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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Blogging about Scientific Meetings

The question is whether it is legitimate for bloggers to report on what goes on at scientific conferences and meetings. I've done it several times and I never thought there was a problem.

Well, apparently some people disagree. Read about it in the latest issue of Nature: Science journalism: Breaking the convention?.
Blogs and Twitter are opening up meetings to those not actually there. Does that mean too much access to science in the raw, asks Geoff Brumfiel.
Next month I'm going to a meeting on "The Tree of Life." I intend to let you all know what goes on at that meeting but it shouldn't be a problem since the participants know what I'm doing and I won't be the only blogger.

There was a time, forty years ago, when some scientific meetings were very closed affairs and scientists could talk openly and frankly about what they were doing without fearing that it would be widely disseminated to non-insiders. There are still a few meetings like that but the vast majority are not.


  1. Larry, I agree with you completely on this. You have never been reticent to throw your ideas out for discussion and argument.

    Disseminating and arguing about ideas and data is at the center of the scientific enterprise, especially when much of the research is funded by public money.

    I have a problem with someone who cheerfully feeds at the public trough, then wants to scurry off to a dark corner to digest.

    Those who don't have the balls to put forth their work and subject it scrutiny should find another line of work. Maybe the priesthood would work for them.

  2. Im on the fence about this, I can see reasons for and against it. However, I completely disagree with waldteufel. The first 2 paragraphs are opinion and a basic statement of the scientific process.

    Problems arise in the third and fourth. "Feeds at the public trough" and "scurry off to a dark corner," sounds like someone has been feeding at the US republican "science is bad and evil" trough. Maybe there are competitors out there I don't want having immediate and pure access to my information. Maybe I have extremely preliminary information I want feedback on without walkteufel's input.

    The fourth paragraph contradicts the second paragraph and reality (it also implies women can't be scientists). Any practicing research scientist must "put forth their work," although balls can be kept in their pants, in order to obtained the cheery sustenance provided by the public. Its called publishing. Maybe if wald was a practicing scientist he and his balls would know this.

  3. If you were presenting something novel at a conference even 10 years ago, you can bet that attendees would email others about the work. Now that the communication formats are blogs, twitter and facebook it is suddenly a problem requiring a communication ban?
    In any case, in my limited experience, conferences already don't expose much unpublished data. And unpublished data that is presented is strategic in its purpose to stake out scientific territory. Careers and patents are at stake. Conferences are for arguing about ideas that have already been published, some unpublished negative results and networking.
    This article seems like Nature asserting itself as a publication gatekeeper and authority.
    Look for my next western blot on the bayblab

  4. I think the best approach is just to be respectful of both the speakers and the meeting itself. There's a fine balance here--you want speakers at a meeting to present unpublished work, that's a lot more interesting than hearing talks about papers you've already read. But if those preliminary results are going to be widely publicly disseminated, many speakers will hold back and not present them until they're fully cooked (and probably published). So in some ways, you're working against your own interests if what you're doing results in boring meetings.

    I'd suggest always finding out if the meeting has particular restrictions on the dissemination of information in talks and posters. I'd also suggest getting the speaker's permission before blogging detailed accounts of their data. Those seem like reasonable and respectful compromises to me. We all have our own opinions about open-ness, but hopefully we can all be civilized enough not to force our own beliefs upon others.

  5. Put your coolaid down, Lorax. Please take a deep breath and relax before passing judgment on someone you don't know anything about.

    I'm a scientist in private industry, and the peer review we are subjected to is every bit as brutal as in academia.

    "Balls" is a figure of speech, and nothing more. I have female colleagues who use that term frequently and freely.

    I would have a very difficult time indeed convincing my management that I should continue to accept their funding for my research, but hide the results from them.

    I say again, if you accept public money for your research, the results ought to be freely available to those who paid for it.

    If you don't want competitors to have access to your research (a certainly legitimate concern in many cases), then perhaps the research should be privately funded.

    That's all I'm suggesting.

  6. Maybe I have extremely preliminary information I want feedback on without walkteufel's input.

    Then maybe you don't want to be presenting your data at a conference? Take it in private with people you want a feedback from. It's not like conferences require a non-disclosure signature. Also, most of the conferences are, at least partially, publically funded.

    Basically, if it's reported at a conference, it's reported to the world. Always been like that, blogs, shmogs or not.

  7. wald, you still seem to be stuck in that "scary evil scientists hiding in the basement doing bad things with my money" meme. There are meds for that, but probably big pharma scares you to.

    I say again, if you accept public money for your research, the results ought to be freely available to those who paid for it.

    Well, that's what we in the research field call "pub-li-cay-shuns." See, what happens is we do research and then submit abstracts to meetings and papers to journals. Then, anyone who is interested can walk to the local university library and, most likely, read all about it. In the last few years, all US federally funded research that is published needs to be available to the public.

    It seems like you believe the public has immediate and guaranteed access to all research being done. Maybe I should keep our lab notebooks outside of the lab when people go home, in case a member of the citizenry wants to see what's being done, you know because that's their right or something.

    DK, I said I was on the fence about the issue of blogging meetings. That means Im undecided because I see some good and some not so good. It seems to me that most comments focus on the good and thus conclude if you agin it you must be evil. One thing that's undeniable is that blogging and internet advances have fundamentally changed how information is disseminated. Its a far cry from a phone call or email from a meeting to a colleague then an immediate world-wide dissemination.

    The idea of "PUBLIC" funding does not mean every Tom Dick and Mary has complete access to everything going on. Can I get the medical records of everyone receiving Medicare? How about the yearly receipts of purchases made by our troops and senior citizens? Maybe its over the top, but I don't see how the logic of "public funding means public access" discounts this.

    Maybe if people are really interested in the information presented at the meeting, they can go themselves and register and see all there is to see.

    Personally, I think David Crotty has the most reasonable compromise that works for most everyone and means no one is unnecessarily surprised.