My usual preamble is that I don't really get on board with the OpenScienceEverything!!!! types but I do back some essential principles. One, that if the taxpayer funds our work than that taxpayer has a right to the usual output of our work (i.e., the papers) without a lot of additional hassle or charge. Two, our usual output is intended to be public. Meaning that while various interests may want to make money from our output, the goal would be to make it available (again, at a charge) to as many people who would want it. Three, our usual output is also intended to be archival to history
Well, awhile back some colleagues and I were discussing a situation that was initially sort of amusing. Then I realized that the situation was complicated and I'm not really sure where I stand.
Should people be allowed to blog and Tweet and otherwise discuss results that are presented at scientific conferences?
The prior scenario was:
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.
I arrived at the following:
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?
At a recent meeting at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York state, Daniel MacArthur from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, United Kingdom, brought into focus how fuzzy the line between journalist and scientist is becoming. In addition to reporting on genetic variation in a gene that is active in fast muscle fibers at The Biology of Genomes meeting, MacArthur wrote several on the spot blog posts covering advances discussed by the participants. Francis Collins also mentioned results on his new Web site.
A specialized Web-based news service, Genomeweb, complained. To attend CSHL meetings, reporters agree to obtain permission from a speaker before writing up any results. But MacArthur didn't have to click that box when he registered and was free to report without getting any go-ahead. Several other participants were twittering, says CSHL meetings organizer David Stewart. "They weren't held to the same standards" as the media, says Stewart.
That is about to change. Stewart is revising the meeting registration form 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.
Daniel MacArthur reflects on the situation here.
Firstly, I should state up front that I think GenomeWeb's complaint is valid - it would be unfair for conference organisers to hold scientist bloggers to a totally different standard on this issue than mainstream science reporters. I also welcome the move by CSHL to clarify its policies on conference blogging. As the number of scientists engaged in online media continues to grow, it is crucial that meeting attendees be aware in advance of what their responsibilities are regarding communication of results.
He then goes on to tick off the reasons why he would argue for more-open rather than less-open policies on the part of conference organizers. I tend to agree, see my opening points.
The argument for super sekrit meetings is that somehow this is required for some scientists to talk about some of their work. A protected environment is required. It is then assumed bloggers and Tweeters will violate this secrecy, presumably in a way greater than attendees going back home and phoning/emailing their friends. That is arguable. And I'm not convinced.
There are other issues. Scoopage. But as I think Daniel pointed out, all of the potential scoopers are either in the audience or their friends are. So you don't have any additional exposure from Twitts and bloggers. This leads naturally to one of my favorite hobby horses, publication priority. The whole idea of publication priority/uniquity is corrosive to science anyway...a considerable amount of the secrecy sentiment comes from that particular problem in science. So why should we coddle that with academic meeting rules?
Sensationalism and over-the-top mainstream PR is a reasonable danger and probably the biggest objection that I credit. We've seen what happens with overselling some papers after publication. There is a legitimate fear of this happening to initial results or pre-peer-review results. Those of us within fields understand the differences but I fear main stream media does not. If we take the conferences which do approve media coverage (such as the SfN), you can often see presentations being described without much nuance about the preliminary nature of findings or the lack of peer review.
Other than that, I dunno. I've talked a little with some more senior colleagues about that prior little incident and I just can't pin down any good reasons for the closed meeting idea. I think in the vast majority of cases people are overestimating how much anyone will really care...