Considering Community: What types of community are there? (Science edition, part one)

In one of my early Considering Community posts I outlined several broad types of community – from communities of interest to communities of circumstance – and I mused on whether the different types might use online tools distinctly.

In reflecting recently on the different communities represented in the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program that I run, I realised that it’s time to dive a little deeper on this topic – considering some of the different configurations of community specifically within science. 

In this first post on the topic, I discuss professional societies for scientists and what I call infrastructure or “halo” organisations. For each, I raise some questions to consider when pondering the role of the community manager to build connections among members.

Types of communities of scientists – part one

i) Scientific communities associated with professional societies – single or multi-disciplinary 

  • On average, according to a recent Elsevier survey, scientists belong to 2.9 professional associations. There may be a society or two associated with your primary discipline e.g. SfN, AGU, SDB, and additional more general associations such as AAAS that span multiple disciplines. 
  • Most societies will have an annual meeting where members can present their research and meet one another through a series of professional, social and structured networking events. Societies may additionally produce some form of regular publication whether that’s a journal, member magazine or formal newsletter.
  • Increasingly societies are being asked to provide more value for members’ subscription costs. As members are typically not co-located activities such as professional development webinars, member spotlight blog posts and even social networks are found online. 
  • I believe that many of these communities aren’t truly more than stage 1 communities as member interactions are all typically mediated through the society and a rich ecosystem of ongoing member-member interactions may not exist year round. 

Additional community details to consider:

  • Is the society national or international? Does this affect activities such as the frequency or location of annual meetings or other in-person get togethers? For example, if the society is international the meeting location may vary each year, resulting in a large rotation of participants due to travel costs. This will affect the formation of communities as members may not have a regular opportunity to meet in person each year.
  • Some societies, such as SigmaXi, have local chapters which meet more regularly in person throughout the year and form their own sub-communities.
  • Does the society have subject-specific sections or other sub-groups and if so, what are their activities and who coordinates them? What relationship does these sub-groups have to the overall organisation and who mediates that relationship?
  • If a society is multi-disciplinary, what opportunities are there for cross-disciplinary conversations between society members? Are members split into their areas of subject-specific expertise with little opportunity to meet others? If there are opportunities for networking, how are these facilitated? Are these mediated in some way through a formal mentoring or match-making program, informally via section activities or self-directed e.g. via engagement on an online platform the society provides?
  • Who is the community manager for any of the group activities? Are they an employee of the society or an elected member of the community such as a section chairperson or secretary? What length term does this person typically serve and how do they view their role?

Does your scientific community provide infrastructure for members to soar? Image credit:

ii) Scientific communities associated with “infrastructure” or “halo” organisations 

  • A second type of scientific community that’s a little harder to characterise is what I’ll term “infrastructure” or “halo” organisations. These are typically communities of practice that exist to bring together scientists who share a common need that may or may not be discipline specific.
  • For example, INCF provides guidance and support for the international neuroinformatics community and rOpenSci provides staff- and community-contributed software tools for working with scientific data, along with a strong/enabling social infrastructure.
  • With hackdays, in-person trainings and other specific deliverables such as the development of new standards for the field, documentation and metrics, or code that’s deposited openly on GitHub, I’d argue that these communities are more focused and possibly at a more mature stage than some professional societies – although this will vary organisation by organisation. 

Additional community details to consider:

  • Is the organisation national or international? 
  • Are there any regular events or other scheduling – such as hackdays, an annual meeting, an annual report or activities such as the development of materials or provision of training or mentoring?
  • What is the funding model for the organisation? Is it dependent on grants or member subscriptions or something else? How might this impact the long-term sustainability of the organisation – and the support staff?
  • Does the organisation have any staff or other leadership? Does it have a community manager?
  • What are the deliverables of the organisation – and who decides them? Are projects organically created by the community or instigated by the organisation – or a mix of the two?
  • Are there working groups or other sub-groups within the organisation which may be communities in their own right? Do members move from working groups as projects evolve – maybe closing groups that have met their goals or founding new groups for new deliverables?


Do you belong to either of these types of communities – or manage them? Does your community have any defining characteristics that set it apart? Does the community have someone in a community manager role?

6 thoughts on “Considering Community: What types of community are there? (Science edition, part one)

  1. Love how you are thinking about categorizing types of scientific communities. Important for community managers to consider this before diving into engagement projects!

    I find case studies helpful for people to think about where their communities fit so I’ll respond to your questions for my org.

    I’m the community manager for rOpenSci, which you’ve accurately (IMO) listed as an “infrastructure” or “halo” organisation. rOpenSci is a non-profit that provides staff- and community-contributed open source software tools for working with scientific data and we support this with a strong social infrastructure in the form of a diverse and welcoming community.

    We have “members” all over the world. We build community though an annual in-person “unconference / hackathon”, quarterly Community Calls about best practices, blog posts about software AND people, and through collegial discussions and troubleshooting on Twitter, Slack and GitHub. rOpenSci is known for its open peer software review process through which people can submit a software package for friendly but incisive expert reviews, and ultimately have the software “onboarded”, or hosted by rOpenSci. Through this process we help build better software users and developers, and submitters and reviewers alike rave about how much they learn in the process. (When was the last time you heard someone rave about a great peer review experience?!)

    Thanks in part to current funding from a charitable organization, we have four full time staff – project lead, technical lead, software engineer and Yes!! a community manager! We have a 3-person volunteer advisory group who are domain experts, and our software review editorial team includes two staff members and two expert volunteers.

    What sets us apart? We know that we are nothing without our community.


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