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Open Access Week 2022: How to run a major international project with a mini carbon footprint

Interviews with the COPIM team about their experiences of working remotely while building major pieces of infrastructure together over the last three years.

Published onOct 24, 2022
Open Access Week 2022: How to run a major international project with a mini carbon footprint

Open Access Week’s theme, “Open for Climate Justice,” reflects the necessity for more equitable knowledge structures across international communities in order to tackle the environmental and societal extremes we are currently experiencing.

From the outset, the COPIM project has had community at its heart, with our belief that open access — which one might, in its ideal form, think of as knowledge made available by and for a global community — is essential and that the infrastructures that support it should be owned and governed jointly by the academic, library and publishing communities, rather than by single (often commercial) organisations. We believe that community-led approaches might power big changes in open access academic book publishing.

Consequently, rather than approach this year’s OA Week theme by writing about the benefits of open access to climate research (although we believe they are many and powerful) we decided to think about the impact of community action on climate change, and particularly to focus on our own small community: the group of people who have been working intensively on the COPIM project since late 2019. COPIM is a major international project that has spanned years and continents, and yet we have run almost the entire project remotely, greatly reducing our carbon footprint in the process.

In this blog post, we share some perspectives from members of the team who have made that happen: the benefits, drawbacks and lessons learned, as well as the more surprising experiences and outcomes that have come from this daunting and rich experiment in building and collaborating together, apart.

Flipping the Workplace Upside Down: The Remote Transition 

In March 2020, just under 6 months into the 3.5-year international project, the COPIM Project went fully remote due to the COVID pandemic. The COPIM Project team, whose research methods and deliverables depended on different types of information gathering that were intended to be carried out in person, had their work cut out for them. The project’s first major workshop, planned to be executed that same month, quickly shifted to a remote experience with a couple of days’ notice along with the rest of the project vision for the next several years. 

Toby: When all of that changed overnight, and additional complexities were introduced due to the newly discovered vulnerabilities that the pandemic meant for some of us on the project, this quickly led to the team having to rework much of what we had been relying on previously. As Lucy Barnes has described in one of her excellent COPIM blog posts, the re-structuring of events and the more general way of working across on the project across Work Packages has been challenging in the first few months, but I believe we’ve been able to face these obstacles and devised efficient workarounds and alternatives that allowed us to still keep the project broadly on track, and even exceed many of the goals – particularly with regards to Outreach – than we had defined previously.

Eileen: I’ve always worked remotely but with running a press, at least for me, group meetings did not really happen, except maybe when an author or a couple of editors wanted to Skype with me. There were essentially no “meetings,” for me, before COVID, partly because, from 2011 forward, I simply withdrew from all institutions and groups I used to work with as a professor and researcher. All I cared about was punctum. So I was used to everything that typically obtains with remote working, but during COVID the ubiquity of the Zoom meeting was an adjustment for me. I hated it so much at first: I felt like I was slipping into some sort of cognitive quicksand I couldn’t get out of. I felt like I was trapped in some sort of simulacrum of “being together.” My partner and I have a weekly get-together with 2 close friends and during COVID we did Zoom meetings instead. Every week I just wanted to kill myself because I hated it so much and I couldn’t wait for the Zoom to end. I always believed you could have meaningful relationships and good working relationships one to one via electronic media, whether phone, Skype, whatever, but I just didn’t believe you could have, for example, a productive workshop by Zoom. I didn’t think you could have 10, or 15, or 20 people, or even 4 (!) on a Zoom call and accomplish anything productive. I was wrong and that was a revelation for me. It felt weird at first, disorienting, and then it just felt natural. It worked, finally, after a period of adjustment. I also did not think attending seminars and conferences online would be at all interesting, or that giving presentations in Zoom meetings to groups of people could have any positive effect, and I was wrong. But you also have to practice a bit with how you do these things remotely because every mode of communication media requires different structures of address and exchange and also induces modes of comfort or lack of comfort, physically and psychically. 

