Monday, April 13, 2020

The Open Webinar Series on Psycholinguistics and Research Methods

For me, the last month has been a lot about rethinking and re-planning, about cancelling existing plans, or putting them on hold for an indeterminate amount of time.

One of my grand plans for this year had been to establish a seminar series at my department. After all, in my view, research cannot progress unless there is exchange of ideas, unless we learn about new approaches, and meeting new people and taking them out for a subsequent dinner or drinks for some informal conversations is always a bonus. From my time as a PhD student, I'd benefited a lot from the department's seminar series, even for talks where I'd come in with the expectation that I wouldn't hear anything that would ever apply to my work. I'd had the ambition to establish a seminar series at my current department for a number of years, but realising it requires money. There should be at least enough to cover travel costs, accommodation, and the dinner or drinks after the talk. This is why I was excited to get some funding that I could set aside for this purpose for this year. I had started contacting people whose work I'd like to hear more about, and already had two talks (almost) scheduled. This is one of the first plans that, with the Corona-crisis, had to be put on hold.

To summarise the problem: I'd like to initiate a seminar series, but the current situation does not allow for guest speakers to travel to Munich, or for any larger number of people to gather in one room for the talk. The solution is rather simple, and has been adopted across the globe for many similar events: Do it in a digital format. This solution comes with the drawback of no dinner or drinks afterwards (though, I guess, with enough enthusiasm, it could be arranged, if everyone brings their own drinks to the video-conference). However, it also comes with a few advantages. First, as the speaker is not required to travel, the digital format is cheaper and less time-consuming. This means that one can invite speakers without any funding limitations: a guest speaker from, say Sydney, would cost the organiser in Munich as much as a guest speaker from Regensburg. Second, a video-conference room can be made open to everyone, not just to members of the department.

After having these ideas turn in my head for a few days, I wrote a few tweets about it, got a few encouraging responses, and decided: "Let's try it! What's there to lose?"

Things I thought through
My first step was to decide on the topic. Reluctant to name the series "Webinars on stuff that interests Xenia", I decided to keep it broad enough to encompass a wide range of topics, while keeping it narrow enough to be of interest to a specific audience.

Then, I created a Google Form to gauge interest. I didn't want to invest time into organising a regular event and recruit guest speakers if it would turn out that nobody has time to attend these webinars anyway. I've since de-activated the form, but below, I list the questions I asked.

The description of the form was as follows: "Many of us are working from home, which could present an opportunity to connect and exchange ideas beyond our close colleagues. If there is sufficient interest (> 10 people who promise to write it as a fixed slot in their calendar and to attend if they possibly can) I'll try to organise regular slots with speakers from around the world. Please fill out the form by the end of the week (28.3.2020)".

Then, I asked about peoples' names, email addresses, time zones, preferred days of the week, whether they had any preferences or suggestions for any video conferencing software, and how often they'd prefer for the meetings to take place. To gauge interest, I asked them to choose from three options: (1) "I'd like to attend", (2) "I'd like to present", and (3) "I'll write the fixed slot into my calendar and make it a priority to attend as many webinars as possible". I'd decided, a priori, to use the number of people ticking the third option to decide whether I'd take further steps in organising the event. For those who'd want to present, I also had a slot where they could leave the topic they'd present on. Finally, for those who wanted to attend, I allowed them to choose from a list or add their own answer to the question of what kind of topics interest them most.

After I'd finished the form, I tweeted a link to it, and went through the list of people I follow, to tag everyone who I thought might be interested in this topic and whose work I'd like to hear more about. Note that this, in addition to choosing the title of the webinar series, gave me some control over the direction in which this webinar series was going. Without wanting to exclude anyone, I wanted to push it in the direction of reading research: while I'm always interested in a broad array of topics, if the talks moved too far away from my research interests, the group would no longer serve its original purpose (for me). I also sent an email to my department, and encouraged everyone on twitter to share the link.

Altogether, I got 78 responses, with > 30 people promising to write the events in their calendar and attending whenever they could, and 14 people saying they would like to present. The other responses justified some executive decisions: The meetings would be held biweekly on Thursdays. Most respondents were from Europe, but there were also respondents from other parts of the world, ranging from America to Australia. This made it impossible to find a time zone that would fall within working hours for everyone. Instead, I decided to have two different time slots: on every second Thursday of the month, the webinar will take place at 9am CET (a timeslot that should be convenient for people based in Australia), and on every fourth Thursday, at 16:00 CET (a time slot that should be convenient for people based in America).

I was very pleased by the diversity of respondents. Many of the respondents were Early Career Researchers (ERCs; PhD students, and post-docs). Also, a few of the more senior researchers whom I'd tagged signed up and offered to do a talk. Such a seminar series, of course, is a very good opportunity for junior researchers to present their work to an international audience. However, it is also good to have more experienced researchers, both to allow the ERCs to learn from them, and as a kind of "star" effect. There was variability in terms of the countries in which the researchers are based. I somewhat regret that I did not ask about this in the Google Form, but judging by the names, email addresses, and those people I know personally, the respondents are based in countries as diverse as Brazil, USA, Netherlands, UK, Italy, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Serbia, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Iran, Australia. Try to get such a diverse audience together for a department seminar series, or even an international workshop on psycholinguistics!

