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Let’s have a discussion about live-tweeting academic conferences

Tl,dr version: I think we need more appropriate guidelines for live-tweeting conferences, specifically regarding the broadcasting of sensitive research. This should be at the discretion of the author, and ideally stated at the beginning of each talk.

Suzie Maidment, a colleague and friend of mine, recently started a major discussion on and off the internet with the following tweet: “I do think we need to have a discussion about live tweeting unpublished results & conclusions though. It’s just not cool.” (@Tweetisaurus)

The ensuing debate has lasted for four days now, and is on-going. Clearly, we need to have a discussion about live-tweeting at conferences. What followed from the initial tweet was a great debate, punctuated by a series of misunderstandings, ridiculous statements, partially offensive tweets, and what I think from some shows an attitude of disrespect towards colleagues. This was not from everyone involved – the dialogue was overwhelmingly progressive, but cut by a lot of opinions that could clearly do with thinking through a bit more, especially from those a bit new to the twitter game.

As a result of this, here I have outlined many of the major themes or issues that arose during these conversations. I will note clearly that these relate strictly to the annual meetings of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), and its members, for which the last two years I have attended both as a researcher and a member of the ‘media’ (yay blogging). However, it seems that similar issues have arisen multiple times in the past in different fields, and so each point may have broader application. Each point is numbered, so if you wish to comment, please refer to which point you are discussing.

This is by no means the final say on these matters. It is an attempt to summarise thousands of points from thousands of individuals that we may progress on the issue of live-tweeting at conferences. I have added my personal thoughts. Each conference, each scientific community will have its own rules, guides, and policies. Before reading these points, please consider what the effect of simply obtaining permission beforehand from authors will have on each. These are in no particular order.

