Secret Science

Dec 08 2008 Published by under Uncategorized

Although I frequently josh the OpenAccess!!!!111!!!!111!!!! crowd I am careful to note that I agree with the sentiment that as much science as possible should be readily available to the world audience. I applauded the move by the NIH and other funding agencies to require that manuscripts produced under their grant awards be placed in the PubMed Central repository. This last point is actually pertinent to today's discussion.
Are unusual efforts to keep science secret a violation of these publication rules? In spirit if not in actual point of law?
A few colleagues and I have been discussing some highly important RULZ sent out by an academic society at the opening of their annual meeting. The short version is: NO BLOGGING!!!!!

Now there was actually a lengthy set of remarks sent by the organization in question "reminding" their members that the society name could not be used in vain without permission in any press releases. But, and I kid you not, the opening premise was that they got wind that some "organization" had tried to get someone to blog the meeting. (No, I have nothing to do with this, Dear Reader, in case you were wondering.) Hmm. Ok, I will admit I know nothing about press rules but I am aware that lots of "events" control who does and does not get a Press Pass.
It is also the case that, just as with your stadium rock show, academic society annual meetings tend to have a lot of boilerplate rules prohibiting video recording or photographing any part of the meeting. That's right, your proud picture next to your first poster evah! is illegal. So is the shot of your academic family you take every year when gathered next to a poster of your BigShot academic parent's latest grad student.
However, my question on this topic would be on the science publications, meaning the content of the presentations. For most meetings we consider poster or platform presentations to be a type of publication of the information. Citable publication even, whether the abstracts are published in a normal print journal or not. It is less common now but in older literature you will find citations in print journals which refer to work "published" in the Society For Neuroscience Abstract Book. By convention the scientific information is expected to be discussed back at the lab in lab meeting reports on the meeting. To facilitate this, many people hand out miniature copies of their posters freely.
Now, new technologies and whatnot always pose problems for bureaucratic structures and they tend to be reflexively "agin' it!" whenever something new pops up. Blogging is still relatively new but there has been a fair bit of live-blogging or post-blogging of science meetings. I've been known to put up a meeting post or two myself. As far as I know, most academic societies do not crack down on blogging the meetings. Have they simply not caught on in any official capacity? Or do they realize that they can't do anything about it, it's a good thing for science and ultimately good PR for their meetings?
Well, at least one academic society has decided to be reflexively against blogging.
My question is whether one thinks that this violates the NIH directive that PIs need to put their published work into PubMed central. Obviously there is a letter-of-the-law difference between print publication and poster presentation but the spirit is the same. If we consider meeting presentations to be publication of information then why shouldn't this be required to be openly available as well? If this approach is granted, what about the embargo interval? With print journals the idea is that you have to give the publisher an interval of exclusive marketing to keep up sales. What about meetings? The "sale" is the meeting registration. Already a done deal by the time the poster is presented. So the embargo should be what? Two hours? One day? Post-meeting?

20 responses so far

  • I find it utterly laughable that societies which sponsor peer reviewed activities and publications then prevent public peer review of themselves. Shame on you, fancy pants society. Shame on you.

  • pinus says:

    are Bloggers held accountable for comments that mention said society?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    We should ask what is the reason(s) for forbidding blogging. Any step like that must have some monetary crap behind it. Don't forget, science is a business!!!

  • Dave says:

    Meetings ARE big business. Perhaps your email inbox is, like mine, deluged with 'invitations' to weird meetings all over the world that seem to serve no other purpose than enrich the coffers of some company that organizes weird meetings all over the world. It is just like the 'Who's who' scam.
    On a less (but not much) scammy level, let's consider the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting. For years people have complained that the SFN meeting is too big, too useless, contains too much stuff already published, etc. The only people that still go are those who want to travel and drink with old friends from grad school using grant money, new investigators looking to check out the sales booth and maybe score a free laser pointer with a picture of a rat on it, and the same type of fools who pay to get into Who's Who in the mistaken belief that it's actually a meaningful 'honor'. Seriously: Who here thinks the SFN meetings is a serious venue for scientific discourse, compared to smaller meetings like the Gordon Conferences, Cold Spring Harbor meetings, etc?
    But will the SFN meeting ever die? no way. Take a look at the annual budget report for SFN next time they send one out (or download it from SFN loses money on all kinds of things, including (in 2008), their stock portfolio. Most of SFN's money comes from membership fees and -- you guessed it -- the annual meeting. net revenue from the meeting last year was over a million and a half dollars. After membership, the meeting was SFN's biggest source of revenue for years, except for this last year when 'property management' (renting out offices in their fancy new DC building) actually made more.
    So given the stock market and real estate bust, watch for SFN to possibly up membership fees or start having Madonna or Britney Spears headline their annual meeting to attract more dorky out-of-touch-with-popular-culture scientists. It's not so far fetched. We had the Dalai Lama a couple years ago, remember?