While unexpected, the shift to remote resulted in valuable collaborations that may have been otherwise impossible and grew an even greater consciousness around the need to create sustainable global infrastructure for knowledge sharing. 

Illustration: “International Business Meeting” from Free SVG Illustration

Working Beyond Geographies 

The COPIM Project currently has team members spanning the U.S., U.K, and the EU and, rather than divide the group, the remote nature of the work actually brought about closer collaboration—since there was no need to wait to be in person before meaningful exchanges could be had. Nonetheless, this came with some benefits and some challenges, especially when working through the pandemic, on both professional and personal levels. 

Simon: Without geography limiting our work together, we get to work with people who we wouldn’t otherwise be able to work with.

Toby: With COPIM being a fully international team that has been working across multiple time zones and continents for close to three years, I believe remote working has allowed us to find a variety of ways to organize online workshops, events, and team meetings in quite an efficient way.  Remote working has proven the best – and sometimes only – way to make sure that we were able to stay in touch with people not only across distances by reaching out to contacts across the globe, but also across less obvious and intangible kinds of barriers, including making sure that those with personal vulnerabilities caused by the pandemic continue to be included in the project, which otherwise would have meant that project partners would have been excluded by more traditional means of conduction meetings and conferences as in-person events.

Janneke: It mainly enabled me to present my work in locations/to communities that I wouldn’t have otherwise (for example in Mexico and the US) because of the costs that would have otherwise been involved in flying me over. There is less of a cost barrier in this respect to invite speakers. That being said, in my experience it has also become more common to pay speakers for online talks they give (probably to make up for the fact that they aren’t wined and dined? But I am also suspecting the American model of always paying academic speakers is slowly becoming more common in the UK and Europe too).

Martin: For me, there is one core advantage that trumps everything else. It is, quite frankly, still the most important thing in my life and dominates my entire existence.

I am one of the clinically extremely vulnerable individuals who cannot respond to Covid vaccines. I have a severely damaged immune system and would very likely be seriously unwell if I contracted the virus. Earlier in the pandemic, people with my condition had a 27% chance of dying if they became infected.

So, to be blunt: the advantage for me is that I have been able, safely, to participate in the project. Remote working has saved my life.

It is hard to frame a disadvantage against that. Of course, I miss seeing friends and colleagues in person. I used to be a very sociable person. Now that life is gone.

Eileen: Every single thing that can be done in person can be done virtually-remotely, even a family funeral. Or a wedding. Or a bedside vigil. Or a graduation. Or a family reunion. I could go on and on. These are all real examples of what happened during the pandemic and they are all things that would have been considered wrong and lacking in substance before COVID, which taught us otherwise. My fondest COVID memory is when my neighbors organized a weekly event when everyone would come out on their upper floor balconies and sing and play music for each other. And I read many stories about this happening all over the world. This was also “remote” but also “intimate” within a land-based geographical space. COVID spurred a gorgeous inventiveness for community and relational formation across the world, and this is what catastrophe (such as war) always teaches even as it also destroys environments, dwellings, and relations. And we should celebrate that even as we find ourselves wishing everything could all be “in person” again. Turns out, it always was.

Ridding Ourselves of the Commute

Working remotely reduces carbon emissions — and not only that, it became apparent in our interviews that most people on the COPIM team have a strong distaste for the commute. 

Simon: Personally I also like the lack of commute. As well as reducing my carbon usage on transportation, it gives me more time to exercise or spend time with my family.

Judith: Well, firstly and fundamentally, I can’t drive and I’ll never be able to drive, because I have visual processing disorder called object blindness. This causes lags and errors in the way my brain interprets the position of objects in relation to each other and in relation to me, especially if they are moving. It also means I tend to process the elements of a visual scene sequentially, not as a whole, and will miss some altogether. So I will never pass a driving test, nor should I. This severely limits the places I *can* work, unless I want to be constantly moving all over the country, which is difficult for personal, economic and environmental reasons. So that’s the main advantage: it gives me hugely more opportunities. It saves time, obviously, and makes for a better work-life balance, as well as the environmental benefits of taking cars off the road. It allows me to work hours that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to, which can be important when you’re working with an international team. 

