ScienceOnline Together 2014: A view from the board
Last week’s conference was my fourth time attending ScienceOnline, and my first time as a board member. For me, the conference remained the unique experience it’s always been — a convivial meeting ground for scientists, writers, students, and those passionate about science to exchange ideas about how their work can flourish online.
But it’s also true that, as many of you know, it’s been a rough few months for ScienceOnline as both an organization and a community. After three women courageously stepped forward with accusations against Bora Zivkovic, one of the ScienceOnline organization’s founders, the SciO community and the organization had to deal with the fallout.
The board immediately investigated the situation carefully. We met with Bora, and, within 48 hours of the initial public complaint, asked him to resign from the board, which he did. That was the start of what has been a conscientious and continuing effort to make sure ScienceOnline is a welcoming and safe environment for everyone who attends.
As this conversation continues, it’s important — particularly for people who care about ScienceOnline but couldn’t or didn’t make it to Raleigh this year — for us to lay out clearly what those efforts were, and how we made some of the decisions that led up to the conference.
We wanted to start the conference off with a direct acknowledgment of recent history. Here’s what Karyn Traphagen, our executive director, said at the very start of ScienceOnline Together 2014. It’s a long quote, but it bears reporting here in full (you can watch the video here):
Science communication, ScienceoOnline, and many other conferences and conventions and groups of people over the last year — year and a half — have experienced some challenges about being welcoming and about being accessible and safe places. And we’ve worked really hard this year with other leaders, and with our board, and with you to make ScienceOnline Together what we’ve always wanted it to be: [that] is a place of respect, and a place of welcome and [a] place where everyone feels that they can be.
To do part of that, this year, if you notice in your program there’s two pages, one page is a Conduct Page and one page is a Harassment Policy page. I love the conduct page because this is what we should all be doing. I would really ask if you have not already read the Code of Conduct that you take a moment during the day and realize that you are a part of making this successful by doing these things: by demonstrating respect for everyone, and including everyone, and embracing a spirit of sharing. Read through these different things — they’re on our website too — and you will be a huge part of making ScienceOnline Together a really productive, welcome, and safe place.
But we also recognize that we need to have things in place in case things don’t go the way we that we would hope, and so we have a response team and I’m going to ask them to stand right now. And these are people from the community, your friends, who’ve volunteered to be available (they may not all be in the room at the moment) and they have, they are listed on the bottom of the Harassment page with contact numbers, and I’m one of them too (you can sit down, thanks). We also have another little sticker on our nametag so if you need to talk to somebody, if you need to report something, please feel free to find me (my number’s on there) or these other people who have volunteered to help, or someone at the front desk. We want to respond, we want to make sure that things go well, so please take advantage of those things we’ve put in place for you for that.
In the time between Bora’s resignation and the conference, Karyn had reached out to many of our peers at other conferences (including ones suggested by community members) for ideas. She consulted them about what processes and systems they had in place for dealing with codes of conduct and harassment incidents, and what advice they might have for holding sessions in which people could discuss these issues. We took their advice. The approach we took at SciO14 reflected that research.
Since the conference, Karyn has continued to be in touch with these colleagues to debrief and further improve our approach (which included a volunteer response team, a code of conduct and a harassment policy published in the program). Our policies are comparable to how many other events handle this important process, and more thorough than some others. I’m sure we can keep improving in this area — and within the resources of a small, mostly-volunteer organization, we will keep aiming to do so.
A number of people at ScienceOnline told us they thought Karyn should have addressed the organization’s recent history with Bora directly from the start, and specifically mentioned his name from the stage. Everyone should know that this was not a spur-of-the-moment lapse or an act of denial. It was a careful choice that the ScienceOnline board and leadership pondered at length and agreed upon in advance. We felt strongly that the conference shouldn’t be about Bora or ScienceOnline’s difficulties in the wake of his behavior, but about the important work so many scientists and writers and science communicators are sharing. That was why we’d worked hard to hold this conference under difficult circumstances.
This still makes sense to me. I also know I’ve heard from more than one conference attendee that Karyn’s not mentioning Bora’s name at the start of the conference made them feel that we were discouraging discussion of what happened. That certainly wasn’t what we intended. Karyn, Anton, and other board members did speak directly about Bora specifically with many attendees one-on-one, and we encouraged people to ask questions and discuss the situations and their concerns.
ScienceOnline has always been focused on listening to feedback. So we knew different people were in different places at the start of our conference this year. Some were still hurt, many upset. Some wanted to talk about Bora. Some wanted to move on. Others wanted to talk more generally about how the world of science, science writing and science online could deal with the broader issues of women in science, fairness, and safety. And still others were there to talk about science, writing, and communication, period — or were new and didn’t know about the recent history at all.
At ScienceOnline 2014, we aimed to open many different spaces where people could feel comfortable and invited to discuss any and all of these sensitive and important topics. We talked to independent harassment experts about how to do that, and the sessions we held were based on that advice. We knew, as did those experts, that it was just the start of a conversation. We tried to make it possible for ScienceOnline attendees to drive these discussions for themselves, led by third-party moderators and not conference leadership. We put these sessions right at the start of the conference to spotlight them and make clear that we had no desire to sweep anything under the rug.
Those conversations happened — in the four sessions we kicked the conference off with that focused on different facets of the issues, in other sessions that covered topics like mentorship and diversity, at the open lunch-table conversations, and in the hallways and informal gatherings that have always been the heart of ScienceOnline. I participated in some of those conversations, and if you were at the conference you probably did, too.
Some attendees self-organized their own session called #sciosafe to extend this discussion. Two board members, myself and Anton, showed up and offered to listen to their concerns. (Karyn showed up, too, and said she was glad the session was happening, but then had to leave to tend to conference business.) The group preferred to talk without us present, so we respected that. That means that ScienceOnline as an organization wasn’t present at #sciosafe, and we still don’t really know in any authoritative way what was said there. We will do our best to respond to any report or suggestions or proposals that attendees of the session may make.
We want to make sure that everyone — those who were at ScienceOnline 2014 and those watching from afar — knows about the efforts we made. I’m sure our efforts could be improved upon, and we’ll keep listening and trying to do better. But I’m proud that ScienceOnline 2014 happened and went well, mostly thanks to Karyn’s efforts and the contributions of so many amazing participants; that so many of the sessions were so good; that so many people renewed old connections and, along with 200 new attendees this year, made new ones. I know I did.
3/9/14: Please note, ScienceOnline’s executive director will be out of the office until Wed, Mar 12. No one will be available to moderate or respond to comments until after she returns.