Genetic Future

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 While I deliberately steered clear of discussing unpublished or contentious work, basically focusing on the “big picture” messages emerging from the sessions rather than the technical details, I inadvertently violated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.

[Update 14/05/10: the tally is now at 37/40.]

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Misha
    May 13, 2010

    Fight the power, D!

  2. #2 Rich
    May 13, 2010

    I didn’t think Andy even knew what Twitter was.

  3. #3 Daniel MacArthur
    May 13, 2010

    I did actually ask Andy last year if he knew what Twitter was. He gave me a mildly scathing look and said, “I’m not that old.”

  4. #4 Larry Parnell
    May 14, 2010

    That 29 of 32 speakers, thus far, have allowed their talks at Biology of Genomes 2010 to be tweeted is indeed impressive. It might be fun for you to track down the three who would not agree to this and ask them, privately and in confidence, why they would not. Those answers would be instructive in my view.

    Overall, I must say it is fun to follow the tweets as well as watch the talks on-line via leadingstrand. I have the conference and the running commentary in parallel and that is almost as energizing as being there. Thanks for your efforts in getting Twitter into everyone conscience.

  5. #5 Kevin
    May 17, 2010

    Certainly is a great outcome. I can’t believe that CSHL has such a policy. I would assume that speakers should take up the onus of declaring what parts are to be kept private than to assume otherwise.
    Keeping scientific information behind closed doors results in redundant work by related groups of scientists and doesn’t contribute to science as a whole.
    The whole idea of closed door science definitely doesn’t do good for public image as well.

    if i may make a recommendation:
    CSHL should ask beforehand if slides or posters can be published on sites other than CSHL. and publish this information in the talks schedule.

  6. #6 dictionar german
    May 18, 2010

    It is outrageous when science wants to “protect” the public by sustaining the whole idea of closed door
    Thank you so much Daniel for this article >:D<

  7. #7 Liz Hansen
    June 5, 2010

    thanks for the article – just clicked on your twitter link for #bg2010 and got this:

    “Older tweets are temporarily unavailable.”

    Is this a twitter bug or did the content get pulled?

  8. #8 Jenny Hale
    June 9, 2010

    Hi,
    Thanks for the informative posts, and debate about the use of social media at the CSHL conferences from this year and last year.

    I’m a PhD student of Cameron Neylon’s, and he pointed me in this direction as I had made reference to the Nature articles about CSHL and use of social media at conferences in my thesis. I was hoping to be able to cite some of your blog posts for my thesis but I’m getting a 404 error when I try to use webcitation.org and also if I directly type in the web address of the pages from June last year into my browser. Do you have an alternative archived link that I could use, presuming you are happy for me to cite your postings?

    Thanks

    Jenny Hale (jrh201 at soton dot ac dot uk)