I’ve just been pointed to a post on ScienceInsider that mentions my recent coverage (also on Twitter) of the Cold Spring Harbor Biology of Genomes meeting, and the resulting request for clarification from some professional science reporters:
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.
It looks as though CSHL will be modifying their policy in response to the complaint:
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. “We don’t legislate what [the scientists] write in an e-mail” to
lab or consortium members, says Stewart, but CSHL is concerned about
communications that reach out to anonymous third parties. “We need to
ask them to abide by the same rules.”
There are several important and interesting issues here that I wanted to clarify.
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.
The new policy by CSHL treads a careful line: it acknowledges the reality of attendees engaging with online media, while also maintaining CSHL’s long-standing policy of encouraging the presentation of unpublished work by restricting public reporting on presentations1. Requiring that attendees seek explicit permission from presenters before discussing their work will certainly have a negative effect on the level of live-blogging of presentations – but CSHL clearly views its protective policy as important, and this thus seems like a necessary compromise. I will be sure to abide by this policy in future meetings.
However, I do want to emphasise the importance in general of conference organisers encouraging direct, crowd-sourced reporting of scientific data through
online media. Science benefits from the open communication of data to
the broadest possible audience (not only scientists, but also the wider
community). Some conferences do benefit from sealing themselves off from the outside world, allowing freer exchange of ideas between participants – but meetings that are interested in increasing the impact of their presentations on the
community as a whole would be well-served by actively embracing audience blogging.
It’s worth mentioning here that most of the dangers of live-blogging are (in my mind at least) generally over-stated. For instance, the risk of being scooped due to data posted on the web seems rather far-fetched given that most of the potential scoopers are already sitting in the audience watching the presentation. There is a fear that live-blogging distracts people from watching the seminar; I would argue in response that – given the number of people I see programming or working on their grant submission in genomics meetings – we should be grateful that live-bloggers are actually engaging directly with the material being presented.
Scientists do have some justifiable concerns about their work being portrayed inaccurately, but most online media have some forum for posting corrections and clarifications, and most scientist bloggers would respond quickly and appropriately to direct emails noting errors. If anything, this is simply a good argument for scientists to get more engaged in online media – at least to the extent of setting up a Google Alert for their own name to notify them of any mentions on the internet.
It’s worth mentioning that scientists can benefit from having their work discussed online. A fairly hefty proportion of the readership of most science blogs consists of other scientists, so having your work disseminated in these forums both increases your profile within the scientific community, promotes thoughtful discussion of your work and can lead to opportunities for collaboration – precisely the same benefits that scientists seek in presenting at a conference in the first place. In addition, the communication of your work to a non-scientific audience increases public literacy on whatever topic you work on, which is typically regarded as a good thing.
Finally, I wanted to make it very clear that I don’t see myself (or other scientist bloggers) as being in serious competition with professional science journalists. My discussion of the meeting was restricted to brief, immediate impressions (on Twitter) and broad discussions of the meeting themes from my own fairly specialised perspective (on this blog). I obviously think this is a useful niche to fill, but it’s a very different niche from that occupied by the more comprehensive, well-sourced articles written by reporters from GenomeWeb or Nature. (For a thoughtful discussion of the science blogger vs journalist non-issue I would heartily recommend Ed Yong’s recent piece.)
Anyway, I hope to see increasing dialogue between science bloggers, science journalists and conference organisers on the best way to move forward on developing reasonable policies for future conferences.
- I should note that I wasn’t actually aware of this policy until half-way through the meeting – I’ll certainly be more cautious in checking meeting policies in future, and would encourage other potential live-bloggers to do the same.