To tweet or not to tweet – social media and the scientific meeting

by Andrew Maynard on June 3, 2009

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.

1 Ruth Seeley June 3, 2009 at 6:19 pm

None of the discussions has addressed one glaring fact that separates traditional media from bloggers and Tweeters not affiliated with media outlets, and that is the fact that the reason organizations want to know in advance what media will be in attendance is so they can accommodate them and their often stringent deadlines. I have certainly helped journalists in this way, particularly in the days before wireless access was common, by getting them to computer workstations where they could upload photos and text. Setting them up with 1:1 or 1:many interviews, getting supplemental questions answered, and providing comfort and care onsite is part of my job.

Independent bloggers and Tweeps who are not asking to be accommodated in any way shouldn’t have to declare their intentions to live blog or live Tweet public meetings. Public means ‘no expectation of privacy’ and it also means ‘on the record.’

I will have to see if I can dig up the Genomeweb protest, but here’s the thing: most organizations are more than willing to set aside time for media and will jump through hoops to accommodate. I have, on several occasions, set up advance briefings for journalists prior to open public consultations, had the media refuse to attend the briefings, and then expected my spokespeople to pay attention to them and grant them interviews when their role for the evening was to make themselves widely available to members of the general public who wanted to ask questions they, as specialists, were best qualified to answer. This just isn’t on. So I think, to some extent, when a mainstream media outlet complains about live blogging or live Tweeting, it’s sour grapes and a refusal to acknowledge that, as you say, the way we communicate is indeed changing dramatically and our expectations regarding how we are communicated with are changing as well.

Good set of guidelines. Like the capricious announcement that they may change AT ANY TIME. A defiant hair toss might be in order there. :)

2 Andrew Maynard June 4, 2009 at 12:03 am

Thanks Ruth – I overlooked that really important point that media identification at meetings is as much (if not more) about the meeting organizers ensuring maximum opportunities for coverage as it is about protecting attendees from unfair reporting.

3 Karen James June 3, 2009 at 7:03 pm

Thanks for setting out your thoughts here, Andrew. You’ve inspired me to do a bit of systematic introspection on the same points. For now I would just say that what you’ve written broadly rings true to me, having live-blogged and tweeted quite a few conferences, symposia and seminars myself.

One thing, though:

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

I think it might be more complicated than this. Take SciFoo as an example. It’s invitation only, and there’s a verbal nondisclosure agreement. As such I wouldn’t dream of tweeting or blogging about any substantive content from the conference without getting permission in advance from the person I’m planning on quoting/paraphrasing. But I don’t think it would be out of order to tweet, say, “The Googleplex kitchen just served up some yummy chocolate brownies” or even “Got to sit next to Martin Rees at opening session! W00t!” In other words, how strict I am with myself depends largely on the (subjective) sensitivity of the content of each blog post/tweet.

4 Andrew Maynard June 4, 2009 at 12:05 am

I hadn’t thought of that – is it OK to report on social stuff rather than substance at these meetings? Sometimes it would be very hard to resist :-)

5 Joerg Heber June 3, 2009 at 7:41 pm

Very insightful comments, Andrew!

Essentially, as you say, the problem has already been faced by the blogging community, too, and things remain pretty confusing. Whether it is good or bad, even professional bloggers for example do not get the same status as journalists.

Where tweeting from conferences is concerned, I think the more broader rules are irrespective of whether you are a journalist or a private blogger, the intention of the conference organiser has to be clear. Closed, private meetings where frank discussions are encouraged are obviously off limits, and everyone attending knows that in adance. Big meetings with lots of journalists on the other hand are pretty open, and tweeting should be no problem.

But regarding the question, whether people tweeting are journalists – I agree, they are not. But effectively what you can and can not tweet follows similar rules of common sense I would say. At least on a basic level these rules of engagement look similar to me.

But does that really matter that much? These days I don’t know many scientists that actually present highly relevant data at such big gatherings without having it published somewhere, and exercised control over initial reporting through e.g. press releases. All you get in public talks at large gathering is old news – no problem to disseminate that in tweets. In that sense, some backreaction to this media frenzy has perhaps already happened, and all we get is the show, not the news…

6 Andrew Maynard June 4, 2009 at 12:11 am

I think a lot of this is about control – scientists and organizers controlling the flow of information, mainstream media having privileged access (I liked your point about bloggers not having the same status as journalists – how often do bloggers get their registration fee covered at scientific meetings?). But as any good journalist knows, their duty is primarily to the reader, not the source – something that probably holds true for bloggers and tweeps as well.

7 Neil June 3, 2009 at 7:46 pm

This is a very good, balanced discussion of the issues. Really, the onus is on conference organisers to be aware of social media and make guidelines explicit to everyone, well in advance. Bloggers etc. may not be professional reporters, but Web2.0 means that anyone can be a publisher, so the idea that attendees can be divided into media/non-media is really out-dated and irrelevant.

I had not realised that a complaint from GenomeWeb sparked this debate. It does come across as “sour grapes”.

