The future of science online without Science Online

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It’s been a little more than a month since Science Online, the organization famous for its annual series of conferences (and infamous for the sexual harassment promulgated by one of its founders) announced that it was disappearing for good.

As a result of our state of insolvency, the ScienceOnline board of directors voted on Oct. 6 to proceed with a plan for dissolution, which we will implement over the coming weeks.

One unfortunate but necessary consequence of this decision is that we have to cancel the ScienceOnline Together 2015 conference scheduled for Atlanta in February. We have notified those who have already registered for ScienceOnline Together 2015 and will be fully refunding registration fees.

The decision took a lot of people by surprise, since the organization had been in the middle of planning their 2015 conference in Atlanta. But all of a sudden, with no warning, it was all over.

When the news broke, a lot of former attendees took to Twitter to share their favorite memories of past conferences.

My time at last year’s conference, as a first-time participant, was pretty close to being the best three days of my life.

I’m not ready to give up on that.

I’m not the only one, either.

Science Online had some great aspects that were worth preserving. The “unconference” format of moderated discussions, in particular, did an amazing job of drawing new people into the community. And the half-hour coffee breaks between sessions, organized lunches, evening activities, really emphasize the idea that networking is the most important part of an event like this. I want future generations of science communicators to be able to experience that inclusiveness too.

A new conference?

At the moment, I don’t see anyone else making serious plans for a successor to Science Online Together, so I’m going to push for this myself.

There are a few things that need to be done before a new conference series can take Science Online’s place.

  1. Put together a steering committee with people who have expertise in organizing, and who are also legitimately committed to seeing the legacy of Science Online continue. Goodness knows I don’t have any idea how to organize a conference, especially not from halfway around the world, but I do know it takes a lot of work from many, many people.

  2. Figure out why Science Online failed in the first place, and how to avoid making the same mistakes. Everyone seems to have their own ideas, ranging from the cost of the conference and travel, to the change in location, to the fact that many “regulars” were taking a break this year. Most people probably suspect that Bora’s sexual harassment scandal and the organization’s inadequate handling of it at Science Online 2014 played a role.

  3. Decide whether there is enough interest to hold a conference at all, and if so, how large it should be. Right now the dominant attitude in the community seems to be that Science Online was nice while it lasted, but now it’s dead and gone and that’s all there is to it. If that’s really the case, then it’s pointless trying to start a new conference series. But I don’t think that’s the case. You don’t sell out registration spots in an hour year after year unless you have a really committed audience.

    • This probably involves getting a message out to all those who would have attended Science Online Together 2015, and others in the science communication community. I intend to ask the board whether they would be willing to pass along a message, or share the contact information that people made public when they registered.
  4. Decide on a time. Moving the conference from the traditional February-March time slot to another time (summer?) might improve people’s ability to attend. Besides that, though, does an annual conference make sense? If the cost is prohibitive, moving to every 18 months or every two years might help keep the series strong.

    • This would also be something to ask potential Science Online attendees about.
  5. Decide on a location. The Science Online people already had Atlanta selected, but I heard some complaints about it, so is it really the best choice? Would it be better to rotate between different locations, as a lot of other conference series do?

  6. Check for interested sponsors. Some of the existing Science Online sponsors might be willing to continue funding a new conference series, but I bet that gets less likely the longer we wait to ask them. This is also a prime opportunity to bring new sponsors into the fold. I’m sure there are companies that are involved in online science communication that would love a chance to advertise themselves to an interested and influential audience.

  7. Come up with an awesome name. The obvious choice is to try to get the rights to use the Science Online trademark (it is a trademark, right?). But I think, given the organization’s history, it may make more sense to come up with something new to distance the new conference series from the shortcomings of the old one.

    Actually, I’ve got this one covered. The Science Communication Initiative Online eXchange. It’s descriptive and sounds modern and dynamic, and was definitely not just the first thing I could think of that would let us keep the #sciox hashtag.

Originally I had considered trying to take over the conference center booking, the existing event planning, and other preparation that had already been done by Science Online for the 2015 Atlanta conference. But that would have required acting very quickly, and also knowing that the full complement of 400 people would show up to the new conference. That’s probably not realistic.

At this point, I’m thinking of planning a small, informal meeting in 2015, perhaps still in March, as a planning session for a full conference in 2016. It could be held on the same days as the original Science Online conference was scheduled, or it could be done in conjunction with the Atlanta Science Festival March 21-28, as discussed on the planning Facebook page.

What do you think?

I’ve created a Google group (just an email list) for planning the future of this conference series. If you want to help or just want to see how it’s going, head to Google and sign up! You do not need a Google account, any email address will do. (Any problems, email me or Tweet at me.)