Blogging geoscience meetings

Over the past year, as live-blogging and live-tweeting conferences have become more common, scientific societies have had to figure out what to do about bloggers. What are we? We don't usually wear press badges (although there are professional journalists who blog, and there are bloggers who write about new research in a way that's similar to traditional science journalists). We're just some people sitting in the back of a darkened room, listening to a talk... until we post publicly about it. Last summer, my SciBling Dan MacArthur unintentially ran afoul of the press policy at the Cold Spring Harbor Biology of Genomes meeting, and sparked discussion about potential problems with conference blogging.

I watched all this unfold with some concern. I'm not much of a conference blogger - I just don't write down my thoughts fast enough (and I have a bad habit of talking to people in the halls instead of scurrying off to type on my computer). But I've tried - I've written a few posts about conference sessions, and I've felt like I should have written more. (Certainly there's more than one post worth of interesting stuff that I've heard at conferences in the past couple years.)

But geology isn't biomedicine. Our work isn't covered as much in the press, and there isn't a discipline-wide fear of being scooped, and conference talks are often about fairly mature studies (including work that's in press). Still, when I read the press guideline's for this year's Geological Society of America annual meeting, I was concerned about how they applied to me. Would it be ok to write about interesting sessions, or to discuss material not included in press releases? So I sent an e-mail to the people coordinating the press passes, and asked about blogging policies.

Here's the response that I received (below the fold):

  • Blogging, twittering, and discussing science online from the GSA Annual Meeting does not violate our conference policies. Current restrictions on photos and recording devices in tech session rooms and the absence of Wi-Fi in technical sessions are (and have been) in place to curtail activities that could be distracting to speakers during their presentations. GSA does not, however, attempt to manage online discussions of science occurring at and around the annual meeting. Abstracts are already published online in advance of the meeting, and we expect that public discussion/debate will follow.
  • GSA press releases are selected and written to highlight work that may be of interest to the general public, the local community, or the science press, but in no way are intended to be the only content suitable for discussion from the meeting. Note: Permission to generate publicity via press release is always obtained from the author(s).
  • Our posted policy states that "media credentials entitle journalists and public information officers (PIOs) from geoscience-related organizations to access all scientific sessions and the exhibition area, as well as the Newsroom and events specifically for media representatives." In other words, members of the media have access to GSA's assistance in facilitating their reporting, not GSA's "permission" to report/discuss subjects or not.
  • GSA asks that members of the media discuss research of interest with the authors before publishing stories on their work. This is a professional courtesy and a means to help ensure that authors' works are accurately represented and cited. If a blogger receives complimentary media registration to "report" on the meeting, then GSA would expect adherence to this same professional ethical standard. If, however, bloggers are attending the meeting at their own expense, expressing their own opinions, observations, and reactions, and not representing themselves as professional journalists, then it follows that GSA does not/cannot require that dialogue among meeting participants.
  • No presenters at the meeting may attend for free under the guise of being a member of the media. If a blogger wants to seek media credentials, he/she should preregister for the meeting, according to the instructions on the media registration page of the meeting Web site. All complimentary media registrations are approved on a case-by-case basis, and bloggers should verify that they are not attending as a presenter, clearly state their affiliation with an online outlet (if any) and include links to their relevant blog posts.
  • Please feel free to pass this information along to other geology bloggers, either privately (via forwarded e-mail) or publicly via your blog. (Perhaps the question as to whether geologists think bloggers should talk about conference presentations would be an interesting poll in our GSA Connections newsletter.)

Since this conversation, GSA has been facilitating all sorts of social media associated with the meeting - there's a dynamic blogroll, where any bloggers attending the meeting can link to their blogs. There's a Twitter roll, and Twitter hashtag (#GeoPort). There's a Facebook page. There's a discussion forum, and a list of recommended places to visit in Portland, and a secure rideshare/roomshare bulletin board. GSA is embracing Web 2.0 (including in a keynote symposium organized by several bloggers).

But I'm still curious how geoscientists feel about online discussions of their work. Conferences are more casual than published papers, and it is possible to misinterpret someone's work from their talk or poster. So what do you think? Would you prefer bloggers to let you know that they are thinking about posting about your work, or do you figure that, if the abstract's available on the web, it's ok for people to discuss your work?

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Wow. That is how it should be.

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 24 Sep 2009 #permalink

I have to agree that GSA has crafted a remarkably reasonable and well thought out policy - one that I think is worthy of emulation by other scientific societies.

How do I think geoscientists should feel about online discussion of their work? The same as they feel about any other discussion of their work. If the discussion is well-informed and thoughtful, constructive in its criticism, and insightful in its analysis, then I think the commentator (blogger) should want to include the author in the conversation and the geoscientist should embrace the opportunity to hone their argument and/or disperse their findings. That's how good scientific communication should work.

Thanks for posting this. I agree with Ron ... this is a fantastic response from GSA. Both in it's main message of openness as well as how thouroughly they've considered the issue.

Thanks for getting the info out of GSA. I'll be at GSA this year so I was hoping to do a little blogging while I am at the meeting (or just generally hanging around Portland). Geologists tend to be pretty relaxed about things to begin with anyway ...

I also think that GSA's policy looks excellent. I think it would be an appropriate and polite gesture to mention to a presenter that you are planning to blog on a presentation, but I'm not sure it would be appropriate for a presenter to expect that he/she has to a right to give or deny "permission" for that to happen. I think most geobloggers could benefit from drawing the presenter's attention to a relevant post and asking for comments and response, or allowing/inviting the presenter to do a guest post to respond. This is more or less what Ron advocates above.

The fact is, the presentation is happening in a public meeting of peers- and any member of the public, educated and trained in geology or not, can pay for admission. As such, a presenter's data, methods and conclusions are open for discussion. Not so long ago, that might have been limited to face-to-face discussions, phone conversations and snail mail. Electronic communications have sped things up and widened the audience, but it seems to me the same principles apply.

Cranks and jerks have access and impact in way they didn't in the past, but I'm quick to delete spammers and inappropriate comments from the sites where I have that ability. I've been pretty impressed by the courtesy and good-faith discussions in the geoblogosphere; if what I've seen over the last year and a half is any indication, I don't think the non-blogging geological academic community has much to worry about with regards to the geological bloggers.

Nice post, Kim. Lots to think about here.

Sounds very reasonable. This part: "absence of Wi-Fi in technical sessions are (and have been) in place to curtail activities that could be distracting to speakers during their presentations" - sound really strange to me, but I know different communities are different. If you want to tweet sessions, I guess you'll have to use 3GC

That's fascinating, Kim. As you say, the GSA have really thought about it. The Penrose Conference I attended a few years ago was brilliantly organised, so that doesn't surprise me.

Social media at conferences is certainly pushing new boundaries, and this might just be the ultimate example that I've found so far -- the wife of the British Prime Minister, blogging from the G20 Summit last week:

Sarah Brown at the G20 in Pittsburgh.

Sarah is now on Twitter live from the Labour Party Conference in Brighton. 800,000 followers -- not quite as many as BHO, but not insignificant, either.

It's great to embrace new media, although sometimes you really have to wonder where it will all go...