8 ResearchScientist June 3, 2009 at 8:33 pm

This is a no-brainer, and it’s irrelevant if you’re a ‘real’ journalist or not. Most conferences involve the display and discussion of unpublished work. Most people wouldn’t dare take a photo of someone’s poster without permission, why is it suddenly ok to tweet their results instead? Answer: it’s not. I’m sorry but it’s just not acceptable to distribute, by any fashion, unpublished work without the prior consent of *all* authors of that work. I can see no other way to be truly in the clear if you want to insist on tweeting/blogging/whatevering. And the person/people who tweeted unpublished material were not only rude and inconsiderate, they violated the spirit of why everyone was assembled there and what level of confidentiality was the expected default by research scientists. As someone mentioned above, it’s fine to say “great talk by X!” or “meeting people at the icebreaker!” but stuff about people’s unpublished work is verboten, period, without permission.

9 Andrew Maynard June 4, 2009 at 12:25 am

The trouble is, scientists, institution media offices and conference organizers have already hijacked the process. If they think there is a chance of media publicity behind a presentation – whether previously published or not – they will put the media machine in motion, issuing press releases, setting up interviews and generally courting the press. This isn’t always the case, but big meetings like the ACS and AAAS actively work towards having a significant media presence. In fact I would love to hear from a journalist who has covered something like the ACS or AAAS meeting to get a perspective from this side of the fence.

I agree that you need to be really careful before discussing unpublished data on the web. But you do have to ask why someone is presenting it – are they looking for honest and intimate peer review, are they hoping to raise their professional profile, or are they on an ego trip? I do think that the first should be respected. But it is a little naive to think that, if you present information at an open meeting, you still retain absolute control over that information.

10 @drsteventucker June 4, 2009 at 4:48 am

Defining public and private is very tricky. A medical association meeting may be a grand public event with traditional media involved but still inaccessible to patients. On the other hand certain medical and scientific events are smaller and exclusive but may be technically public events. Many people cannot attend events because of location, registration, or even knowledge of the event.

With respect to,
“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.”
Why would you wait to share your views? You might blog but not tweet? How is an hour or a day going to change your opinion of the material? And you could re-tweet your new impression the next day or in your blog.

Overall, if it is public, it is tweetable. So much of the concern seems to come from those with less desire to be involved in social media.

Also, the more an organization tries to control a message, the greater the desire to Tweet increases. And no one is complaining when good news is being Tweeted! Then they all count on a bonus factor from a viral tweet spreading the word.

11 Andrew Maynard June 4, 2009 at 1:47 pm

Regarding (possible) blogging but not tweeting where unpublished data are being reviewed and discussed, my thinking was that Twitter is a very poor medium for capturing discussions on the fly that may evolve and change course rapidly – with the added disadvantage that once you have committed a comment to Twitter, you can’t retract it.

I’m with you all the way on the control issue btw – this seems to be as much about who controls and benefits from the message, as the ethics of publicly commenting on presentations.

12 Sally June 4, 2009 at 7:34 am

I think of lot of this comes back to sour grapes from GenomeWeb. If more people blog or tweet about large public meetings where the data is published in journals as abstracts and available online to the public then they may feel threatened and made irrelevant.

We shouldn’t put the media on pedestals – not all reporters are good or even scientifically aware of the topic in question; I have helped many unfamiliar with cancer at such conferences write their articles and point them to interesting presentations, for example, otherwise they would have been clueless.

Personally, I love reading tweets and blog posts from MDs and good science writers who truly understand their topic compared to the anodyne stuff a reporter cribbed from press releases distributed in the press room without ever having seen the data, presentation or even understanding it.

Control and censorship is fine line sometimes.

13 Andrew Maynard June 4, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Thanks Sally – good to hear that there is a perceived benefit to expert commentary here – whether on twitter or blogs – appreciate the link below as well.

14 Sally June 4, 2009 at 7:39 am

I should add that Daniel continued a new blog on the challenges this week – a very thoughtful piece:

http://scienceblogs.com/geneticfuture/2009/06/on_the_challenges_of_conferenc.php

15 EvaEarth June 4, 2009 at 11:36 am

Good post, some common sense and a lot of ethics can help everyone, but would never be able to resist tweeting: “Profr… is sitting next to me! ”

Cheers

Eva

16 Andrew Maynard June 4, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Don’t think you are the only one :-)

17 Janine Guglielmino June 4, 2009 at 8:39 pm

This is a very thoughtful look at an issue I suspect will evolve over time. As an activist and a journalist, my feeling is that citizen commentators play a positive role in disseminating information most patients won’t be able to access on their own. The public should have access to all open (and many private) meetings, in my opinion, and the input of citizen commentators ensures the public hears the “buzz,” gets access to thought leaders and obtains insight into how decisions are actually made. In this new media world it is impossible to contol the quality of information, and that’s where professionals can continue to play a role. We must be vigilant about providing context for medical developments, explaining the research process, etc.- although, as someone noted above, being a “professional” doesn’t always translate into being “informed” and “responsible.”

