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ISCB Student Council – Documenting the efforts of student organisation volunteers

A guest post by: Geoff Macintyre, Thomas Abeel, Magali Michaut

In July 2014 the International Society for Computational Biology Student Council will celebrate it’s 10th anniversary. Over its ten years of operation, the Student Council has grown to over 2000 members thanks, in a large part, to its constituent of innovative and enthusiastic volunteers. These volunteers have worked hard to uphold the Student Council’s mission of “promoting the development of the next generation of computational biologists”. While many of the volunteers have not received any direct recognition for their contributions, each and every one of the Student Council members will attest that the reward lies in the skills and experience gained in being part of organising an event or activity.


However, to ensure that both the efforts of these student volunteers did not go unnoticed, and that their collective experiences could be shared with others, the Student Council put together a series of article documenting various aspects of the Student Council initiatives that PLOS Computational Biology is publishing in conjunction with ISCB. Many of the articles are now published and have been launched as a PLOS Collection.


The first article is a great source of information regarding the series and the Student Council. But as a supplement to the series, we thought we would use this post to demonstrate the benefits of being involved in the Student Council by explaining the story behind the creation of the article series. For us personally it was a tremendously rewarding experience and taught us as much about collaborative writing as it did about differences in education backgrounds and culture of our co-authors.


The story

While the Student Council has had the opportunity to share proceedings from the annual Student Council Symposium in the past (1-7), there were only a handful of examples of Student Council initiatives being shared with the broader community (8). To rectify this, in early 2012 Nelson Ndegwa and Magali Michaut, both active members of the Student Council, put a call out to all members to see if they would like to share their experiences organising and running events in a paper. The response was overwhelming with many of the leaders from the Regional Student Group program sharing their successes (and failures) in organising initiatives for students from their home country. Originally the collaborative writing environment of WikiGenes was used but, after the expansion to a second page and over 20 authors, this quickly became unwieldy. The other problem was that, with so many stories demonstrating different experiences, different themes, and different writing styles, it was becoming near impossible to condense it all down into one body of writing representing the essence of the Student Council volunteer experience. At the time, Geoff was Chair of the Student Council and had contributed some stories from his time in the Australian Regional Student Group. Seeing the potential arising from this writing effort he took the project to his colleagues in the Student Council executive team and they agreed to set up a small team to oversee and coordinate the writing efforts which included Magali Michaut, Thomas Abeel and Geoff Macintyre.


Initially, we attempted to extract some of the abstract concepts from the stories to see if we could write an overarching piece. However, we realised that a lot of the personal nature and details of the experiences were lost. The only way to capture details and write a relatable story was to split up the monolith into many small focused stories. At ISMB 2012 we approached PLOS Computational Biology and the ISCB Publications Committee with a plan to write 12 short articles to document the efforts of Student Council members in various endeavors and hopefully entice others to get involved. After some discussions, and early support from committee members Scott Markel and Olga Troyanskaya, it was agreed that the ISCB pages as part of PLOS Computational Biology would be a good fit for the article series. Needless to say we were rather excited by this news, but then we faced the challenge to coordinate the writing of these articles!


Much time was spent on Skype to develop a strategy to deliver twelve high quality articles in a timely manner. We wanted to give every member an opportunity to contribute to the series, but we wanted to ensure no-one was simply along for the ride. We therefore decided to have one person as a lead author on each article (selected from those who initially contributed to the stories) and one of us to oversee each article. Each lead author had to select passages of text from the original stories collected on WikiGenes which were relevant to their article and invite the author of that text to be part of their article. An additional announcement was put out with the description of each article and any students who wished to be involved had to submit to the lead author a short piece of writing relevant to the article. This process resulted in an average of four potential authors per article – we made it clear that authorship would be determined based on contributions after the article was written.


We opted to use Google Docs for the writing of each article as it allowed simultaneous editing of the articles and the ability to track the edits. Initially, the authors were required to provide an outline of the article which had to be discussed amongst all authors via Skype. Once this was done, we provided additional feedback and writing could commence. Naturally each article went through a number of drafts with all authors working on different aspects of each article. Once the final drafts of the articles started to trickle in, they were sent out to previous Student Council members who volunteered their time providing ‘peer review’ feedback on each article. Their comments were taken into account and each article was revised accordingly. With the articles in a final draft form, we discussed with the lead authors the contributions of everyone involved and authorship was jointly decided – a process that went surprisingly smoothly.