  1. Being “scooped” – This is probably overblown fear. If you’re presenting to a conference of your peers, then they are most likely the ones to try and hi-jack your research in some way. However, the internet is a big place, and there is a distinct difference to having your research broadcast to an unknowably, but invariably larger, number of people. Now, a lot of people have mentioned that it is impossible to scoop someone’s research from a tweet. That may be the case, but is incredibly short-sighted – at SVP, many talks had 10s to 100s of tweets about them – things get a little more serious then, when it is essentially every detail of the talk posted publicly on the internet. Of course, if your research is scooped by a single 140 character snippet, then you probably have bigger things to be worrying about.. In Suzie’s case in particular, she was working with our Press Office to create a ‘media bomb’ of sorts, upon publication of the paper, the impact of which would have been lessened by leakage beforehand: “I expect there to be a big media thing. It dilutes that if everyone knows about it already.” As such, there is perhaps no need for a fear of being ‘scooped’, but more that the impact of your research may be lessened of disseminated incoherently.
  2. Permission – To tweet about someone’s work without their knowledge or permission is disrespectful and unethical. Several people have stated that they consider the default to be ‘tweetable’ – are the authors aware of this? If not, and you haven’t checked, you better show some god damn courtesy in future and not do anything you are not explicitly permitted to do. This applies to reporters too. Your opinions do not grant you authority to broadcast without permission. End of. (This is one of the points that was most infuriating). There is no logical or authoritative reason that grants anyone in the audience the freedom and privilege to distribute that research as they see fit without permission. SVP has a policy that allows blogging, tweeting, and any form of broadcast (see below) upon presentation, which I guess is a sort of formal permission. However, I wonder how many at the conference are aware of this, and how many were aware that this was being applied to their research, given the knock back which I’m seeing from the community about all this. Clearer guidelines are needed explicitly focussed on what is permitted at presentations – clearly, a free-for-all approach does not work.
  3. The lack of peer review – Surprisingly, this came up very little in the discussions. Information presented at conferences has not been peer-reviewed, and as such, do not have the same quality stamp as results presented in a peer reviewed journal. There is potential for misuse, but the documentation of this is scant. Many researchers go to conferences purely to get feedback from colleagues – I know that’s my main reason, as well as networking – not to broadcast results, or some times to even show that they are still actively researching. Consider that not everyone is there for the same reason as you, and therefore don’t force them to play by your rules.
  4. Misrepresentation – This is coupled to the above point. Twitter is great for small sound-bites, but it can be easy to lose the nuance, detail, context and actual meaning of what is being discussed in a talk. This was certainly the case fairly frequently at SVP. If a researcher is presenting work for the first time, the last thing they want is for work to be mis-represented, and possibly taken further than twitter. This is tangential, but related to what are the things that we should be tweeting about in the first place.
  5. There is a distinct difference between live-tweeting, and live-tweeting results –The number of people who carelessly jumped in without reading the discussion threads was absolutely infuriating. No-one has said there should be a blanket ban on tweeting at conferences. Merely a measure of guidance so that we do it in an optimal manner for all those involved. This will require the distinction of sensitive and non-sensitive results in future.
  6. [High impact] Journals will not accept my research if it has been discussed prior to acceptance – I asked Nature, they said this is not the case – tweet and blog away! Noah Gray, Senior Editor at Nature (and all-round nice chap) told me that tweeting is allowed. Science, surprise surprise, offered no response. However. (why is there always a however..) I have heard from two different colleagues at SVP this year that both of their articles got rejected without review from Nature, as the results were not considered to be novel, the research having been tweeted about beforehand. It would be an excellent resource if someone could collect journal policies like this in a Google spreadsheet (Cough. Hint. Cough.).
  7. Should conferences have a default policy –Yes, they should. Except I would rather they were called ‘Guidelines’, as it sounds less like, er, policy. This seems to be another of the major points of contention. By policy, no-one means blanket ban – just guidelines. I believe that much of the tweets that spurred this current debate where not malicious, but simply due to the lack of a framework to operate in. Live-tweeting has taken off big time over the last few years, but guidelines have rarely been in place or enforced. I think the current discussion indicates that it is time to start giving this some serious consideration. See below for the current SVP policy.
  8. Some authors like their work being tweeted about – Every time I live-tweet someone’s talk, if they are on Twitter, they say thanks – how nice is that! They get free promotion of their work, something I’m sure no-one could object to, if conducted correctly. In various other discussion threads, this appears to be a fairly consistent factor. However, just because some like it doesn’t mean everyone does, and this certainly should not be used as a defence when someone asks you to not tweet their research.
  9. Monitoring a twitter feed is impossible – No, it isn’t. It’s actually really easy. I was able to do it by myself to some degree, while perpetually hungover/exhausted, taking notes, and tweeting from SVP – all from an iPad. It would be just as easy to have someone do it officially, simply to make sure that guidelines are being adhered to. Many of the more ‘offensive’ tweets were immediately removed upon requests. Anyway, if simple guidelines are adhered to, there is no reason why moderation should even be needed.
  10. Photographs – For personal use, I think this is ok. It’s the same as taking notes, or doing a quick sketch. Tweeting photos – hell no, not of people’s slides. My only exception to this will be if they are not results slides, and the information is already public. Or if the author has said that it’s ok. I tweeted several photos of my colleagues, and posted on Facebook, ensuring that photos contained no sensitive information. Again, easy to comply with.
  11. Are conferences ‘public’? – I do not have the answer to this, which is unfortunate as it seems to be one of the major drivers of this debate. I don’t think it’s as easily polarised as public or private though, as some are making out. Conferences are private to the extent that they are for academics to discuss unpublished research with their colleagues. However, they are ‘public’ in the extent that anyone can attend (albeit, usually at a high fee), including members of the media. Now, one could argue (as many have) that the purpose of a conference is to disseminate results to the broader public. One could just as easily respond by stating that the purpose is to discuss results with experts before going more broadly public. The easy way to resolve this? Get. Permission. First. For what it’s worth, members of ‘the broader public’ (which is a whole other debate) generally do not attend SVP.