  • neurolover says:

    I'm a big believer that this kind of management of information is the road to hell. An Elizabeth Scarborough book, Song of Sorcery, is themed on that very premise: the devils seek to destroy the world, and their first step is to kill the songs. The best tool: copyright law (and we should probably call that IP law in general).
    So, I think you should mention the society's name.

  • Odyssey says:

    It is just like the 'Who's who' scam.
    Hang on... You mean...
    ...and the same type of fools who pay to get into Who's Who in the mistaken belief that it's actually a meaningful 'honor'.
    But, but... That's not what the nice man on the phone said!
    I want my money back.

  • Becca says:

    Obviously I'm philosophically opposed to scientific secrets that don't well, benefit *science*.
    That said, the field's conventions have to be taken into account.
    Obviously in some fields (computer science comes to mind) credit is mostly about conferences (and proceedings); journals are almost an afterthought. In those fields, it would be absurd to keep findings presented at conferences SuperSecret.
    In other cases, there are meetings where no peer-review applies, and even the relatively informal intramural mini-conferences/symposiums/forums for grad students. In these cases, the quality of the work (on average) is far below what would be required for publication. These venues serve a useful function, but I'm not sure it's truly to "share your results with the world" (more like practice your skills for presenting and get some ideas for better controls...).

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Pinus and neurolover- does it matter which one? Other than for pointing and laughing purposes?

  • pinus says:

    no, I suppose not. Maybe my question is more general...can you get in to shit because of what commenters say?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Sure, why not. I mean if it came to legal action it would have to be shown that there was specific tolerance or concurrence. But there's a world of pre-legal annoyance for which the person dumping the shit is not bound by any rules.

  • Dave says:

    DM said it was an academic society meeting, and ASCB is about to start (it's not a meeting I regularly attend, but colleagues do). So that's my guess. Or maybe it's some Psychopharmacology thing that DM knows about. Whatever. I don't think bloggers should worry so much about the official meeting rules as much as they should worry about unwritten social rules. Meeting bloggers are sort of like the folks who silently take photos of posters and walk away. Anonymous meeting bloggers are worse, because they're not even taking full responsibility for what they're doing.
    There are lots of reasons not to blog meetings. It's rude to steal someone's thunder by reporting findings widely before the authors get a chance to do so. It's irresponsible to distribute potentially important scientific conclusions to a wide audience before they are peer-reviewed. And it's professionally dangerous for bloggers to become known as untrustworthy snitches.
    There are plenty of opportunities to blog about press releases or published work. I think that's fine.

  • neurolover says:

    "Pinus and neurolover- does it matter which one? Other than for pointing and laughing purposes? "
    To take a stand against the IP devils. (and mind you, I love lawyers, like Barack Obama, John Adams, Lawrence Lessig, Jack Green, John Stevens, . . . so I'm not taking a stance against lawyers in general)
    I think the issue of whether you can be held responsible for the commenters is complicated. There was recently some form of action about this issue, on a legal blog. The comment threads had turned to serious harassment (we're talking bathroom wall stuff that borders on stalking) of a few women law students, identified by name. So, was the host of the blog responsible? The issue never got resolved, the blog host did end up loosing his offer from a major law firm.

  • neurolover says:

    Oops, I need to expand my list. I love lawyers, like all of the above, and Hillary Clinton, Marian Wright Edelman, Kamala Harris, Barbara Jordan, Bella Abzug, . . .

  • Mike_F says:

    You assume that a meeting presentation is a "publication". If presentations are to be considered as published, the presenters will either show data that has already been published in journals, or crap that does not merit publication anyhow. That is what makes 99% of SFN and similar large meetings a mind-boggling waste of time.
    Meetings that actually want to showcase new and unpublished data, like Gordon Conferences in the USA or EMBO Workshops in Europe, have strict rules about no public disclosure of the content of the presentations without express permission from the presenter. Since blogging is public disclosure, you need to obtain specific permission to blog about somebody's unpublished work presented at a meeting. No permission, no blogging, simple as that.

  • Seriously: Who here thinks the SFN meetings is a serious venue for scientific discourse, compared to smaller meetings like the Gordon Conferences, Cold Spring Harbor meetings, etc?

    Not me! SFN is a waste of time from the standpoint of exchange of scientific information. That does not, however, mean it is a waste of time in general.