The next step was to create a Google Sheet. Quite simply, the sheet contains a list of slots, and the request for people to sign up for a slot where they'd like to present.

Things I didn't think through
In terms of software, the simplest solution seemed to be Zoom (which was also preferred by the majority of the respondents of the Google Forms). After I had signed up for a professional account (which includes sessions for an unlimited time for up to 100 people) and sent all of the form respondents the link to the event, I realised that, through my university, I can get an account with an even better plan (unlimited time for up to 300 people).

After having decided on Zoom, I'd read, through Twitter, that video conference organisers were having problems with trolls crashing their meetings and harassing the attendees and speakers. This is really something I don't want to deal with. It had been my plan to distribute the link to the meetings as widely as possible, to create few barriers to anyone who genuinely wants to join. Instead, I decided to create a Google Group, where anyone can sign up, but the posts are closed to non-members. The link and passwords to the webinars is sent to the members of this group, with the request to forward to anyone who might be interested, but not to share on any public platform. This is an unfortunate example that something as stupid and petty as trolls can stand in the way of Open Science.

The additional step of the Google Group, I fear, created some confusion, especially since I forgot to change the information on the Google Sheet, where people sign up for talks, and where I'd originally written that I'd post the Zoom link next to each slot. Nevertheless, through advertising the group on Twitter, it now has more members than the number of people who had originally filled in the Google Form: 85.

Another thing that, in retrospect, I should have put more thought into is the choice of topics for the speakers. I'd made a word cloud of the keywords that the respondents had provided in my Google Form (in the Google Sheet linked above). However, there are also some things that I'd like to avoid for this group. One danger of giving absolutely free reign of the Google Sheet could be that businesses (e.g., IBM and its SPSS 😱) would sign up for slots in order to promote their products. Therefore, in the Google Sheet, in a third tab called "Updates", I added a request to avoid signing up with slots that aim to promote a product. This could interfere with the request of some respondents to also have some tutorial sessions to learn to use some particular method or software, so I added that any such tutorials should be based on freely available software.

The first talk
Overall, especially considering the relatively small amount of time that went into organising this series so far, I am very happy with the result.

Last Thursday, we had the first slot: Mariella Paul from the Department of Neuropsychology at the MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and the Berlin School of Mind and Brain held the first presentation, "Harry Potter and the Methods of Reproducibility - a brief introduction to Open Science". There were, at the peak time, 48 attendants. I recorded the talk, and with Mariella, we've uploaded both the slides and the recordings on an OSF project page: The talk was scheduled as 45 minutes + 15 minutes for questions: with many interesting questions, the discussion continued until approximately 10:15 (i.e., 15 minutes overtime). Members of the audience joined in answering the questions: for example, one question was about the timeline of a Registered Reports submission; two members of the audience turned out to be editors who had experience handling Registered Reports, and could provide some insider knowledge and practical advice (e.g., if you submit a Registered Report and you're under time pressure to start collecting the data, check with the editor beforehand if they can take this into account).

I'm looking forward to the next talk, which will take place on the 23rd of April, at 16:00 Central European Time. Suzi J. Styles from NTU in Singapore will be talking about "How do you catch a Hypothefish? Preregistration basics (Psycholinguistics remix ft N400s)". Does this sound like something you'd like to hear more about? Join the Google Group to get information about how to join the meeting closer to date! Spread the word!

Some final, Open Science-related thoughts
The idea of this online webinar arose because many of us are working from home. For me, aside from the essential exchange with colleagues, the webinar format is a regular event in my working-from-home schedule which I otherwise still haven't managed to regularise or stabilise.

At this stage, nobody seems to know how long the recommendations or requirements to work from home will continue. But I hope that the usefulness of this group will by far outlive the restriction period.

At the SIPS 2019 conference, I attended an Unconference session about "The academic conference of the future" (a summary of what was discussed can be found here). The webinar format can offer an alternative for at least some aspects of conferences, and has some advantages over the traditional format of a large number of people coming together to discuss research.

Instead of having a seemingly endless series of talks, where at some stage not even buckets of coffee can keep your jetlagged brain focussed despite the interesting content, you have one slot per week (or fortnight), with enough time both to discuss and to digest the content before you need to take in the next wave of information.

Instead of applying for visas and scrambling for funding, and buying expensive airplane tickets and contributing to carbon emissions, you sign up to a Google group and click on a link 15 minutes before a talk starts.

Granted, this format requires some more creativity to make social events such as the conference dinner possible. It is possible to recruit world-leading researchers as speakers for a webinar, but then there will be no possibility for the PhD students to watch them get drunk at the conference dinner. But, let's be honest: Will we really miss this?

The webinar format is by no means novel, but I hope that it will become more and more popular as a tool for exchanging ideas and learning from researchers from across the world, across different career stages.

This is why I wrote this blog: I outlined the steps I took (which were not many), so that you can easily create a webinar series for your area of interest, too!