The current SVP presentation policy states: “Unless specified otherwise, coverage of abstracts presented orally at the Annual Meeting is strictly prohibited until the start time of the presentation, and coverage of poster presentations is prohibited until the relevant poster session opens for viewing. As defined here, “coverage” includes all types of electronic and print media; this includes blogging, tweeting, advanced online publication and other intent to communicate or disseminate results or discussion presented at the SVP Annual Meeting.”

This seems pretty easy to understand: there are no limitations on broadcast, once the presentation has begun. However, as we have seen throughout the last few days of discussion, there is a difference between the whole presentation, the publicly available abstracts (see below), and new information included within presentations. I think SVP needs to be more explicit about exactly what can and cannot be done with or without permission from the authors. I also think those who use twitter for live-tweeting need to think hard about exactly why it is they’re doing what they’re doing, and whether or not they are achieving it. If you’re doing it for scientific outreach, do you really think 140 character snippets of SVP technical sessions are the best way to achieve it?

At the end of the day, there are three major points I want to make. 1) Live-tweeting conferences is awesome. For yourself, it can be used as a notebook or broadcast mechanism (think science communication). For researchers not able to make it to the conference, it lets them enjoy it vicariously from afar. For non-academics, it provides great insight into the world of research. This is something I’m sure we all want as the ‘open movement’, or whatever, gains momentum. 2) When it comes to potentially contentious issues like this, where the debate is clearly polarised, we should opt for the route that advocates guidance, and respect for our colleagues. Not recklessness and disregard. There is much power in open engagement, as opposed to trying to impose a top-down approach based on an individual ideology. It’s easy to forget this when using social media. In this case, this bores down to respecting the wishes of the author in favour of the tweeter, especially in cases where the author may be unaware that tweeting is happening. 3) We need to have more clear guidelines on this at future conferences. I call on my twitter-savvy colleagues to engage with media committees prior to conferences to make sure that these guidelines are in place, and available to all to be read.

I don’t think any of this is asking too much, or contentious really.

What do I think the outcome of all of this could be? I don’t think it will negatively impact upon the quality of tweeting at conferences. If anything, hopefully my twittery colleagues – many of which are close friends – will think more carefully about what they tweet, resulting in a more cohesive, coherent, and informative feed at conferences in future. It may also encourage more sensitive material to emerge at conferences, as there is a system in place where such research can maintain privacy until the researcher is ready to release it more broadly – as should be the case. What I think it will bore down to is individual requests for no tweeting, with adapted guidelines from SVP to some degree. Will this be enforced? Who knows.

Finding the balance between real world effects of the “Twittersphere” (or “Twattersphere” as someone mentioned to me about a lot of this current debate) is difficult, and of course everyone has opinions on it. Much of what I have addressed here is an attempt to reconcile what we do online with how it is perceived by those whom it is affecting on the ground. I’m open to future discussion in the comments (please use a numbering system to address individual points as above), and by no means am static regarding each of the statements made. Presently though, I feel highly uncomfortable with the views of some, especially the dismissive nature in which some are towards simply acting respectfully towards colleagues. Thanks everyone for a mostly constructive discussion though – let’s keep building on it.



Mike Taylor, another open access advocate I have great respect for, has written a great post here, with an excellent ongoing discussion in the comments. I agree with his summary points entirely.

David Shiffman, shark master, has a paper here about live-tweeting at conferences that is well worth a read too.

All abstracts from the 2014 SVP meeting are available for free here.

A comment from Liz Freedman here is a pretty good guide to standards of tweeting at conferences.

This blog post.

*From the other side of the fence (for once..), I really hope this is not how the open access movement has come across these last few years.

*EDIT* 16.49, 13 Nov, 2014

Another point now raised by Chris Dean – just because information isn’t public immediately, does not mean that it won’t be made open access at some point in the future. Delayed by wishes of researcher =/= delayed and hidden forever.

