Communicating Well


We are living in unprecedented times. I am writing this leader at the end of March and over the past few weeks, the situation has been changing from day to day about what is allowed and what is appropriate behaviour in attempting to combat the threat of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). By the time this edition of Inside OR is published, there may be further significant developments that affect the ways we are able to live and work.

A lot is still unknown about COVID-19, but as a virus, it communicates well: it seems to have the property of being able to multiply and spread rapidly through a population unless mitigated in some way.

The crisis has emphasized the need for good communications on the part of the government to get its message over clearly and to communicate the reasons for its policies.

Graphs and charts are also being used by news media to illustrate what is happening. Here is a link to one example from the BBC, though the numbers will now be out of date:

Simplified simulations are also being used to illustrate the effect of different strategies. For example, here is a link to an article published in the Washington Post:

The article includes a simulation of a simplified model of a disease they call “simulitis” and illustrates the effects of different strategies to slow or stop its spread through a population. Although based on a simplified model, the article is a good example of the power of visual simulation for communicating the results of alternative actions.

Many of us have had to get used to new ways of communicating with others while self-isolating at home. There has been a surge in the use of Skype, Zoom, Teams and other forms of software designed to enable us to be able to communicate well, despite not being physically in the same place. After the current crisis is over, will these communication methods be used more in the future? Will travelling to meetings and conferences be entirely replaced by on-line communications? My personal view is that there will be some increase in the use of software to enable on-line meetings instead of travelling to meet in the same room or conference venue. However, I do not think that all such meetings will disappear. Even though the on-line software is effective, particularly for formal presentations and discussions, it is often the informal conversations and interactions that take place around meeting together that are at least as valuable as the more formal part of the programme.

I can still remember an example from the OR conference in Durham in 1985 when I attended an excellent tutorial given by Dominic de Werra on the subject of Graph Theory. I remember very little of the tutorial, but I do remember chatting afterwards with Dominic and others about a new technique for trying to solve hard discrete optimization problems that later became known as Simulated Annealing. This gave me an early insight into a research topic which has subsequently been found to be useful in tackling challenging optimisation problems in many application areas. I don’t think I would have picked that up from only participating in the conference on-line.

The ways to combat COVID-19 without a vaccine being available rely on slowing its rate of spread so that the NHS has a chance to treat patients without being overwhelmed. Behind the expert advice is a lot of modelling by epidemiologists and other scientists. Modelling is our stock-in-trade and it will be interesting to find out in the future how many people associated with OR through GORS or the NHS have influenced the models being used. OR was forged in wartime. Our current experience resembles a war situation, with scientists from many different backgrounds working together to beat the virus.

Some of you may have responded to the message circulated by The OR Society on 30 March 2020 informing us that the Royal Society has put out an open call for modellers to help with the understanding of the spread of COVID-19 and the impact of government measures. The initiative is known as Rapid Assistance in Modelling the Pandemic: RAMP and I hope that by the time you read this, it will have been able to start contributing.

Modelling, whether using mathematics or simulation or other tools, is a powerful weapon in guiding decisions until a vaccine is found. Our publisher, Taylor & Francis, is playing a part in making research relevant to COVID-19 available. Details are available from this link:

The OR Society is also hoping to develop material on our website that will share resources to help those involved in COVID-19 related work.

Do these responses to the coronavirus crisis illustrate the benefits of moving to open access to research to replace the subscription model currently used for much academic publication?

The issue of moving to open access models for communicating research has recently been discussed, provoked particularly by the publication of Plan S, proposing a move to new publication models that allow funded research to be freely available to all instead of being protected behind a paywall. UKRI has recently launched a draft policy on Open Access and a consultation process, which could have a significant influence on scientific publications and the journals in which the articles are published.

What is a reasonable cost to the taxpayer for funded research to be made available for others? Has the use of commercial publishers led to increased costs? Can insistence on Open Access be a way of making costs of publication more transparent? Can they be reduced?

Although some costs have reduced over the years, such as the number of printed copies required and consequent reductions in production and physical distribution costs, there are still costs associated with publications that are important to be covered if the research is to be communicated well. For example, efficient software support for editors to manage the increasing number of submissions must be maintained, researchers need to be able to find relevant articles on topics that are already of interest, articles in new areas need promoting and all articles need proper conservation for the future.

Details of UKRI’s consultation can be found on the following link:

A video of the launch meeting to provide further information and guidance is also available from this link:

The final policy of UKRI will affect where researchers send their papers to be published, and eventually could affect the reputation and esteem in which our journals are held.

The deadline for responses to the consultation has been delayed by the coronavirus crisis, so the deadline is now 29 May 2020. The OR Society, like other learned societies and other interested bodies, is preparing a response and we are interested in hearing views from our member community. If you have personal views about this issue or have insights from being involved in preparing a response for your own university or other institution, then it would be great to hear from you. Just send me an email on [email protected] and we can see how your contribution can be taken into account.