars, and posters presentations and social events, optimally culminating in articles published in eLife.

[...] this extended period of lockdown presents opportunity and promise for a radically new and more egalitarian way to promote scientific exchange: online, live and direct from our offices and living rooms, free of charge to anyone interested, unchained from the shackles of physical proximity.

The COVID-19 pandemic as a catalyst for virtual science communication

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an abrupt halt to scientific social exchange at all levels, from lab chatter to keynote lectures [3]. The disruptions we experience do not only stem from the inaccessibility of our labs, but also from the silenced conversations that came with the ubiquitous lockdown. Not being able to discuss our work with peers has proven to be a major roadblock to the scientific workflow. Therefore, we urgently need to reconnect.

Rather than attempting to resuscitate the same old ways, however, we realise that this extended period of lockdown presents opportunities and promise for a radically new and more egalitarian way to promote scientific exchange: online, live and direct from our offices and living rooms, free of charge to anyone interested, unchained from the shackles of physical proximity.

The streaming technology already exists: established platforms like Zoom, Crowdcast, etc. provide an array of teleconferencing utilities and webinar controls, including multi-participant streams, presentation sharing, chat and comment sections [4]. Some platforms even offer the option to vote on previously asked questions, lowering the participation barrier for more reserved audience members. Given the abundance of online tools, the neuroscience community reacted promptly in anticipation of the forecasted lockdown disruptions [5]. Large-scale conferences like FENS and the Bernstein Conference announced their virtualization efforts, and new entries to the game, like neuromatch [6] have begun to establish their presence.

In addition to these daylong events, online seminar series sprung up in all corners of neuroscience research to supply a steady exchange of ideas every week. What was lacking was a repository platform, not unlike Arxiv[7] or bioRxiv [8], that would offer listing, sorting, and filtering functions for these seminar series, and deliver the announcements to anyone interested across the globe. So we built one.

Our initiative: World Wide Neuro

Initially aimed at the community of theorists, World Wide Neuro (Fig. 2) quickly grew to become a wider-scope repository for openly accessible and free-to-join online seminar announcements. The seminars we announce are organised autonomously by hosts from institutions all across the world, and cover a wide range of topics in neuroscience. In the early days after launching the site, we saw the creation of new seminar series: in Neurodevelopment, Vision research, and Invertebrate Neuroecology. These were created by group leaders and postdoctoral researchers who saw the opportunity to bring together a group of speakers for whom they would normally not have had the financial resources. Since then, other series have joined, e.g. NERV: a student-driven initiative from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. More established seminar series have also started to post. Some of the existing series retain access “by registration only”, but this is something that we try to discourage as it creates unnecessary access barriers. After initial issues with Zoom bombing were fixed, we feel this restriction is no longer necessary.

  1. Visit World Wide Neuro

We hope that our visitors will benefit from an array of simple yet useful functions. The homepage offers a simple interface that lists upcoming and past seminars along with streaming links, while dates and times are specified in the user's locale. Users can also filter seminars by topic or series tag, and perform full-text searches to find relevant seminars. For the growing group of hosts, we have established simple community guidelines that can be loosely condensed to “Love, Diversity and Anarchy”, and amount to the categorical imperative — don’t book other hosts' time slots, be polite, and foster as much diversity in a series as possible.

screenshot of world wide neuro
Fig 2. Screenshot of the online platform

Similarly, we would like to offer a user-friendly experience for seminar hosts. Anyone who has ever organised, advertised and updated seminar series online will be familiar with the frustration of updating websites in HTML or through clunky and slow web interfaces. These methods are error-prone, idiosyncratic, and simply not practical for multiple uncoordinated hosts that might not be very tech-savvy. Instead, we designed a service that allows for quick and hassle-free updating of seminar data via a simple online spreadsheet that is editable by all trusted hosts. All relevant information (i.e. date and time, speaker’s details, seminar title and abstract, host/topic tags, and details on streaming/teleconferencing), can simply be entered into an online Google Sheet, and an automated script parses all the updated data in near real-time. We feel using a Google Sheet offers a highly functional solution that requires little training and greatly increases accessibility and usability.

spreadsheet for adding seminars
Fig 3. Screenshot of the online spreadsheet.

Along the way, we realised that sharing the streaming infrastructure with other seminar series could be a welcome service, too, allowing larger audiences to be accommodated while keeping the costs low for hosts. The common streaming platform, sponsored by our community partners (eLife, PLOS, FENS-KAVLI Network of Excellence, and PhenoSys), enables hosts who cannot easily access institutional platforms to organise seminar series on World Wide Neuro. We have partnered with 26 hosts for 19 seminar series at the time of publication.