*UPDATE* 00.18, 14 Nov, 2014

“I wonder if we’re starting to run up against some of the differences in ideas about free speech between Americans and Europeans. I’ve run into this philosophical difference in the past when discussing hate speech, and the ways in which U.S. laws actually protect it, while many European countries do not” – Samantha Hopkins, Facebook.

This is beyond me. I wonder if anyone could shed some light in the comments below. It may explain some of the between-group differences that are becoming somewhat apparent. Let’s call this Point 12.

Jon began university life as a geologist, followed by a treacherous leap into the life sciences. He is now based at Imperial College London, investigating the extinction and biodiversity patterns of Mesozoic tetrapods – anything with four legs or flippers – to discover whether or not there is evidence for a ‘hidden’ mass extinction 145 million years ago. Alongside this, Jon researches the origins and evolution of ‘dwarf’ crocodiles called atoposaurids. Prior to this, there was a brief interlude were Jon was immersed in the world of science policy and communication, which has greatly shaped his view on the broader role that science can play, and in particular, the current ‘open’ debate. He tweets as @Protohedgehog.


  1. On point 6. Google spreadsheet (Cough. Hint. Cough.).

    Already did that, see

    • For people unfamiliar here, could you perhaps expand on the Ingelfinger rule? And perhaps link to the t-shirt with you? 😉

  2. Ernesto Priego has chimed in on Twitter with

    “My suggested practices for the MLA conference:

  3. Hey Jon,

    If there’s a golden rule of science tweeting, it should be something along the lines of:

    “If you’re tweeting at a conference, those tweets should serve to promote the researcher you’re tweeting about, not to promote your own twitter feed.”

    I can understand being extremely excited about what you’re seeing in a conference talk, and wanting to share that excitement with friends and colleagues in the field, and with the general public. But, if we’re reporting on unpublished results (and that’s what live-tweeting is) then we have a responsibility to tailor those tweets to focus on the desires and needs of the researchers who did all the hard work.

    Finally, I think that one thing tweeting can do is provide a public record of where ideas arose, which could potentially protect researchers from being scooped. However, that would require that professional societies and journals remain much more committed to protecting junior researchers from academic misconduct than they appear to actually be.

    Thanks for hosting the discussion here, Jon! Those of us who don’t have blogs are thankful.


  4. I struggle to see a difference between presenting your work to a room full of people, potentially with press or other media present, and that work being tweeted to a few hundred or thousand other people. Those that saw the talk are likely to convey information from it to third-parties just as surely as, and probably more comprehensively and with more thought/context than, people will garner details from tweets.

    I don’t buy the “media splash” argument; if said person didn’t want people to know about the work until it was “launched” why were they standing up in public talking about it? You can’t have it both ways. Either the talk should not have been offered (if the work wasn’t ready for “launch”) or the media release should have been timed to coincide with the talk. ESA and AGU offer this service at their annual meetings for example. Smaller gatherings may not, but perhaps they should?

    The way I view this is unless I’m told otherwise, if you have a conversation with me, if you present to me, if you email me, that information conveyed is free for me to pass on in whatever form I choose. If you tell me you want this to be off the record or in confidence, then I’ll do my best, but sh*t happens and I can’t guarantee some ass from the US Senate or Joe Public won’t Freedom of Information my emails, or that my computer won’t get hacked, or that I might just forget the restriction, maliciously or not. You just can’t stand up in a conference and present and expect that people will do what you ask or even know that you asked.

    Conference organisers should have a clear statement on tweeting, but unless it either allows/expects it or explains that they [the organisers] are powerless to control/stop it then it is largely worthless. This is just the world we now live in.

    Regarding photographing slides; is this against the law in some way? Is one violating copyright by taking these and distributing them? I don’t know – that is a genuine question. Morally, again I don’t have a problem with this; you are standing there showing those slides to a room full of people that anyone could have gotten to.

    “Tweeting photos – hell no, not of people’s slides. My only exception to this will be if they are not results slides, and the information is already public.”

    …but you’ve just gone and made them public by presenting them.