18 Andrew Maynard June 5, 2009 at 6:03 pm

Thanks Janine. I agree with you that citizen commentators have got a positive role to play – I expect it will become an increasingly powerful (empowering?) role, although the process of working out the social rules of engagement will probably get a litle rough at times.

19 jayme archer June 5, 2009 at 12:39 pm

I strongly believe that all knowledge should be free and open to discussion in all forms; social media especially allows ‘everyone’ to take part in the conversation, not just the select few that can afford to pay and attend these type of lectures.

There should not be rules governing the dissemination of information in the social media landscape, no matter if it’s a twitterfeed, facebook post or a lecture piece on youtube; doing that would defeat the entire purpose of social media – users should be able to use it as they see fit. In the end, the citizen is the one that decides whether to believe what they hear or read, isn’t it?

20 Andrew Maynard June 5, 2009 at 6:07 pm

There is a danger of partial conversations though that lead to misunderstanding that then potentially propagates through the system. Imagine if Einstein was virally tweeted at E=MC before he got to the squared bit – not effective communication!

21 Laura June 8, 2009 at 9:20 am

Great post. I both blog and tweet about science (OK, operations research) on a regular basis. I have never found a way to successfully blog and tweet from conferences. I’m still struggling with logistics. When attending talks and networking, it’s tough (and often impolite) to blog and tweet. And wireless is often spotty or nonexistent. If I had a blackberry, I could possibly solve my logistics problems (but I’m not ready for a blackberry), but I doubt I would have time to read other blog posts and tweets during at the meeting.

For what it’s worth, I do enjoy reading blogs and tweets from meetings that I cannot attend.

22 Andrew Maynard June 9, 2009 at 1:08 am

Thanks Laura,

I didn’t mention this above, but I have similar practical problems posting from meetings: if the talk is particularly interesting/challenging, I find it near-impossible to listed listen and tweet, and at times it seems just plain rude to have your head buried in a laptop or cell phone – especially if you are in the speaker’s line of sight :-)

23 1ConcernedEngieer June 9, 2009 at 6:16 pm

I say do not tweet. Twitter is nothing more than a cyber herd movement with a lesser purpose than facebook or multiply.
A site that is built around one question, “What are you doing?” is potentially one of the most clever creations, but it seems to be geared towards people without important things to do except update the world on their whereabouts.
While cyber technology continues to advance, it’s consequently robbing humanity of the human relations.
Caroline..
Find more of my criticism @ http://www.engineeringdaily.net/2009/05/to-tweet-or-not-to-tweet/

24 Andrew Maynard June 10, 2009 at 12:39 am

I would respectfully disagree with you Caroline – Twitter is simply a tool that is only limited by our imagination. It shouldn’t be judged by its tagline anymore than an engineer should choose or reject a component based on a slogan.

For an example of how Twitter transcends the “What are you doing” idea and enriches communication, see http://2020science.org/2009/06/09/science-ministers-question-time/

25 SciHound September 6, 2009 at 6:34 am

So, it is now September and three months is a veritable lifetime in the world of twitter. Having only twittered for the past few weeks myself, the general transience of this medium has already become apparent to me – although, just as in any other area of communication, there are core elements and topics of interest being discussed that can persist, and some that should…
Have you revised your views following this very informative discussion about what I believe to be a fundamentally important issue?
As the influence and scale of the social media revolution continues to increase within the scientific world, it is my opinion that the art of good online manners and expectations should continue to be openly discussed. For the benefit of scientists as much as for members of the media.
In my experience, scientists are not best known for their ability and readiness to communicate and, when they do, they feel a lot safer if doing so within the comforting embrace of clearly understandable rules of etiquette. While journalists and the media in general are happy to test these boundaries, the doors that social media opens up among the scientists themselves are the ones we must ensure do not swing closed again. So lets talk about the ‘rules’ please, while keeping them straightforward, clear, open and easily accessible. In doing so, those who might normally shy away from having a voice may continue to feel at ease to expound freely – within the rules of course – on whatever comes into their enormous brains at any given moment in time, whether at home, in the office or while being inspired by the research of others at a meeting or conference.

26 Andrew Maynard September 6, 2009 at 9:43 am

Thanks SciHound,

I need to go back and see where we have got to on this – I know there has been some discussion in the “mainstream” scientific press (if there is such a thing) – for instance, see this article from Geoff Brumfiel at Nature in June: http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.1038/4591050a (sadly, only available via subscription – but that’s another issue). But there hasn’t been so much chatter on the blogs or Twitter to my knowledge recently.

I agree that we need to work out the “rules of engagement” – or framework – here. And a lot of this does come down to good digital media etiquette. There are already reasonably robust if somewhat informal ideas on social media/digital media etiquette floating around. Perhaps the biggest challenge though is to a) ensure new users are aware of them and b) encourage them to follow them and contribute to their development – not easy in an anarchic and dynamic virtual domain!

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