Technologies and resources we used to construct worldwideneuro.com:

  • Cloud Services: AWS Lambda, Amplify, S3, Route 53, CloudFront; Google API & Services
  • Local Server: Linux / Ubuntu 18.04
  • Programming technology: Python, HTML, CSS, Javascript

Community response

The neuroscience community embraced World Wide Neuro from the beginning, with several highly visible hosts spreading the word. The number of hosts and the numbers of unique and returning website visitors began to increase 3 weeks after launch , as well as our numbers of mailing-list subscribers and Twitter followers. To date, we have helped to host and disseminate 41 seminars, with a further 74 or more already scheduled. These seminars are typically attended by 150 to 750 viewers from more than 105 countries, across all 6 inhabited continents (Fig. 4).

website usage dashboard
Fig. 4: Website usage statistics: (Left) Daily number of sessions for the period March 30 - May 12, 2020. On April 21, we broadened the scope of the website to include all topics in neuroscience. (Right) Top countries by number of unique visitors for the same period of time.

Future directions

We hope to expand our platform beyond the scope of the neuroscience field, following a two-pronged approach. First, along with this Labs post, we publish all the code for worldwideneuro.com on GitHub9 for anyone to reuse and build on. Additionally, we are currently widening the reach of our site, by starting to offer seminar hosting to other scientific fields like, e.g., machine learning, organic chemistry, astrophysics, maths, etc. Our goal is to allow seamless navigation of scientific events across traditional scientific disciplines. World Wide Neuro was born in the time of a global pandemic, and while we hope its adverse effects shall soon be overcome, it will be worth keeping the changes that are for the better10. We hope World Wide Neuro will be one such lasting change.

  1. Find World Wide Neuro on GitHub

We expect that even when the current pandemic is tamed, social distancing measures and travel limitations will ease only slowly. Additional global challenges, like e.g. climate change, convince us that there is a permanent place for worldwideneuro in our community. In-person conferences, society meetings, summer schools, and even invited seminars will resume to some extent, hopefully, because nothing beats meeting in the flesh11, but there is also no reason not to participate in the online world of science, and allow for more rapid and targeted science communication through a global platform to a wider audience.

Virtual scientific exchange is here to stay

Worldwideneuro.com was our rapid response to the silence that COVID-19 brought. Before the pandemic, most scientific exchange entailed costly, long-haul travel for participation in annually organised (large) conferences. Attendees could easily find themselves lost and attention by peers was not guaranteed. Indeed, it was often unlikely to meet up with the most relevant researchers in a single place. Additional issues relating to accessibility for peers with disabilities, the divide between the financially-able and the rest of the research community, the environmental implications of academic aeromobility and the non-negligible cost in tax-payers’ money made the in-person conference experiences often more problematic than we would like to admit.

Building online platforms that allow scientists to acquire nearly instant access to a worldwide audience of peers and to communicate their work, whether it be in-progress or recently peer-reviewed and published, won’t solve all problems. Huge disparities between (neuro) scientific societies (and their members) on different continents continue to exist. Even the participation in free online events is not always attainable in a world where internet access can be expensive and free time is never free. But it’s a first small step to a system that removes the need to travel to acquire feedback and collect accolades, visibility, and new collaboration opportunities. We would not want to see science worldwide return to old unsustainable habits once we return to “normal”.

Acknowledgements: This work was supported by a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellowship (214316/Z/18/Z), a BBSRC (BB/N019512/1) grant, and an ERC consolidator Grant SYNAPSEEK. worldwideneuro.com is partly sponsored by eLife, PLoS, the FENS Kavli Network, and Phenosys. The authors would like to thank Denis Jabaudon, Tom Baden, Adam Calhoun and the Society of Neuroscientists in Africa (SONA) for early support, and Georgia Christodoulou for help with the manuscript.

References

  1. Zierath, J. R. Building Bridges through Scientific Conferences. Cell 167, 1155–1158 (2016).
  2. Storme, T., Faulconbridge, J. R., Beaverstock, J. V., Derudder, B. & Witlox, F. Mobility and Professional Networks in Academia: An Exploration of the Obligations of Presence. Mobilities vol. 12 405–424 (2017).
  3. Weissgerber, T. et al. Mitigating the impact of conference and travel cancellations on researchers’ futures. eLife vol. 9 (2020).
  4. Sarabipour, S. et al. Evaluating features of scientific conferences: A call for improvements. doi:10.1101/2020.04.02.022079.
  5. Singer, E. Practicing Neuroscience During a Pandemic. Simons Foundation, https://www.simonsfoundation.org/2020/04/20/practicing-neuroscience-during-a-pandemic/ (2020).
  6. Achakulvisut, T. et al. Improving on legacy conferences by moving online. Elife 9, (2020).
  7. Ginsparg, P. ArXiv at 20. Nature 476, 145–147 (2011).
  8. Sever, R. et al. bioRxiv: the preprint server for biology. doi:10.1101/833400.
  9. Bozelos, P.A., Vogelos T.P. https://github.com/bozelosp/worldwideneuro (2020).
  10. Camargo, H. et al. On the efficacy of virtual seminars. arXiv:2004.09922
  11. Peter Bandettini, The New Age of Virtual Conferences. The Brain Blog, http://www.thebrainblog.org/2020/04/15/the-new-age-of-virtual-conferences/ (2020).

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