Should live tweeting and blogging from scientific meetings be controlled?

Back in May, Daniel MacArthur – a researcher and blogger – wrote a number of on-the-spot blogs on the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) Biology of Genomes meeting.  By all accounts a number of people were tweeting and blogging from the meeting.  But Daniel had the misfortune to come under scrutiny from Genomeweb – a web-based news service – because of his actions. As ScienceInsider reported yesterday, Genomeweb complained to the conference organizers that Daniel was reporting from the meeting without having to abide by the rules governing professional journalists attending the conference.  As a result, the rules are being changed – according to ScienceInsider, the meeting’s registration form will be revised “such that all participants will agree that if they are going to blog or twitter results, they need to let CSHL know in advance and get the presenter’s okay.”

Judging by discussions on the web today, the story has hit a nerve.  More importantly, it has raised a thorny issue that really needs to be tackled as the way people communicate changes: 

What’s OK and what’s not when you’re at a scientific meeting?

As a blogger and Twitter user, as well as a regular speaker at scientific meetings, it’s a question that is directly relevant to me.  Reading the discussions today and talking with people on Twitter about the issue, I was forced to think a little more carefully about how I make decisions on when to tweet or blog, and when not to…

I do have my own set of rather fuzzy internal guidelines, but I’ve never attempted anything as formal as writing them down.  However, given the rising significance of this issue, I thought it might be worth thinking through them a little more systematically.

I’m still trying to work out what the appropriate boundaries are here, so what you are getting is more my current thought processes than any definitive answers – think of it as live -logging from my brain.  As a consequence, I could well change my mind – completely – at some future date.  But this is where I am at the moment.

First off, it’s worth thinking about why people blog or tweet, what the purpose of scientific meetings is, and the role of the established media at these meetings.

Blogging and tweeting: Are bloggers and tweeps citizen-journalists?  I don’t think we are on the whole.  Certainly, some people use blogs and Twitter to report on events.  But many others simply use the media as a way of communicating their own thoughts, observations and reactions to others. This is not journalism.

My own stuff is a mix of expert opinion, observations on stuff that grabs my interest, and occasionally factual information that I think others will be interested in.  I don’t “report” – I’m not a reporter, and I couldn’t hope to do it with nearly the skill of someone having the appropriate training.

There is a potential problem though when social media commentators – which is what a lot of us are I guess – are treated as reporters, and the stuff we write is judged accordingly.  However, placing the same code of ethics and restrictions on bloggers and Twitter users as professional journalists makes little sense – the problem is not one of what is being written as how it is being read.  Rather, new solutions are needed to the new challenges raused by social media.

Scientific meetings: Scientific meetings come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are invitation only; others are open and accessible to anyone.  Some are designed to hash out areas of uncertainty between experts; others to present results to a broad audience.  Some are held to expose research to rigorous peer review; others to establish scientific authority.  Acceptable reporting practices will undoubtedly differ from meeting to meeting.  I would be very surprised if anyone thought that live-tweeting from a private meeting was acceptable.  But a running commentary on a public keynote given by established expert would be a very different matter in my eyes.

Scientific meetings and the media: Once upon a time, scientific conferences were predominantly about exchanging and examining new information with your peers – at least, they were in my field of research.  Reporters just weren’t a part of the equation.  Now, major conferences tend to be a media-fest – with the scientific community clamoring to have their messages and stories heard by all and sundry.  There’s tremendous pressure to “sell” studies to the media – to work out what might appeal to a broad readership, then dress it up so it’s as attractive as possible.  If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the press releases and media coverage surrounding something like an American Chemical Society meeting.

As a result there is a tendency – at some conferences at least – for presentations to be less about peer to peer review and discussion, and more about broad dissemination and promotion.  In this context, people want their work to be communicated in the media – but on their terms.  In other words, they love the media when they feel they are on control, but get antsy if they feel that control slipping.

Trying to pull this together, it seems clear that as social media stretches and challenges the established way of doing things, there’s going to have to be some adjustment on both sides.  I think it’s fair to say that there are probably boundaries to appropriate live-tweeting and blogging that still need to be hashed out.  But conference organizers and speakers also need to adapt to changing circumstances.  And I don’t think that this means treating citizen commentators as journalists.  But I do think that, among other things, it means shedding attitudes that treat the media – social or otherwise – as something to be controlled and used, rather than worked in partnership with.

Which brings me to how I approach tweeting and blogging.  I’ve live-tweeted from meetings in the past, as well as blogged on meetings.  I have also made conscious decisions not to comment in any form on meetings on occasions.  I don’t think I have got it right in every case.  But I haven’t had too many complaints either.  So how do I determine what I do and don’t do?

Here’s a first stab at trying to describe my decision-making process:

In general: Irrespective of the setting, I tend to ask whether the information being presented is confidential, whether it is sensitive in any way, and whether others would benefit from reading about it on Twitter or 2020science. There has been at least one occasion where I decided not to live-tweet from a public meeting because I thought it would embarrass the speakers unnecessarily.  There have been other occasions where I have live tweeted to provide people not at the meeting a sense of what someone is saying, as they say it.

This only applies to formal presentations and public comments.  Publicly commenting on private conversations is absolutely out as far as I’m concerned, and I will only write about side conversations the person I’m talking to knows my intentions beforehand.

Invitation-only meetings: Definitely no live tweeting, and no blogging unless express permission is given.

Meetings with clearly stated reporting limitations: Generally, no live tweeting, and abiding by the rules when it comes to blogging.

Expert presentation & discussion of non-peer reviewed data. If the aim of the meeting is to seriously assess and discuss someone’s unpublished research, I would hesitate to live tweet.  I might blog – but only if it seemed appropriate given the state and significance of the research.

Open conferences (i.e. anyone who pays can attend) where researchers are reviewing the state of knowledge, presenting published data, or clearly think they are the bees knees and everyone should know it. These I see as fair game for live tweeting and blogging – without the permission of the speaker.

Public meetings, where anyone can attend and there is no entrance fee. Open season as far as tweeting and blogging go.

I will probably modify these with time and experience – it’s a first stab after all.  But I think it’s a necessary one.  Widespread communication through social media is a reality, it is challenging how things are done, and a new equilibrium needs to be found between those providing information and those using and distributing it.  The danger is that without some honest soul-searching by everyone involved, the new equilibrium could be more detrimental than beneficial.

And on a final note, Daniel MacArthur wrote a very gracious yet insightful response to Genomeweb’s concerns – evidence (if you needed it) that serious commentations are committed to getting this right, for everyone’s benefit.

Andrew Maynard