How does a lockdown affect a visiting researcher? Some reflections during the COVID-19 lockdown period
In July 2019, I joined CWTS for a one-year research stay. The lockdown due to COVID-19 changed my situation as a visiting researcher quite a bit. While virtual ways of working could make up for some of the constraints experienced, I had to think: what might be the effects on academic networking?
In July 2019, I came to Leiden in the Netherlands for a one-year research visit at CWTS. This was possible thanks to a grant by the Graduate Students Study Abroad Program from the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) in Taiwan. This grant supports domestic doctoral students to have a research stay abroad. My time in the Netherlands was spent on pursuing two goals: (1) to conduct my PhD research project in the topic of open access (OA) publishing, combining a survey and bibliometrics approach and studying the policy development in European countries, and (2) to visit as many places as possible to broaden my research horizon.
I still remember why I chose the Netherlands. First of all, CWTS is an excellent research institution in the area of scientometrics and research policy including OA studies, so I could use this opportunity to learn from experts in the field. Second, CWTS has a long history with the institute where I work in Taiwan, the Science & Technology Policy Research and Information Center (STPI). Both CWTS and STPI had conducted some research projects together almost twenty years ago, but somehow the connection was lost for a while. We have similar missions and research agendas, and I believe my research stay can help to revive this relationship and to create more future collaboration opportunities. Third, the Netherlands is located centrally in Western Europe, and there are many important research institutes here. I was looking forward to visiting many places to exchange research ideas and have discussions. Particularly, many academic conferences or workshops are organized by European research institutes or other stakeholders in research policy on an annual basis. In the past, I attended these activities one or two times a year, and every time I needed to find financial support to cover the travel expenses. If I could not find financial support, I only could use hashtags to follow the latest discussions via Twitter to know what was discussed during those conferences. This definitely lacks the opportunity to network with the academic community. Hence, once I knew that I would have this chance to stay one-year as a visiting researcher in Europe, I got very excited. At this point, though, I could not yet foresee how things would unfold…
Before the lockdown
In the first six months of my research stay, I tried to seize any possible opportunity for traveling. Last August, I visited a number of organisations in the United Kingdom to learn about the development of OA in the UK: the Wellcome Trust, Jisc, the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) by Clarivate Analytics, and Loughborough University to obtain different perspectives on this issue from different stakeholders. In the first week of September, I went to Rome, Italy to attend the 17th International Conference of the International Society for Scientometrics and Informetrics (ISSI) as well as the doctoral forum of the conference. This was my first time to attend an ISSI conference and I was very thrilled to see many scholars and peers there. Then, I was invited to go to London to attend the launch event of the Research on Research Institute (RoRI). It was a great opportunity to observe how a new research agenda is formed. Participating in such a big event gave me the chance to get to know more people in the field and think about how to connect this academic community with our institute in Taiwan in the future. During those events, I couldn't help but to think that all these things could not have happened if I had not come to Europe to do my research. Moreover, I started to worry about whether the degree of connection with Europe could be decreasing more or less after I had gone back home. How should I maintain the connections? How should I find more financial support to let me have the opportunity to fly to Europe to attend the academic activities here?
After the lockdown
Suddenly, my upcoming trips were forced to be cancelled due to the outbreak of COVID-19. I was supposed to attend the PEERE Conference on Peer Review in March and give a talk at the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW) in April. Not to mention that I also had plans to visit more research institutes in Europe in the second half year of my research stay. The only event that I could still attend in person was the LIS-Bibliometrics conference organized by Leeds University in early March, just before the lockdown.
It seems that my identity as a “visiting researcher” has less meaning now. I am the “work-from-home” researcher now. To be honest, it is a little disappointing for me. I did not expect this situation happening at all.
However, I still feel grateful with all the arrangements made at CWTS and Leiden University. Thanks to the infrastructure of the database and the remote connection, I can access the database remotely. We still have the regular group and individual meetings. All the Friday afternoon research seminars remained to take place, in an online form however. One day, I woken up to the realization that there is a bright side of this lockdown as well, similar to what my colleague Eleonora Dagiene said in her blog post. Maybe, when I go back to Taiwan, I can still use this online channel to have discussions with my colleagues at CWTS, and I still can join research seminars on Friday afternoons and feel inspired. The only thing that I will need to overcome is the different time zone.
Moreover, many courses or lectures are shifting to the online version. For example, the lecture series of Science of Science organized by University of Luxembourg invites many outstanding scholars to give a talk: the presenters are from all over the world, as are the participants. I feel excited about all these new opportunities and connections.
Nevertheless, I have somewhat mixed feelings about this. Academic communication and interaction will have changed once the lockdowns are removed again. On the one hand, the boundary of geography might disappear. All these conferences, workshops, and seminars perhaps will continue to take place virtually. This will allow people from distant countries to join these activities without having to consider timely or budgetary limits. Those who always had to go on many international business trips may have more time to spend with their families instead of on travelling. Moreover, it is really helpful for carbon reduction.
However, all the information about online lectures or seminars that I have obtained so far is provided by the acquaintances I made during conferences. This means that the connections and information exchange we are enjoying now are somehow based on the interactions we had in the past. Without meeting each other physically anymore, though, will we still get new such opportunities during virtual meetings? I doubt it.
This pandemic makes us re-think the meaning of globalization in academia. If online courses and virtual conferences become the future norm, will it increase or decrease the degree of scientific collaboration? Although I personally prefer having traditional face-to-face discussions, I do benefit from the online discussions. However, I am wondering whether this virtual way of working will actually contribute to increasing access to academic knowledge for those from developing countries. While researchers from developing countries may not need to worry about the issue of affordability of traveling or living abroad, new disparities might be created as well. Those could be an immediate consequence of less face-to-face connection, confining possibilities for enlarging one’s academic network. Would this mean that we will have smaller circles in academia in the future? I do hope that this will not be the case, and that we will find ways for inspiring (new) collaborations regardless of more virtual interactions.