Toby: And finally, remote working for me is one way among many to contribute to a reduction of carbon emissions. Compared to that, commuting to work is a very time- and resource-consuming endeavour, and as I don’t own a car, I’m completely reliant on public transport, which, living in a rural area in the UK where public services are being cut left, right, and centre, also adds to the challenge.

Illustration: “Forest” from Free SVG Illustration

Healthier Lifestyles, Complicated Emotions

Remote working has offered COPIM Project members much greater flexibility in terms of where they live and their lifestyles, which has had a significant impact on quality of life. However, it hasn’t always been straightforwardly beneficial, and attitudes and emotions around remote working have changed over time:

Simon: It’s hard to overstate the importance of the change in working culture in UK Higher Education that the Covid-19 pandemic brought about. The acceptance of remote working by management is new despite the technology enabling remote working being around for over a decade. As well as that, there’s the internal culture of the COPIM project and good communication practices within the team which means that we’re not disadvantaged by not being in the same space. Being able to choose our location also means it’s so much easier now for my partner and I to get out into the hills and countryside around Central Scotland. I’ve been able to get so many photos of birds of prey and we were also able to adopt a wee Scottish kitten!

Toby: For me, remote working is intrinsically linked to the pandemic, as the pandemic has, arguably, turned our notion of standard modes of work upside down. And while in pre-pandemic times, remote work has certainly been a nice addition to the regular weekly work routine, its importance for me has now, in the midst of yet another pandemic wave, increased a lot. Due to the potential of catching COVID would mean a high risk to my personal health and wellbeing, remote working is now something I very much rely upon.

Eileen: …ever since 2011, I have worked remotely. punctum books’s operations, starting in 2011, was simply me at a desk, or a kitchen table, or a dining room table, doing everything remotely. I once lived in a closet in a friend’s house in Edwardsville, Illinois for 2012-2013 (it was a large closet, don’t worry) and I did all punctum work at my friend’s kitchen table on my laptop. She used to say, “if only people knew punctum was just one woman sitting at a kitchen table.” Of course, I didn’t want anyone to know this. Early on I was a bit broke, because I had resigned my professorship, and I stayed in a lot of friends’ houses and worked in their houses, usually at kitchen or dining room tables. I also worked in coffee shops and bars and restaurants when I wanted to feel a buzz of people around me who were also working, but also socializing. Again, I didn’t want anyone to know this at the time. Isn’t that funny? No one would care now, but maybe then? But also, maybe now too? A press that operates in a bar and it’s just one person?!? Work “at home,” in my opinion, has historically been denigrated as unprofessional (it is often associated with women’s labor), but it became a necessity during COVID and it changed everyone’s lives, for bad and good and everything in between…

When my co-director Vincent van Gerven Oei joined punctum in 2015, remote work continued, partly because Vincent lives in Europe and I am in the US, but we’ve never really wanted it otherwise.

So we kind of combine remote work with both of us being in the same place at the same time for certain times of the year, but in essence, working remotely for COPIM wasn’t new for me. It was natural and for years I’ve thought about having physical office space for punctum, but what’s the point? I will say this though: at times it can feel very isolating, but that’s what text messages are for! Vincent and I text back and forth all day. I only go on about all of this because I think thinking about what “remote” and “not remote” working means is really rich and complex. Personally, for me, in-person time has to be part of the equation somehow, but let’s think about it in ways that have less of an impact on the environment while not giving up in/with-person working.

Illustration: “Business Solution” from Free SVG Illustration

A Willingness to Make it Work on All Sides

The success of collaborating remotely on a project like this depends on mutual effort to make it work.

Toby: I think the most important thing for me has been the enormous support of COPIM’s Co-PIs, Janneke Adema and Gary Hall, against recurring institutional odds, as well as the continued compassion and flexibility in working around potential obstacles that all of us in COPIM have been able to put forward again and again over these past 2.5 years. Next to that, this modus operandi has also helped shape a sense of community within the team, as we’ve all learned to make this fully remote way of collaboration work for us.