    I do think we all must accept that conferences are public venues in that you can’t control who can come in a view a talk. These are different to private workshops or meetings where attendance is or can be restricted. If we all learn to appreciate that, and present material accordingly (or not as the case may be), then we won’t continue to have these problems. Default policies, community ethical norms, and the like don’t mean squat and provide you no protection. If you don’t want people to circulate your results or ideas, don’t present them; wait until the paper is out, or post it as a pre-print and do media as part of single event timed to coincide with the conference talk.

  5. Jon, you might want to consider also adding a link to this, which is a counterpoint to the post you linked to as ‘This blog post’:

    You might also consider this to be relevant:

  6. Thank you for this post! This reflects many of the thoughts that I have on live coverage of conference talks. I have always considered conferences an opportunity to share what work I have in progress and to hear what other in-progress work is out there.

    Point #1 is an important distinction. “Scooped” in many instances does not mean scientifically scooped. Many journals (I’m thinking about my great experience with PLOS One) do a great deal of work coordinating media for papers published with them, and having non peer-reviewed results broadcast far and wide can compromise a) the potential impact of the final paper and analyses, and b) be potentially misleading to the science community, journalists, and the public. Having the final product ready gives readers a much more in-depth story.

    Conferences should have explicitly stated guidelines, regardless of the policy, and those guidelines should have conditions that allow the presenter to tailor the situation to their needs. “Unless stated by the presenter, this is the default policy” would go a long way to resolving the ambiguity of conference tweeting.

  7. ‘Default policies, community ethical norms, and the like don’t mean squat and provide you no protection.’

    I think Gavin hit the nail on the head here, and what has been a big sticking point for me. People asking for Twitter restrictions haven’t demonstrated clearly, in my mind, that (a) there is a danger to presenting your work publicly and (b) that twitter is the source of the danger. On the flipside, restricted tweeting means that our colleagues who can’t attend are left out of the meeting. There’s a downside to twitter restriction, but no one has demonstrated to me the upside.

  8. On the subject of academic misconduct, the reality is that there are predators in our midst who are eager to publish the studies and ideas of others under their own names when the opportunity arises. Publishers and professional societies ought to penalize this behavior, but too often they do not. This mentality that says “anything presented is now in the public domain” is the sort of mentality that creates and fosters the environment where these sorts of academic predators flourish.

    That is absolutely not to say that the open tweeters are themselves academic predators, because largely these people are highly ethical and have stood strongly against that sort of crap in the past. I’m just worried that with the tweeting situation, we may be putting the cart before the horse. Should we be able to promote each other’s work openly and enthusiastically? Absolutely. But we need to make academia unwelcoming to people who intentionally and repeatedly scoop others.

  9. There’s been an incredible amount of noise about this, but really I think it is very simple and has been said already by others: individual scientific meetings should set policies on social media useage that are appropriate for them and reflect the majority views and desires of their attendees. They are absolutely within their right to do this.

    There seems to be an assumption by many people that scientific meetings are by default “open” events. This may be true in some cases, but in others they are by invite only, or they cost hundreds of dollars and are essentially only attended by professionals and a small number of journalists. There is no reason to assume that it is OK to broadcast unpublished data presented at these workshops and meetings to the entire world without the relevant researcher’s permission.

    Part of the concern that many people have is the difference between the verbal presentation of unpublished data to a small group of colleagues in the hope of receiving feedback, and the creation of a permanent written record of that unpublished data that is accessible to the entire world. If you tweet information about my unpublished data, or even worse images of my slides, without my permission, then you take the decision as to when I make my work publically available out of my hands.

    My question for those who see no problems at all with the current situation is this: if you gave a talk full of unpublished data, and someone wrote a detailed blog post describing your results, would you be OK with that? When people are tweeting 20 odd times about your talk, I really don’t see the difference.

