Building Research Software Communities: Running a workshop on community building and sustainability for the research software community

On Wednesday 17th March 2021, around 50 individuals from a wide range of different countries and time zones came together for the first of two 2-hour sessions that formed the “Building Research Software Communities: How to increase engagement in your community” workshop.

Run as part of the SORSE Series of Online Research Software Events, this workshop brought together an organising team consisting of 3 members of the international research software community and a group of speakers including experts in community engagement and sustainability. In this blog post we provide an overview of the workshop and some of the key messages and outcomes.

This guest blog post, by Michelle Barker, Jeremy Cohen, Daniel Nüst, Toby Hodges, Serah Njambi Rono, and Lou Woodley, first appeared on the Imperial College London’s Research Software Engineering blog.

Why run a communities workshop?

The workshop’s three organisers – Michelle Barker, Jeremy Cohen and Daniel Nüst – between them have experience of starting and running, or participating in a range of research software communities at local, regional, national and international levels. Observing that many research software communities face similar challenges when getting started or trying to sustain activities, the workshop was set up with the aim of helping to address these issues.

Scientific or research communities are often set up by enthusiastic individuals who are keen to help their peers, raise the profile of their field and provide opportunities for training, knowledge exchange and networking. After what is often an extremely promising start with many people engaging and lots of attendees at initial events, it’s quite common for a community to lose momentum and for numbers to reduce to a small but committed group of people. Community organisers may begin to wonder where they went wrong, what they could have done differently and why people are not participating in the same numbers. Many people in the research software community are now involved in developing or helping to run communities (such as national Research Software Engineering (RSE) organisations) or want to initiate grassroots activities, but they are often without the experience or training to do so. The aim of this workshop was to try and offer some ideas, guidance and training from a group of scientific community engagement and sustainability experts to help begin to address this.

The workshop

The workshop included a combination of lightning talks and longer sessions run by leading experts in community engagement and sustainability from the Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement (CSCCE) and The Carpentries. You can find the full agenda on the workshop webpage. It was attended by participants with varying degrees of responsibility for, or interest in, managing research software communities.

Starting with a group of 4 lightning talks to set the scene, we heard from both current and former community managers representing communities at different stages of development. This provided a great opportunity to hear about some challenges faced but also success stories. Following the introductory lightning talks we had our first collaborative session of the workshop with Daniel Nüst running a short group feedback session.

Your three biggest community challenges

In the feedback session, participants were split into breakout groups, each with their own collaborative document, and invited to discuss and note down the three biggest challenges they’ve experienced/observed as a community manager or member. The results from this session helped to guide the discussion during subsequent sessions. The session provided a wide range of interesting and helpful responses which were summarised into five core areas:

  • Engagement – Keeping community members interested and engaged; managing challenges around limited time availability and workload issues
  • Incentives – Different environments (e.g., online / in-person) provide different motivation or incentives to participate in a community; what benefits/opportunities/activities incentivise participation?
  • Expectations – Be realistic about what a community can offer or what to expect from a community
  • Communication – Keeping community members informed; reaching out to potential new members; highlighting community aims and activities, etc.
  • Participation – Will people participate? How long will they participate for? How do you maintain participation?

Describing member engagement with the CSCCE’s community participation model

After a chance for the workshop participants to discuss their community challenges, Lou Woodley, Director of the CSCCE, ran a session looking at “Describing member engagement with CSCCE’s Community Participation Model”. One of the key elements of this session was the presentation of the CSCCE’s Community Participation Model which defines four modes of member engagement that can take place within a community and one meta-mode – the champion mode discussed on day two. Community participants generally begin to engage with the community in the consume mode, taking in the materials that are made available through, for example presentations at events and online content such as newsletters. Levels of engagement can build through contribution and scaffolded collaboration to the highest level of engagement – co-creation – where participants work within the context of the existing bounds of community activity to create something new.

Download a guidebook describing the model in full here.

Community champions

After a quick recap of the previous day’s material, the workshop slot on day 2 kicked off with a session from the CSCCE on Community Champions. The champion mode is the fifth mode in CSCCE’s Community Participation Model and highlights member engagement by emergent leaders within a community, who take on roles to maintain, grow and evolve the community’s activities. This might look like co-chairing working groups, serving on a code of conduct committee or spreading the word about the community to recruit new members. Lou Woodley highlighted the principles behind developing community champions and the important role that they can play in supporting community sustainability and ongoing engagement – something a community manager is unlikely to be able to do alone.

Community sustainability

The final session of the workshop was a collaborative session on community sustainability run by Toby Hodges and Serah Njambi Rono from The Carpentries. Toby and Serah highlighted the challenges in ensuring community sustainability and presented various ideas to help address them. Using a collaborative document, a number of thoughts and comments were gathered from workshop participants in response to some important questions around the topic of sustainability. You can read more details about this workshop session in Toby and Serah’s “Pondering on the Question of Community Sustainability” post on The Carpentries blog and see a video of the session on the workshop’s SORSE event page.

Useful links and further information

This workshop was run as part of the SORSE “Series of Online Research Software Events. The SORSE series has now finished but you can take a look back at other SORSE events, many of which cover related topics, and see videos from many of the events via the SORSE Programme page.

Videos from parts of this communities workshop are available on the workshop’s SORSE event page and further details including the full agenda and session descriptions are available on the workshop website.

Why not join the CSCCE’s Community of Practice on Slack? It’s a great place to gain new knowledge about community development, engagement and sustainability and to share your experiences and questions.

The content of this blog post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence.

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