I’ve been quiet for the last two weeks, largely due to some feverish last-minute analysis in the lead-up to this year’s Biology of Genomes meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where I spoke in (and co-chaired) the Genetics of Complex Traits session.
Long-term readers may recall that I sparked off a minor controversy at last year’s meeting by writing several blog posts summarising presented work. While I deliberately steered clear of discussing unpublished or contentious work, basically focusing on the “big picture” messages emerging from the sessions rather than the technical details, I inadvertently violated the spirit of CSHL’s long-standing “closed meeting” policy.
In response to the controversy, CSHL instituted a policy that talks
cannot be discussed online without explicit permission from the
speaker. This policy was widely criticised (often with unnecessary harshness, I think) by meeting attendees on
Twitter in the lead-up to this year’s meeting, and during the first session, because the logistical challenges of finding and
discussing the issues of social media with presenters before each
session meant that most speakers couldn’t be safely covered.
Those of us presenters sufficiently aware of Twitter were ready to make our willingness known to the audience with title slide “blog-safe” icons,
but of course most speakers are only peripherally cognisant of social media
or the implications of being covered on Twitter – so this was shaping
up to be a fairly social media-free meeting. That would have been a
real shame: given the sheer number of people who miss out on a place at
the meeting every year there’s a strong demand for online coverage of
the key points.
However, as we prepared for our own session (the second of the
meeting), my co-chair Carole Ober and I received an email from conference organiser Andy Clark suggesting that we try out a new system: ask the presenters whether they were willing to be tweeted, and then indicate on the board at the front of the room which
speakers had given their permission. To my delight, this policy has
continued in the subsequent sessions at the meeting, and been a tremendous success: so far, all 8 of the speakers in our session, and 22 of the 24 speakers overall, have given their permission to be covered.
I think this is a great outcome for the meeting. Unlike others at the
meeting I’m not viscerally opposed to the idea of speakers deciding to
opt out of being covered by social media (there are perfectly good
reasons for doing so in some cases), and it’s fantastic to see a
process being put in place to explicitly get speakers to indicate their
willingness to participate and to communicate their status to the
audience. It seems to me this new policy treads the line of maintaining CSHL’s interest in giving speakers a protected forum for presenting sensitive data if they wish, while also making it easy for presenters to broadcast their work to a larger audience if they want to do so.
Social media is shifting fast, and it’s hard for conference organisers to adapt to the changing environment. I’ve argued in the past that CSHL should be commended for even having a social media policy at all (unlike most conferences), and the willingness of the conference organisers to tweak that policy on the fly in response to audience demand is laudable.
I’ll hopefully have more from the meeting over the next few days – in particular, there’s a session in a few hours on the ethical challenges of returning research data to participants that I’m looking forward to, and Svante Paabo will be presenting on the Neanderthal genome this evening.
In the meantime, those of you on Twitter can follow the conversation using the hashtag #bg2010.