Genetic Future

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engaging with online media, while also maintaining CSHL’s long-standing policy of encouraging the presentation of unpublished work by restricting public reporting on presentations1.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.

  1. 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.

Comments

  1. #1 Mr. Gunn
    June 3, 2009

    You make the relevant points clear above, particularly that interaction is the whole point of going to meetings so tweeting should be encouraged. That also presents an argument for why professional journalists actually should be treated differently. For a scientist, tweeting is just another channel through which questions can be asked and answered, instead of trying to get time at the microphone. Also, the things scientists will be talking about are different than the things a reporter will be reporting on, and their audiences are different. I would be concerned that a journalist would get things wrong because they’re trying to put a popular face on the story to sell papers, whereas a scientist, even a scienceblogger, generally has no motivation to do that.

    Perhaps the decision should be based on whether you’re financially compensated for blogging or not?

  2. #2 Dan Vorhaus
    June 3, 2009

    Daniel -

    Excellent commentary. I hope that we will see scientist bloggers – like yourself – affirmatively acknowledge the importance of this type of discussion. If every presenter begins with a blanket grant of authority to tweet/blog away, this will cease to even be an issue.

    - Dan

  3. #3 SciPhu (Nils Reinton)
    June 3, 2009

    Honestly…..this should not be an issue. The requirement that “To attend CSHL meetings, reporters agree to obtain permission from a speaker before writing up any results.” borders on censorship and any decent reporter should say a loud a clear NO to such a request. Giving a talk at a conference is a public presentation, if you want to keep your data secret, then don’t give a talk. If any conference organizer asks this of me, I’ll either refuse to attend or do my blogging/twittering anyway. I expect any serious science-blogger to do the same. These are rules we must refuse to abide by…..honestly.

  4. #4 Daniel MacArthur
    June 3, 2009

    Hi Mr Gunn,

    So your argument is basically that scientist blogging is merely a continuation of the normal conference dialogue between scientists, whereas science journalism is a qualitatively separate process? I like the argument, although this is a division that really starts to blur at the boundary. For instance, I get paid to write here (albeit not much) and this site is indexed by Google News, but in pretty much every other respect I’m a scientist rather than a journalist; where would I fit into the grand scheme of things?

  5. #5 Daniel MacArthur
    June 3, 2009

    Hey Nils,

    In an ideal world all conferences would be open and free reporting on presented data would be the default unless the presenter explicitly stated otherwise. However, it’s also true that some scientists feel (rightly or wrongly) reluctant to post unpublished data in an open venue; given that reality, some conferences (e.g. CSHL) value the encouragement of unfettered presentation of unpublished work over the free dissemination of all presented data.

    The CSHL policy (ask permission before reporting) is a compromise between these two competing desires; perhaps it’s an awkward compromise, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that the dilemma they’re facing is not trivial.

  6. #6 SciPhu (Nils Reinton)
    June 3, 2009

    I find it shocking that this is a discussion at all. Because, the dilemma is not “trivial”, it is non-existent. If your “unfettered presentation of unpublished work” cannot not withstand the scrutiny of anyone but selected attendees, you shouldn’t present it at a scientific conference. Such presentations belong in cults, sects or secret societies. Regardless of the venue however, no reporter (or blogger, or twitterer) should ever sign anything resembling a stamp of approval as a prerequisite to publish. It’s called freedom of speech…..it applies to science, maybe even stronger than society in general. Also, the alleged divide between bloggers and science writers is constructed by science writers who feel threatened……which is a good thing…..it’s not a real divide.

  7. #7 Anthony
    June 3, 2009

    Wow, this is entirely ridiculous. There’s no line that people cross over when they blog. I personally put my “notes” on talks on the web all the time – and I expect that when people give a talk, they know they’re publicly disclosing their results. It’s that simple. If you don’t want to tell the public, then don’t tell the public. (You can ask the patent office’s version of this rule – and it’s far harsher than my interpretation.)

    Given the overwhelming response of thanks I got from people after my notes went up from AGBT, I am relatively content in the position that putting notes up is more of a public service, and that it’s not competing with journals, anyhow.

    There is no dividing line between journalists and bloggers, since neither has the monopoly on good writing, truth or communication ability. If CSHL wants to do something like this, they’re more than welcome to do it – it’s their conference – but in the end, conferences that get blogged will get more publicity, and those that don’t will become increasingly obscure.
    just my 2cents.

  8. #8 Joerg Kurt Wegner
    June 3, 2009

    I would appreciate, if someone from Nature could comment on this, especially with their statement that more scientists should blog
    http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090318/full/458274a.html

    With all the upcoming discussions about even more policies I am just waiting for the first reports of policies violating each other, leaving presenters and attendees in a dead-lock situation.

