Rubenstein Fellows Curriculum

Community Engagement on EOL

Outreach is an important activity for Fellows for several reasons.

  • It can make your work easier (by attracting contributors and collaborators).
  • It can broaden the participant base of EOL in general (by attracting contributors and collaborators).
  • It will increase the impact of your work (by attracting potential users for research, education, and personal curiosity purposes- more on these users in the next chapter).

Whom are you trying to reach?

Everyone, for different combinations of the reasons listed above. But let's break them down into groups:

  • Other researchers: in your lab, down the hall, on your favorite listservs, at your favorite meetings, etc.
  • Educators: K-12, college and university profs, museums, zoos, aquaria, botanical gardens, informal educational media- TV, radio, print, online...
  • Students: yours, your colleagues', K-12, undergrad, and grad
  • Professional end users: anyone who applies information like yours in their work: farmers, gardeners, vets, hunters, fishermen, conservation groups, regulatory agencies...
  • Artists, photographers, writers and other creative people who may wish to make something out of your information.
  • Nature-lovers: not professionally invested but often highly motivated, they consume information about nature (TV programming, print media, web media...) and/or they produce it (photos, birding lists, shell collections, citizen science projects...)
  • All other potential participants, not showing obvious signs of interest but certainly suffering from chronic human curiosity and probably also biophilia.

Now let's break them down another way:

  • Contributors: they have something for you- free time, skills, knowledge, access, in-hand content they'd like to share, or new content they could capture, record, compose, transcribe, or retrieve from offline obscurity.
  • Users: they want what you have, in order to learn, teach, create, translate, disseminate, or conduct research.

Techniques for Getting Attention

Personal and professional connections, leveraging the resources of your institution as well as EOL's resources, and social media are all great ways to make sure the world has heard of your project. If your department or institution has a press or outreach office, introduce yourself to them- when you have something cool to show off, so they'll remember you. If something important is happening with your project, be sure to let EOL staff know so we can tweet about it, put it in our newsletter, and tell all our friends. Whatever your favorite online platform is for sharing in general, use that. Here are some successful examples:

As of this writing, 1157 people "like" John Sulivan's Congo River Fishes FB page

Roger Hyam tells me he's always surprised to learn that someone's read his blog, but others are profiting from his experience with monograph markups for xml and other data rescue experiments.

Antweb and EOL aren't enough online presence for Eli Sarnat. Fortunately, there's always room for new updates and video on his blog.

Techniques for Engagement

You have an imagination; you can see the possibilities. So where do you find them, how do you reach out to them, and how to you organize them and bend them to your wi... motivate them to participate?

One ring to rule them all, one ring to- No. Sorry. There is no single strategy that works well with all the people you want to involve in your project. For starters, you will find them in a variety of different communities and hang-outs, and each group- often each individual- will be interested in your project for their own reasons. Prepare to be flexible and responsive to their angle and preferences. Here are a few things to bear in mind:

Communities have traditions: Imagine you've met a group of people who share or post content online- content you want. Unless they have indicated that they hate their existing method, they will probably be happiest if they can just keep on doing what they're already doing. Just because they want to share it with you doesn't mean they want to disrupt their workflow. (Hint: this often also applies to individuals.) If their content means that much to you, try to find a way to get it flowing in our direction without requiring them to adapt. Feel free to consult EOL staff for technical help or ideas.

The first time is the hardest: If you *must* teach someone a new tool, try to remember the last time you had to learn one. Almost all well designed tools nowadays can be figured out by trial and error (or, in rare cases, reading the documentation) but this creates an energy barrier which will prevent potential allies from joining you. If you anticipate someone will make a great contributor, invest the time up front to train them. It's easier for them, it's usually more fun, and it gives them the chance to meet you personally.

People talk to each other: This is very true of online communities, and it can be good or bad. If someone has difficulty or a bad experience participating in your project it could hurt future recruiting. This is almost never a concern for Fellows. On the other hand, happy participants talking about your project can be very beneficial. So what should you do about it? First and most importantly, do your best to give your collaborators a great experience; in addition, encourage them to spread the word and invite their peers to join in. Don't be shy about delegating, either, if you have experienced participants who could train new people. 

It pays to check the flip side: This is a win-win that is often overlooked. Say you've just recruited a teacher whose bio students are writing term papers as taxon pages for species in your group of interest. Great! In this case, they are not the best source for images of this fauna; this is fine, because you and EOL had photos already. Don't forget to offer them the photos for their studies! Maybe they're going on a collecting field trip and want to try identifications. Maybe there's a related art or photography project. This works in reverse, too. If someone inquires about using your content, ask if they'd also like to contribute.

Your time has value too: While all the strategies above have great potential to leverage your effort into an enormous content contribution, each overture will be an experiment, and it can be hard to predict which will pay off. With experience, you'll (usually) be able to tell promising new collaborators from those who don't have the time, enthusiasm or resources to participate effectively. If you don't want to give up on someone, but it's not worth your time to keep explaining or trying to persuade, refer them to our help documents, or introduce them to the appropriate EOL staff.

Maybe you've already got a dozen leads in mind already that you'd like to try, but if not, there are basic places you can look to find people who may be interested in participating. For instance, who has taken photos of your organisms and posted them online with an accurate name? Perhaps not a species level scientific name, but a higher rank or common name? That person has a demonstrated interest in your group and at least one skill from which you could benefit. Better yet, can you find someone who has published such an image with an Open Access license? Try this:

In the experience of previous Fellows, a polite inquiry for permission to use a photo in your project is nearly always successful, and often it leads to the discussion of other photos they could contribute, friends who may also be interested, etc. The other cool thing about this search technique is that it's pretty easy. If you have an eager volunteer with time but not much expertise (yet), try directing him to a task like this one, through which he can learn about your organisms, meet fellow enthusiasts, and contribute to your project.

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