SCI team time

Think, Do, Collaborate, Cross-Pollinate

We’re less than a month away from the beginning of the second Scholarly Communication Institute held in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, and are looking forward to this year’s cohort coming to Chapel Hill for five days of thinking, planning, and doing in a collaborative and relaxed setting. Last year, the first year of SCI in it’s new home, most of the participants were from the local area, and we tested out a new model for how such an institute might work. By all accounts it was a great success, and this year participants are coming from far and wide – from all across the United States, and about one third from other countries too, including as far away as Perth, Australia.

What do we do during these Institutes?

About a third of the schedule is unstructured, what we call “team time”. Each of the invited participants is part of a team working on a project they proposed during the RFP process – they set their own goals, process, and deliverables. During the team times there are no rules – teams can brainstorm, research their topics, run a charrette, document plans, develop software, write a paper, test models – last year participants did all of these things and more during their unstructured team times.

Another third of the schedule involves the entire cohort in discussions together, what we call “plenary” meetings. During these sessions all the teams come together in conversations regarding issues of mutual interest to all of their projects. Some of these sessions start with a focus on a particular team’s project, allowing them to seek advice from the broader group on issues that are challenging them, or to seek feedback on ideas they are trying to advance. Other plenary sessions are conversations guided by several facilitators, who throughout each day have been engaging with each of the teams, and listening for and suggesting areas of intersection between the different projects.

DuBose House gardensThe final major piece of the schedule is social time. We know that often the best insights come when you’re not necessarily looking for them, but rather over a meal, or drinks, or when taking a walk someplace you haven’t been before. So we’ve built a lot of time for that into the schedule. Breakfast and lunch each day will be in the rooms of a historic house on the grounds the conference center, with ample time after lunch to take a walk in the nearby gardens. On one evening we’ll have a reception at the National Humanities Center, where SCI participants will have an opportunity to talk with fellows and staff of the Humanities Center as well as invited guests from nearby universities. And on other evenings there will be optional small group dinners at various restaurants in Durham and Chapel Hill, with visits to Duke University and the University of North Carolina along the way.

However, almost all of this is flexible. Last year, we adjusted the schedule along the way, based on suggestions from participants, and in response to observations about how useful different types of activities were at different times of the Institute. Mealtimes are fixed, but aside from that the schedule is fair game.

Slide: Notes for a retreat

What there won’t be at the Institute are PowerPoint slides. No reading a prepared talk, no deciding which conference track you’re going to attend, no vendor sales pitches. Alright, maybe there are a few presentations, but they’re brief and mostly about sparking ideas and setting tone. We’ll have some brief remarks at the receptions, and on the first day, Tom Scheinfeldt will be opening the Institute meetings with some observations on setting the conditions for a productive retreat. On the last day each team will practice their “elevator pitch” with SCI’s advisory board, answering these questions about their project: What? So what? and What next?

The participants will come together on October 11 mostly not having worked together or even met each other before, and will leave on October 15 having started new collaborations, incubated new ideas, developed new plans, and built new things. They will also have eaten well, relaxed away from their usual work, and, we hope, made new friends.

Over the next few weeks you’ll be able to follow the progress of the 2015 Triangle Scholarly Communication Institute via the #TriangleSCI hashtag on Twitter, and afterwards, via this blog. To get a sense of what it was like last year, see this Storify thread that collected a representative sample of tweets from SCI 2014, and these blog posts from SCI 2014. And if you’re interested in participating next year, keep an eye on this blog for the next RFP, to be announced in early 2016.

Gardens and DuBose House at the Rizzo Center

On the importance of place and time: where we’ll be, and what we’ll be doing at SCI in November

Schloss Dagstuhl

Schloss Dagstuhl

When we first started planning for this new iteration of the Scholarly Communication Institute, a model that was mentioned several times was the Dagstuhl Seminars. Schloss Dagstuhl (Dagstuhl Castle) is an academic research center in the German countryside, and every year it hosts a series of seminars on informatics, where researchers from around the world gather to focus on specific topics. For a few days, participants live and work together in a setting far removed from their usual context, and the environment and informal structure contributes to outcomes that would be less likely back in the usual flow. In the area we’re working in – scholarly communications – Dagstuhl hosted a seminar in 2011 on the future of research communication, which led to the creation of FORCE11, a new organization supporting advancements in scholarly communication (slides reporting on that workshop can be found here).