Janneke: The willingness of everyone involved in COPIM to make this work, especially also around redesigning and rethinking our workshops and conferences to work in an online format, and then actually exploiting this to our advantage from there (we reached much more people in the end by doing our workshops/events online)

Illustration: “Hand Coding” from Free SVG Illustration

And of course, a reliable infrastructure… 

Janneke: The open source tools and platforms that we use on the COPIM project have been essential (Big Blue Button, Jitsi, Edumeet) as well as having all our documents etc. in one place on NextCloud. 

Simon: …we’re willing to experiment with a range of software tools and platforms (mostly open source and self-hosted) which facilitate strong communication: we’re not hampered by the inflexibility of relying on something like Microsoft Teams because we have a range of software to try things with.

Toby: …in a more pragmatic fashion: the availability of full-fibre internet here in Wells, which has been a tremendous improvement compared to the sub-par connectivity that we were able to get in our previous homes; a lack of which makes one acutely aware of the often poorly maintained underlying infrastructure’s fragility that those working remotely are highly dependent upon.

Martin: MS Teams, Zoom, and Jitsi? I’m kidding! Obviously, digital technologies play a core role in making the remote work possible. But it’s a commitment to the modality from the people with whom you work that makes this possible.

Illustration: “Video Call” from Free SVG Illustration

Imperfections in the Remote Environment

Of course, while there are many advantages to remote working there is an obvious lack of/limit to casual interactions with colleagues: 

Janneke: COPIM-wise, I have missed seeing some everyone involved socially too, especially also the people I work with most closely on the project. We have set up the COPIM social online (amazingly run and enabled by Toby)| previously, which I really enjoyed and regularly attended but that has fizzled out a bit once people went back into working at offices again (even though we do still have several COPIM members who are still shielding or are high risk, so this makes things a bit complicated again as for many of us the pandemic is far from over of course).

Simon: The major disadvantage is the lack of casual contact with colleagues: bumping into one another in the kitchen or going to the pub after work. I think that lack of contact does stifle spontaneous creativity and serendipity of casual interactions.

Toby: While remote working is very convenient, it needs to be acknowledged that for many – and depending on personal preferences – online meetings cannot fully replace the quality of real in-person interaction. That said, I still believe that those who consider themselves on the more introvert side of the spectrum will actually benefit from working remotely. Loss of non-formal, post-work, ad-hoc meetings such as during lunch breaks or spontaneous after-hours meetings for a coffee, drink etc. …  In COPIM, we tried to emulate these exchanges online, and while many on the team seemed to have appreciated these kinds of meetings in the beginning, the more time the team had to spend on regular meetings on-screen all day, the less this kind of offer of yet another online meeting to facilitate this kind of collegial exchange had seemed appealing to colleagues … 

Martin: I feel that I have grown to know my colleague (and, now, friend) Tom Grady very well indeed… But I have never met him in person. This is certainly strange. It’s stopped us having a beer at the pub quite so easily. We worked around it by raising a whisky remotely...

Lack of physical and organic conversation is especially pronounced at large events such as conferences. 

Eileen: I will say that attending a large conference, though, that is virtual, feels very weird and affectively estranging and lacking in life, somehow. You can hear some great presentations but there is no kinetic connection with other people’s minds as there is in more embodied conference spaces. I honestly can’t stand them and I’m traveling quite a bit over the next 2 months specifically because I want to be with other people in embodied dialogue and conversation, at conferences and other events. I realize this makes me a bad person with regard to the carbon footprint, but I have to admit, even though remote work has been my default for over 10 years now, I actually do really crave being with other people in embodied real time.

Simon: Large-scale events like conferences and workshops become more difficult and less dynamic online. While a lot of conferences operate on a hybrid online and offline model now, joining online often feels stifling compared to being in person. But I think the advantage is that it means more people from diverse backgrounds have been given the chance to have a voice at these events.

Read the full interviews with our project members:

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