  10. On balance, I have to agree with Gavin on this. Imposing a blanket restriction on conveying information presented in talks feels strange – am I allowed to speak to anyone about what I saw? Can I email someone about it? Am I allowed to say I was *at* the talk? – and hilariously unenforceable. If you present research results in public to an audience then you lose practical control over who is going to talk about it, short of forcing the audience to sign an NDA. If you don’t want people to talk about it, don’t present it.

    I also don’t buy the ‘I’m presenting it just to colleagues’ argument. There’s many other ways to do that. Send people an email with a preprint, or your results graphs, and ask for comment with a request to not disclose it. Don’t get up in front of a room full of people, many of whom will be total strangers to you, and expect that you get to dictate what they can do with the information you’ve given them.

    So much of this conversation has focused on the negatives of live-tweeting. For instance, one of the reasons I tune into live-tweets of conferences is because I follow smart people who attend conferences. When they have comments on results they seen, that layer of interpretation is added value to me.

    Specific responses:

    1. Why did she present the research in a public venue if she wanted to manipulate the media?

    2. “There is no logical or authoritative reason that grants anyone in the audience the freedom and privilege to distribute that research as they see fit without permission.” Again, how do you delineate this? Am I allowed to discuss the talk with my cat? The specific form of the content (e.g. the slides themselves, audio recordings of the speaker) itself may be protected, perhaps by copyright, just as a television show broadcast is. But just like with a television show, no one has the right to control what I say about what I saw. I can’t legally redistribute the talk/show itself, but I can speak my opinion of it and thoughts about it (including summaries of the content as I see fit) without restriction, and you have no right to tell me otherwise.

    3. This may be what you want to do, but the public nature of the venue means that this problem was inevitable. If you want to have private conversations, have private conversations. This sounds so much like a talk I had once with a fellow postdoc, who told me that she didn’t like lay people being able to read the scientific literature because she just wanted her colleagues to read her papers, not the uninformed public. She was against open access, post-publication peer review and most forms of science communication for similar reasons.

    4. This is true in any medium, including spoken conversation. Twitter has unique advantages in speed and reach, but even whispered rumours can spread through a scientific community with surprising velocity. Blaming Twitter for this is problematic at best.

    5. Not everyone seems clear on that. I’m not, for instance. What constitutes ‘results’? Is it just the results slides? Can I talk about the methods? For that matter, if you’re worried about misrepresentation or scooping, isn’t the entire content of the talk problematic? That leaves us tweeting about the catering.

    6. This, I have no idea about.

    7. I can be on board with this, though I think that any such guidelines will be (as above, and as Gavin said) more or less entirely unenforceable. Apart from social sanctions on fellow scientists, how do you propose to enforce such guidelines? Will we have to check our phones at the door and submit to bag searches for recording devices, like I did when going to see a Hollywood preview the other day? I’m kind of kidding here, but … not so much.

    8. If you ask me not to tweet your talk, I won’t. I just won’t be too surprised when someone doesn’t listen, or misses that slide, or didn’t read that bit in the conference handbook.

    9. We’re going to have volunteers searching the internet for offending speech? Seriously? Didn’t I just read that story? Oh yeah, it was China censoring the entire Internet. Will you have people searching blogs for offending posts? If I post a selfie with a corner of someone’s results slide on Instagram, will you ask me to take it down? And all this supposes that you have the right to do so, which I strenuously object to.

    10. This is probably about the only halfway-enforceable thing you’ve proposed, but on the grounds of copyright. (It does parallel another argument, though, which is do students have the right to video-tape or photograph lectures even for personal use?).

    11. The only way to make conferences private, as far as I can see, is to do it legally. Otherwise, it’s a public venue (often with significant contributions of public money in the form of author grants paying for travel and the research, etc.). If you ask everyone attending to sign a TOS or NDA, then you can enforce such privacy. Otherwise, all you have is a strong opinion and no way to meaningfully enforce it.

