Meet a scientific community manager: Eric Olson

This month, we’re asking all community engagement professionals within science to complete our state of scientific community management survey. The survey’s intended to determine the variety of community-building roles that exist within science, and is the first activity of our Community Engagement Fellows program. We’ll be sharing a report of the survey results once we’ve analyzed them.

But just who are the scientific community engagement professionals? To help answer that question we’re running a series of Q&As with people in existing community-building roles. If any of these stories resonate, please do take 12 minutes to complete the survey! The more input we have to the survey, the more detailed our view of the overall landscape will be.

Today we’re featuring Eric Olson:

Eric Olson is the Outreach Coordinator for PressForward. Eric supports science organizations as they develop web publications by providing consultation about interacting with their community of audiences and collaborators. He is on the organizing committee for United Nations-sponsored conferences on scholarly communication and directs the Science Communication Network Initiative.
Eric Olson is the Outreach Coordinator for PressForward. Eric supports science organizations as they develop web publications by providing consultation about interacting with their community of audiences and collaborators. He is on the organizing committee for United Nations-sponsored conferences on scholarly communication and directs the Science Communication Network Initiative.

Thank you for agreeing to speak with us about your work as a scientific community engagement manager! Could you introduce yourself to our readers? Tell us a little bit about yourself and the community you manage.

I am the Outreach Coordinator for PressForward, an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant-funded project of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. PressForward is free, open-source software that facilitates aggregation, discussion, curation, and publication from a single dashboard.

I’ve been here for a little over a year, but PressForward itself launched in 2011. The original project was to research the current landscape of digital publishing and scholarly community tools and create a piece of software that responds to those needs. My position came about after the launch and in-house pilot,  when our next step was to recruit prominent organizations in the sciences to partner with PressForward to produce high-quality publications for their audiences. First round partners included organizations like the Public Library of Science and Zooniverse, while the most recent additions include AAAS’ Trellis, the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, and the Open Scholarship Initiative (OSI), among many others.

My work with PressForward allows me a unique perspective on community engagement in science. I am not just recruiting, training, and communicating with users of the software, but actually working with them to find ways to use PressForward and other tools to interact with their community of content creators/ editors as well as their audiences. If each science community is a web, my perch is an opportunity to glimpse the web of webs.

What was your path to community management? Were you trained as a scientist or did you come by another route?

Many science communication evangelists are scientists that recognize the value of online tools and then subsequently develop and share them. These are invaluable members of the science community. However, I came from the opposite direction. My background is in communication and media research, so I bring a different set of skills than some others in the community. Having multiple perspectives like this is important, which is the mindset that led me to a related project.

I have been fortunate enough to have been involved in several scicomm projects that allowed me to take advantage of my research background, but what I would frequently discover is that there are often missed opportunities due to the various organizations or disciplines in science communication being somewhat isolated from one another. This isn’t due to an intentional practice of concealment, but often the lack of time or resources to seek out the link in the chain that may contribute to their projects. This is why I began collaborating with the National Science Communication Institute a couple of years ago to develop the Science Communication Network Initiative, which brings together groups from the various scicomm “silos” to create a space where information about their projects and resources can be shared with each other and with the continuously growing science communication community. It’s an evolving project, but we’ve had early successes and a healthy crossover with a parallel project, the Open Scholarship Initiative.

Can you describe the key responsibilities of your role? What does an average week look like for you at the moment?

My biggest foci right now are discussing PressForward and scholarly communities at major research conferences and publications, as well as the development and execution of new “train the trainers” workshops. These events will allow us to share the software and related research with new audiences, and also provide them with the resources that they can use to share that information with their own community.

The research, asset development, and great deal of communication that goes into arranging these outcomes are the tangible elements of any given week, but there is another important factor that I value a great deal. Because PressForward is serving scholars, and the various manifestations of scholarly communities in particular, it’s only logical to integrate into and participate in these communities. These are incredible opportunities to follow what stakeholders are working on, how they interact with their peers, and what barriers they have encountered. In the coming months, I will follow-up the original PressForward research on scholarly communities with new data and observations of the PressForward partners and larger #scholcomm orbit.

Do you share the task of managing your community with anyone else – and do you belong to a team or wider group working on the project?

I am part of an outstanding team that includes project directors, developers, and graduate assistants. They don’t all interact with the PressForward communities per se, but my job would be impossible without them. With the new partners settled in, trained, and preparing to launch their sites within the year, the project directors are making sure everything from the grant funding to logos are in order. Meanwhile, I will work with partners and new publications when they are looking for ways to either create new communities or mobilize established ones.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a scientific community manager? Are there ways in which your role could be made easier – such as professional development opportunities or something else?

Coincidentally, I think the greatest challenge is related to one of the same barriers that PressForward responds to; new technologies have brought us to an era of information overload, but often obscured visibility for a great deal of scholarship available on the web.

For many of us that seek to understand, create, mobilize, and evaluate communities or their work, it is crucial that we stay informed of developments in community engagement research (which itself derives from many disciplines) as well as what is currently happening in the science community ecosystem (again, many disciplines). This is an enormous undertaking. Getting further involved with these communities can open a lot of doors, but it isn’t without a significant investment. Fortunately, tools like Trellis and PressForward can make it much easier to share resources and content with your peers, which is beginning to make this process more interactive and, appropriately, community-driven. I don’t know if this lessens our task, but it certainly reshapes it into something more palpable to individuals who are enthusiastic about bringing people together.

And zooming out a little, why do you think community engagement is important to science? How have you seen active management improve your community?

The past few years has been an interesting time to be in the realm of scholarly communication. We’ve turned our gaze toward the institutions and processes of science itself in new ways, which has highlighted both successes and failures. We are observing a real shift toward encouraging community building, driven at least in part by findings that grant funding flows toward strong networks. These communities are platforms for asking questions that could barely be broadcast before. And they create new understandings of what it means to be a scientist, a community manager, a science community, or even a member of the public that is interested in or influenced by scientific discovery (though not always without significant pushback).

The participants in these conversations are often the very best in their fields and they have developed positions as strong as their CVs. Yet while it is paramount that these conversations take place, they rarely manifest organically. Community management is the collective name for the mechanisms that create and maintain the spaces for these interactions, be they online or in person.

I’ve seen efforts sputter and I’ve seen them soar. I am incredibly fortunate that the foundation for PressForward was poured by researchers who understood that developing community-centric technology depends heavily on first understanding how communities work and what their needs are rather than creating tools and trying to pedal backwards. We get to keep building upon solid ground while continuing to learn from each new component, and I have the opportunity to contribute to the understanding of research practices.

Find all of the interviews in this series by clicking the “community engagement Q&As” tag at the top of any blog post.

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