  • I don't think they should have to end up in PubMed for the simple reason that many of the findings are not fully fleshed out. That's okay for a meeting, but to be included in PubMed central along with everthing else doesn't seem right.
    I see nothing wrong with blogging a conference (obviously). It's publicity for the meeting and the science. Who doesn't want that. And speaking of stealing someone's thunder, it's a public place and most of the people who really care are at the meeting. Furthermore, if the meeting is anything important, there's always trade press there, people diseminate the info by word of mouth/e-mail so it doesn't really matter anyway. Blogging is just new and more obvious. If you don't want your information public, don't talk, don't make a poster. If you don't like the way a blogger characterizes something, take her/him up on it. Better to have an argument than for everything to be a scecret.
    This gets to the heart of it - if you don't want people to know about stuff, why they heck are you talking about about it at a meeting?

  • David Crotty says:

    I am not a conference organizer (IANACO), but playing devil's advocate here, I think a big part of the problem is in the attitude of the speakers, not those directing the meetings. As others have noted, good meetings feature talks with fresh, unpublished, cutting-edge data presented. Bad meetings feature talks of completed, already-published old, well-known stories. A good meeting organizer wants to encourage the former, rather than the latter. But this is hard to do. Most scientists hold their new data close to the vest. It's hard to convince many to air it in public before it's fully understood and/or published. One way to do this is to make it clear that a meeting's contents are considered confidential. This at least gets some presenters to give new findings rather than stale stories. If you want to change this policy, you need to change the speakers' attitudes, not the organizers', because I don't think they'd be against increased publicity if they weren't forced to in order to get good talks.
    Note that each meeting has it's own policy regarding whether something is considered "published". Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory states in each abstract book:
    "These abstracts should not be cited in bibliographies. Material contained herein should be treated as personal communication and should be cited as such only with the consent of the author.
    Please note that recording of oral sessions by audio, video or still photography is strictly prohibited except with the advance permission of the author(s), the organizers and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory."
    That seems reasonable to me, as it let's the author of each talk be the deciding party about exposure.
    For the big picture though, one has to ask, what's reasonable for a blogger? Can I publish a word-for-word transcript of someone's talk on my blog? Can I video the talk and post that? If that becomes common, why bother going to meetings at all? I think meetings are an important part of science, and the face to face interactions can never be replaced with social networking and online chats (sorry, I'm old and boring). Meetings are expensive to run. If their contents are immediately made public, will people stop attending? Is this a good thing for science?

  • bsci says:

    I'll defend SFN. For someone who has active research interests in multiple areas, it is the only conference where I can get up-to-date information and speak to people in all those areas. Of course, it would be better if I could go to 10+ conferences a year that would allow me to cover various topics in more depth, but my time and lab money would be better spent actually working. It's also a great place to meet world famous bloggers.
    As for dues, SFN just created a new postdoc dues rate, which will LOWER dues for a significant number of members. Of course, they probaby hope to get more members at the lower rate.
    On the actual topic of this post, I'm also amazed who various societies take very proprietary views of the abstract texts and only allow people society members or even just meeting attendees to view them. This is particularly frustrating when trying to follow through on an conference presentation in a journal article reference section. I wonder if the NIH open access rules affect these too.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    A few more thoughts. I get that different societies and different venues within science subdisciplines can have different rules and expectations. And there is clearly a difference between presenting data at lab meeting and publishing a paper.
    Where is the line though? When you present at a meeting, all the attendees can see your stuff. They can then go home and act, scientifically, accordingly. They can race to apply your results to their work or race to compete with you or whatever. For the vast majority of meetings we are talking about more than a mere handful of people that might see your work. Dozens or hundreds. This puts them in a privileged position relative to those thousands of other people who do not see your presentation.
    At this point, I really fail to see how all the standard Open Access arguments do not apply. It is an extortion of less-well-off labs to attend the meeting so that they don't lose out- similar to requiring purchase of a journal subscription. In some cases, the meeting is held totally exclusive such that only insiders and invitees are even permitted to attend.
    Suppose the exclusive meeting, just by total coincidence, systematically excluded certain classes of scientists. Such as assistant professors. or women. or minorities. or gays. or from flyover country. or foreign institution. or....?
    Does this change your opinion as to whether sekrit science should be promoted, tolerated or aggressively combated?

  • shwu says:

    There was a recent discussion related to this in the PSB 2009 FriendFeed room. And FriendFeed rooms are something else that is starting (very slowly) to become more common - some of the meetings initiate them (e.g. Science in the 21st Century, BioBarCamp) but others haven't (ISMB and PSB) and we've been lucky that the organizers have thus far been ok about it. In fact, ISMB wants to incorporate live-blogging into the official coverage at the next meeting because they were so impressed. Given this post and the comments, that is probably the exception and not the rule. What Cameron Neylon said in the FF thread makes sense though:
    "I would argue that the conferences should have a clearly articulated policy. Cold Spring Harbour are very clear for instance (in the wrong direction IMO) but other conferences could hopefully adopt different but equally clear policies and communicate this to attendees."

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