    Finally, I accept the increasing number of policies, and hope that people are not forgetting a scientific mission statement, too, eg. from npg:
    “… FIRST, to place before the general public the grand results of Scientific Work and Scientific Discovery ; and to urge the claims of Science to a more general recognition in Education and in Daily Life…”
    http://www.nature.com/npg_/company_info/mission.html

  9. #9 Mike the Mad Biologist
    June 3, 2009

    Nils,

    I agree, unless the meeting is ‘closed’; i.e., participants aren’t allowed to discuss findings outside of the meeting (Gordon Research Conferences are like this). CSHL needs to decide what its meeting will be.

  10. #10 Daniel MacArthur
    June 3, 2009

    Nils,

    I think you’re over-reacting. CSHL’s policy (ask presenters before publishing) is at least more reasonable than a complete blanket ban on discussing results externally; if they’ve weighed up the issues and feel this is the right approach, so be it. I’m pretty confident that most other conferences will end up adopting more liberal policies.

    Anthony,

    Yes, AGBT was a good example of a conference where openness was the default; interestingly, it was also the first conference where I saw people putting up cameras on tripods and taking photos of every single slide from a presenter. I made a mistake in assuming that all conferences have a similarly open philosophy.

  11. #11 TSM
    June 3, 2009

    This particular attitude of trying to enforce semi-close/semi-open (depending on your point of view) conferences seems to be something particular to biology and perhaps only certain disciplines within it. In other areas of research such a scheme would never fly. But have never understood what it is about biology that breeds this kind of attitude.

  12. #12 Karen James
    June 3, 2009

    Discussion on this post is now happening not just in this comment thread but also on FriendFeed and at 2020 Science.

  13. #13 Ruth Seeley
    June 3, 2009

    The only reason a public conference should need to know who will be reporting its proceedings is so it can accommodate those doing the reporting. If, as a live blogger or live Tweeter you aren’t asking for any special accommodations or follow-up interviews or background information and have no deadline to meet, I see no reason whatsoever why you should have to register your intention to blog or Tweet in advance.

    I was recently invited to a Nanotech conference in Prague. Had I been willing to pony up the $3k or so in airfare, hotels and conference attendance fees, I could have gone. without taking the nanotech vow of secrecy. And had anyone challenged my right to take notes I would have asked for a refund. There’s very little difference between taking notes at a public meeting and making them public and taking notes and keeping them private – and the ‘we don’t care what people say 1:1 via email’ is a totally specious argument, because frankly, in most Western countries, once a note’s been put on a file it’s part of a public record that can be requisitioned with either a warrant or via various Freedom of Information acts, and that’s even more true of email or of anything sent over the internet.

  14. #14 Daniel MacArthur
    June 3, 2009

    Hi Karen,

    Thanks for the links!

  15. #15 zayzayem
    June 3, 2009

    Wow! Quite a reaction from Nils on this.

    I’m not quite sure where you are getting the idea that a scientific meeting being held by a private organisation is somehow public?
    I can think of plenty of reasons why scientists may not wish to have their research widely reported, several of which have been discussed by Daniel above.

    Having a forum where scientists can discuss results-in-the-rough with a large number of peers is quite healthy for science. Would you rather less discussion took place? Or must scientists never present anything less than their fully formed complete concepts.

  16. #16 Andrew Maynard
    June 4, 2009

    Thanks Karen for flagging the discussion on 2020science, that was sparked by Daniel’s experiences: http://2020science.org/2009/06/03/to-tweet-or-not-to-tweet/

    I would add that while the issues raise here are complex – there are no blanked right and wrong answers – workable solutions are going to depend on a little understanding and humility on all sides. in this context, I thought that Daniel’s piece above was extremely gracious – it opens the door to dialogue without polarizing positions. Thank you.

  17. #17 Sciphu (Nils Reinton)
    June 4, 2009

    zayzayem says “I’m not quite sure where you are getting the idea that a scientific meeting being held by a private organisation is somehow public?”. I think most, if not all, science should be public. I believe it is extremely important that openness is a fundamental and integral part of science, – hence my strong reaction. As opposed to you I do not see any good arguments for not having your research widely reported, on the contrary I think it is important that all scientist face the possibility of being scrutinized by the public. I agree however, that “Having a forum where scientists can discuss results-in-the-rough with a large number of peers is quite healthy for science”, but I am unsure that this is the description you would normally use for a scientific meeting. And, I believe that prior to such events you need to specify very clearly to all parties involved that this is a private meeting. Also it would be unwise to invite reporters and science writers (like I understand was done in this case) if this is your intention.

  18. #18 Sandra Porter
    June 4, 2009

    There are two points that seem especially important here. First, the issue of privacy. If a meeting is to be private – no photos of posters, no blogging, etc – then that policy should be explicit and the organizers should have everyone sign a confidentiality clause.

    The second point is the funding source. For many people attendance at the meeting along with travel and lodging were funded from their grants, which means that the public paid for the meeting, not by CSHL. I think, as a taxpayer, we’ve paid for the information, so we have a partial ownership and attendees should be able to blog about it.