At this stage, the articles were ‘nearly’ ready for submission. The only problem remaining was that the articles lacked flow or clarity in parts. This was likely a byproduct of having authors from different countries writing in conflicting styles and for quite a few of the authors it was the first journal paper they ever wrote. To overcome this, and drawing on the inspiration of the astounding volunteer efforts of the Student Council members, we sought out students from another discipline – in this case professional editing students – to see if they would volunteer their time in editing the article to improve readability. To our delight, Stephanie Holt, from RMIT University agreed to put forward our articles to her Advanced Manuscript Editing students, as a group exercise in practicing their editing skills. As such, we received a collection of suggested changes which dramatically improved some of the articles.  The articles were finally ready for submission.


Since then, we have submitted each article sequentially, which are now being published with the help of the teams at PLOS (currently up to article 10 of 12). Overall the experience was immensely rewarding. The process of having to coordinate the collaborative writing efforts honed our planning and time management skills, made us realise the benefit (and limitations) of using collaborative writing software, and helped us get more familiar with the process of taking an idea through to publication. However, most interesting for us, was the insight into cultural and educational differences between our co-authors from around the globe, including Africa, Europe, South and North America. For example, different authors had different ideas about how and what they could talk about when critically analysing their own education experiences. No-doubt these insights will help us in future collaborations during our scientific careers.


Looking back on some of the articles that have been published, we hope that many of the Student Council members feel proud that their volunteer efforts have been shared with the broader community. But more importantly, it will be exciting to see if the articles in this series can inspire other students to see the benefits in volunteering in student organisations and contributing to their scientific community.



1. Gehlenborg N, Corpas M, Janga S (2007) Highlights from the Third International Society for Computational Biology Student Council Symposium at the Fifteenth Annual International Conference on Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology. BMC Bioinformatics 8: I1. doi: 10.1186/1471-2105-8-s8-i1


2. Peixoto L, Gehlenborg N, Janga S (2008) Abstracts of the Fourth International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB) Student Council Symposium. Toronto, Canada. July 18, 2008. BMC Bioinformatics 9 Suppl 10: I1–P6. doi: 10.1186/1471-2105-9-s10-i1


3. Abeel T, de Ridder J, Peixoto L (2009) Highlights from the 5th International Society for Computational Biology Student Council Symposium at the 17th Annual International Conference on Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology and the 8th European Conference on Computational Biology. BMC Bioinformatics 10 Suppl 1: I1 doi: 10.1186/1471-2105-10-S13-I1.


4. Klijn C, Michaut M, Abeel T (2010) Highlights from the 6th International Society for Computational Biology Student Council Symposium at the 18th Annual International Conference on Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology. BMC Bioinformatics 11: I1. doi: 10.1186/1471-2105-11-s10-i1


5. Grynberg P, Abeel T, Lopes P, Macintyre G, Pantano Rubiño L (2011) Highlights from the Student Council Symposium 2011 at the International Conference on Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology and European Conference on Computational Biology. BMC Bioinformatics 12: A1. doi: 10.1186/1471-2105-12-s11-a1


6. Goncearenco A, Grynberg P, Botvinnik O, Macintyre G, Abeel T (2012) Highlights from the Eighth International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB) Student Council Symposium 2012. BMC Bioinformatics 13: A1. doi: 10.1186/1471-2105-12-s11-a1


7. Di Domenico T, Prudence C, Vicedo E, Guney E, Jigisha A, Shanmugam A (2014) Highlights from the ISCB Student Council Symposium 2013. BMC Bioinformatics 15(Suppl 3):A1  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-15-S3-A1


8.  Gichora NN, Fatumo SA, Ngara MV, Chelbat N, Ramdayal K, et al. (2010) Ten Simple Rules for Organizing a Virtual Conference—Anywhere. PLoS Comput Biol 6(2): e1000650. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000650



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