Dr Isis discusses conference blogging

Readers who haven't seen it already may be interested in the post and subsequent discussion on conference blogging taking place on Dr Isis' blog.

I feel that Dr Isis' post misrepresents my position in several ways (see this clarifying comment from me), but she does provide an interesting argument against the notion that "open tweeting" should be the default position unless the presenter explicitly states otherwise.
The discussion has given me an opportunity to clarify my thoughts on a few issues. Below the fold I've pasted some snippets from my comments on Dr Isis' post summing up some points I don't think I've ever fully spelled out here on my blog.

On my new personal policy regarding conference blogging:

If no official conference policy exists, I will seek advance permission from speakers where possible (and if the conference is small and feels private, in every case), and if this isn't possible I will restrict my coverage to (1) material already available in press releases or online abstract books; and (2) broad conclusions (as opposed to specific details) that will be of interest to my readers but highly unlikely to be seen by anyone as violating the presenter's sacred data.

And two interesting exchanges (Isis in italics):

If I put an icon on my poster, and then talk to a colleague who I don't know is going to tweet my s**t, do I have to worry that everything I say is tweetable?

No, of course not. A presentation icon would cover everything presented; a poster icon would cover everything on the poster. The icons wouldn't extend to conversations outside those defined areas unless permission was explicitly granted. This is common sense to most of us, but it should also be incorporated into a set of guidelines for conference bloggers associated with the icon.

If something is going to be blog safe, then it should be media safe. If the print media have to disclose their presence, then so should bloggers. They're both reporting stuff to the public.

I have no problem with conference registration including a question on whether you intend to blog/tweet the conference, with a section to include the URLs of your blog and/or your Twitter ID. Then conference organisers can monitor these URLs for breaches of conference policy and attendee name-tags could potentially include a small icon indicating blogger status.

More on this later...

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You write your blog posts using a straightforward and sincere tone.

Edgy, sarcastic snark may be more fun to write, and surely is a more of a thrill for the in-crowd to read.

It is not particularly well-suited to shedding light on the sorts of issues that the CSHL meeting coverage raised.

I'll stick with subscribing to this blog, thanks.

The thread following Isis' post is long. Mike Spear may have written the most perceptive comment--

Once conference organizers invite media in, then the entire event is now public. When I was a working journalist if we got a press release and/or press pass then that was the end of any talk about what was allowed and what wasn't. If it is a private meeting or one where you don't want the word spread then conference organizers must keep it that way. No press releases and no calls to the media for coverage, because you can't have it both ways.
(Though I have been to conferences where certain sessions would have a closed door with 'No Media Please' in which case that should apply to bloggers as well.)
Bloggers should be considered in the same context as media.

Mike's view corresponds in general terms with that of the Patent Office, which must take a legalistic approach to what constitutes Disclosure.

I agree that the comments on the Isis blog from Mike Spear are particularly cogent...

"The debate points out an area where science and scientists have fallen behind. Blogging, twittering, and any number of new ways to get information out to the wider world have been here for a long time now and are not going away.
For that reason alone scientists, researchers, and conference organizers have to address the question of what is fair game and what isn't at a conference." (from Mike Spear's comments)

This is a burdensome approach in that each conference will have to decide for itself what its policies are but at the end of the day, these forms of communication are here to stay. While twitter may be gone in 6months, something else will be around to replace it. I think there will be different fields more apt to accept an "open" set of policies but in the end I think it likely that each individual presenter should have the right to decide whether their data is ready for prime time distribution. For better or worse, with communication this easy, we are moving toward a time where I think the presumption will now be that once it's out of your mouth, it could get anywhere.

One concern I have is that people twittering might not know the "rules of engagement" that a true science journalist might know (i.e. think back to the folks that spilled the beans about the fossil, not knowing that he had to tell the reporter it was off the record at the start of the conversation). Most scientists don't know the etiquette involved in reporting this information and twitter takes it to a level of informality that results in a perceived blurring of those lines.

I think it clear that we need to rethink how we are communicating about science. I think that Isis doesn't give science bloggers or the readers of those bloggers much credit. People reading things off a twitter post re: a scientific meeting are likely scientists- individuals trained to think critically and deeply about data, conclusions, interpretations of data, etc. I didn't run off and tell my colleagues about results I heard. Instead, I asked questions to myself like: I wonder what the N was, what's their coverage?, I wonder why they got different results than John Doe?

We are indeed in an age where science is highly competitive and this causes all of us to put our guards up before we present. I fail to see how the existence of tweeting or live blogging changes what a scientist is willing to present, especially since their real competitors are likely in the room, making Isis' "clamming up" argument moot. But at the end of the day, I'm actually still trying to find out what argument she is trying to make except to try to provoke a response... which I guess she succeeded at doing with 35+ comments.

kms, you delightful little muffin! You're still here! I have provoked a response!

I realize that you are distracted by the naughty words so let me work on "cogent" for you...

What I keep saying is not that I am worried about being scooped. I am worried about how my data will be presented to the public when data at a conference is usually incomplete and preliminary.

But, I think Dan and I are getting towards as commoner ground. I'll post my "demands" when I get to my office. You might not want to read it, though. It might offend your delicate sensibilities.

Some folks seem to have a hard time understanding the value of politeness and sincerity in working through complex and contentious issues. In her real life, Isis might exhibit consistent good humor when she's on the receiving end. In that case, a tip o' the hat to her. (But then we all know labmates who are so darn prickly that they never get their 'fair' share of guff.)

kms puts the issue well. Nobody presents at a meeting in order to keep their results secret. How much disclosure is acceptable is a matter of degree, bounded by a few bright lines and personal preferences.

External factors --

* Journals' policies on pre-publication of data in MSs.
* Journals' policies on embargoing.
* Patent office policies (if something's disclosed in a non-confidential setting, it becomes part of the "prior art" and thus non-patentable).

Personal factors --

* Concerns on being scooped.
* Concerns on being misinterpreted or misrepresented.
* Concerns on a loss of face-to-face interaction (tit-for-tat exchanges, swapping ideas, networking).

Different conferences (and different fields) already have varied standards. For the most part, these have been 'social' understandings rather than rules-based. An phone call or letter to a friend discussing exciting data in a talk has always been okay. What about an email? A mention in a seminar? An email copied to four, twenty, 200 colleagues?

In biology as in the rest of the world, the line between Journalist and everybody-else is blurring. So CSHL and other conference organizers have to come up with new, clear policies. Those speakers and poster authors who want to limit the dissemination of the material they're presenting should be mindful of digital cameras, blogging, tweeting, and further technology-driven changes.

Daniel's honest mistake at CSHL--if it can even be called a "mistake"--is going to be repeated dozens of times in dozens of ways. The scientific community could do worse than brandish bee antennae or stickers as we work on adopting to changing circumstances.