  19. #19 Bernadette Toner
    June 4, 2009

    I’d like to weigh in here and note that GenomeWeb fully supports the dissemination of scientific writing in all forms — whether it is news, blogs, or tweets — and we think it’s great that this has prompted so much thoughtful discussion. We see a real need for all forms of media and agree that it would certainly be much better for the community if there were absolutely no restrictions on the information that journalists or bloggers may report. I would not want anyone to get the impression that we “complained” about Daniel or anyone else blogging at the meeting or that we would seek to limit anyone’s ability to publish as they see fit.

    Following the Biology of Genomes meeting, we had some very interesting discussions in our newsroom given that the concept of “press registration” appears to be a bit antiquated in light of new publishing models, so we contacted CSHL for clarification on their policy. They told me they had actually been discussing the issue internally for some time and had already decided to ask all participants to abide by the same guidelines as the media.

    In my experience, CSHL is actually in the minority when it comes to enforcing this kind of policy for journalists, but it’s my understanding that they do so in order to encourage scientists to speak more freely about their ongoing work prior to publication without the risk of being scooped. And speakers at the meetings absolutely take advantage of this rule. Plenty of presenters tell us that they do not want us to report their work. Obviously, we’d prefer if that was not the case, but we respect their wishes because those are the ground rules for all journalists who attend CSHL meetings and they always have been. In fact, journalists literally cannot register for CSHL conferences without signing off on their guidelines first – it is part of the online registration process. Regular attendees register via a separate form and would therefore have no way of knowing about these rules, so I can understand why there would be some confusion over that in the community.

    It’s great that this has prompted so much discussion because it’s an issue that many scientists may not be aware of. It would certainly be a good thing if all of this leads to more openness in the community.

  20. #20 EvaEarth
    June 4, 2009

    Enjoyed your coverage of the CSHL a lot, not being an geneticist, but an immunologist, it help me to get the big picture.

    And, while I to agree with the rules concerning meetings, you got two really good points, scoopers are already in the audience, and no one would get distracted by twitters… we are already distracted.

    Cheers

  21. #21 GS
    June 4, 2009

    First, let’s narrow the debate:

    The CSHL B of G meeting being massively oversubscribed (with, this year, restrictions by institute) and acknowledging that it is always better to be physically at a meeting for a multitude of reasons, does it not impose the need to make the B of G a (partially) open meeting for the sake of the science community that could not attend?

    Otherwise, CSHL could build a conference stadium, 2 new cantines, 3 supplementary bars and 5 other Best Westerns and keep their meeting as close as they hope.

    Second, lets face the power of amorality:

    Impeach tweeting/blogging/news coverage to avoid scoopers? First, have you already see a news feed precise enough to scoop someone? Second, considering the number of ruthless sharks in science, any scientist would be crazy to present interesting data still scoopable in any meeting being large or small (even in a restricted specialized subject – how to prove that your idea has been stolen?). In addition, what about the posters being taken in pictures, abstract books being given to the whole team, the video links being shared, the relevant presentation being discussed in lab meetings, all the specialists in the field being aware of new important data in few emails from colleagues attending the meeting? And, anyway, let’s face it, all the potential scoopers (eg, big groups with infinite postdocs) are already aware of your data for a long time: they were the grant reviewers 2 years before.

    What an hypocrisy.

    Let’s disseminate science and ask the presenter to be clever enough to decide what to present knowing that, due to modern technology, the interesting data will be disseminated in few seconds or minutes.

  22. #22 Daniel MacArthur
    June 4, 2009

    Hi Bernadette,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. GenomeWeb has always done a great job of engaging with non-traditional media, so it’s good to see you taking the initiative in clarifying the issues here. While I wish I hadn’t dragged myself into this mess in the first place, I certainly don’t bear GenomeWeb any ill will for requesting clarification from CSHL.

    In my post I described the general benefits of adopting more open policies towards the use of social media at conferences; obviously I think the same openness should be applied to dealings with professional reporters. And in cases where openness is not the path taken, for whatever reason, it is essential that the conference position be made completely clear from the outset for all participants.

    I look forward to further discussions on this issue, preferably once the current furore has died down a little!

  23. #23 detox
    November 21, 2009

    Giving a talk at a conference is a public presentation, if you want to keep your data secret, then don’t give a talk. If any conference organizer asks this of me, I’ll either refuse to attend or do my blogging/twittering anyway. I expect any serious science-blogger to do the same.

  24. #24 Todd
    May 13, 2010

    It seems to me that this meeting, like many others in science, has considerable public support, and many of the attendees and presenters are there because their publicly funded grants pay for their travel and registrations. I think this should further strengthen the case against closed meetings. That is publicly funded work should be open. Also, AGBT does not stir the same controversy? At least half of the attendees must go to both? Why is it CHSL has this issue and not AGBT?

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