View from Erice

View from Erice

I have fond memories of having spent time at a similar place in Italy, the Ettore Majorana Foundation and Centre for Scientific Culture, in Erice, Sicily, where I worked for a summer as an intern when I was a student. Erice has a similar model – a magnificent setting and an informal structure, with lots of social, cultural, and culinary activities mixed in with the scholarly work. Erice is a beautiful place, perched on a mountain 750 meters above the western coast of Sicily, with stunning views all around. Erice is also an ancient place, founded by the Elymians, and later occupied by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, and Normans. The science center now makes its home in a four restored former monasteries, and scholars meet and live in halls and cells where medieval monks formerly roamed.

During the summer I was there, participants got to meet, listen to, and have dinner with people like Peter Higgs, Sheldon Glashow, and Victor Weisskopf. Mornings spent having coffee in a cloister, or evenings over drinks in a local pizzeria were as important to the experience as the meetings and discussions in the conference halls during the day.

DuBose House

DuBose House, Meadowmont

This year, the Scholarly Communication Institute will be held in Chapel Hill, NC, at the Rizzo Conference Center. We don’t have a castle, nor centuries-old monasteries, (and don’t – yet – have any Nobel Prize winners attending) but the DuBose House and gardens, situated on a hilltop just outside the “southern part of heaven” are about as delightful as we get in this part of the world.

Pergola outside the DuBose House

Pergola outside the DuBose House

The conference facilities are recent, having been built by the University of North Carolina in the past 15 years, but the house at the core of the Rizzo Center (where we’ll be having lunches) and the gardens surrounding it date to the 1930s, with the property it sits on having a history that dates back to a land grant from the Earl of Granville in 1757. (See a history of the Rizzo Center and DuBose house here.) The facility has a bar on site, for informal and social meetings, and a pergola, balconies, and outdoor tables in the gardens and around the grounds, which will be conducive for working outside, or just taking a break in a beautiful setting if the weather cooperates. A short walk down the hill is Meadowmont Village where participants in SCI can find restaurants, shops, and other amenities.

The place is important, but so will be the format. This is not a conference where participants are coming with prepared presentations, or with program tracks that define discussion topics in advance. The schedule is only very lightly structured – meal times are fixed, as are a few opening and closing programs, but the rest of the schedule is a balance of totally unstructured time for project teams to work amongst themselves, and “plenary” times when all of the SCI participants will gather in a single conversation around topics of shared interest. The participants will set the agenda, and guide the shape of the activities and their outcomes.

In our early planning notes for SCI we wrote:

DuBose House gardens

DuBose House gardens

… the SCI invites working groups, rather than individuals, in order to foster broad awareness of complexity and tackle it collaboratively. Moreover, the new SCI invites multiple working groups in order to engineer the opportunity for serendipitous cross-pollination among different but related themes and challenges. Formal “downtime” (meals, walks, breaks) is an important part of this strategy. These unfettered water-cooler moments often give birth to great ideas. Thus, the SCI’s program will be flexible and as participant-directed as possible; we cannot schedule breakthroughs, but we can attempt to create conditions that favor them. The format is meant to help create an environment conducive to the kind of happy accidents that are born of the freedom to work hard with minimal constraints.

On November 9, this experiment will begin, and we hope to conclude four days later exhilarated and energized, having made new contacts, learned new things, developed new ideas, and perhaps started to build new programs. And yes, probably a little tired. But we hope that everyone will leave with a plan for what they can do to advance and influence the changing landscape of scholarly communication when they return to their usual work.

If you’re interested in joining us next year, keep an eye on this blog and the @TriangleSCI twitter stream, where early in the new year we’ll be announcing dates and an RFP for next year’s SCI.

DuBose House gardens

DuBose House gardens

DuBose House gardens

DuBose House gardens

DuBose House gardens

DuBose House gardens

McLean Hall, meeting venue at the Rizzo Center

McLean Hall, meeting venue at the Rizzo Center