  11. Just a quick note regarding number 10. This is from the SVP abstracts book. “Still photography, video and/or audio taping or any other electronic recording at the SVP Annual Meeting is strictly prohibited. (The SVP reserves the right to engage professional photographers or audio/videotape professionals to archive sections of the Meeting for the Society’s use.)”

    I don’t see much use for taking pictures. Might be more effective to simply ask the author to email the entire presentation to you. If they decline, there is a good chance they wouldn’t want you having pictures of it either.

  12. I’m with the other Gavin on this.

    People presenting at a meeting where the audience is not restricted (i.e. it isn’t invitation only, it isn’t being run under the Chatham House Rule) should have no expectation of privacy. This goes double for big meetings where the media is specifically invited. Trying to micro-manage people’s tweeting (or blogging, or conversations with other thrid parties) to only be with respect to the abstract but not the result is absurd.

    There are very few occasions where one could ask for something to be ‘off-the-record’ but this is a two-way decision – usually between a single journalist and a source, and is an agreement for mutual benefit. The journalist gets info and the source retains anonymity to avoid official sanction or whatever. You cannot arbitrarily announce to a group of journalists that something is off-the-record and then talk without getting their explicit agreement. (Well, you can if you like, but it is not likely to be respected). Also, no-one is forced to accept that a statement is ‘off-the-record’ so you shouldn’t simply assume they agree.

    Similarly, the notion that it is “unethical” to tweet/blog or talk about someone’s work without their knowledge has no basis in any code of ethics I am familiar with. It would probably rule out about 90% of academic conversations at meetings or in the university cafeteria. Whether these discussions are ‘disrespectful’ or not is totally a function of whether the people talking respect the work or not. There is a wide range in the quality of science that is done, and academics (and indeed anyone) have the absolute right to talk about it.

    This is not a carte blanche for people to be mean or to steal stuff or to plagiarize (the DBAD rule of thumb should hold), but #scicomms is not just about making scientists feel good about themselves. There are real controversies and confusions in all science and no scientist is going to surrender their right to be critical and appropriately skeptical when discussing other people’s work. I would urge people to be constructive in their criticism if they can and not personalize controversies, but if I see someone present a conclusion that has (IMO) no basis in physics, I should be able to call it out. Your responsibility should be to science and truth above the speaker’s personal feelings.

    These issues totally trump the secondary concerns raised above (being scooped, denting a media launch etc). I agree that in both those cases the concerns are likely overblown, but the answer if people are concerned is simply not to present that material, rather than trying to hold the audience to an unenforceable, and un-agreed on ‘off-the-record’ rule.

  13. I find myself largely in agreement with Gavin Schmidt.

    How is it unethical for a reporter to tweet about someone’s work without their permission? The opposite is true. Many countries have bills of rights protecting free speech and the freedom of the press. A journalist should not have to ask a politician for permission to quote them, and the same should go for scientists.

    I find it troubling that such debates are even occurring in the academy. Do we really have such a lack of respect for free expression? If you stand up in a public space and say something you cannot demand that people do not broadcast what you say. This principle should be upheld by academics.

  14. I think we do not need to make any assumptions about whether conferences such as SVP, GSA, ESA, EGU, AGU, PalAss are open to anybody – they simply *are* public, and it does not matter that they are only for those who can afford it or whether non-scientists do or do not attend them (obviously, these conferences do differ from invited-only conferences or workshops that have different rules and different goals). The second point as it is written – Permission – needs to explain *why* it is unethical not to ask for permission. btw, I do not think there is any difference in free speech concept between America and Europe. Asking for permission to communicate (to tweet, to blog) views/ideas/opinions on someone’s work without their knowledge or permission violates free communication (if permission is not given) or is a waste of time and energy (if permission is given). The principle that everything what is not forbidden is permitted did not come out of nowhere. Things that are forbidden must be shown that they show some harm – this does not apply just to law, but also to ethics – things that do not cause harm cannot be unethical. Of course, it is unethical or disrespectful to communicate dismissively or damagingly etc. on someone’ work, and societies should give recommendations on this, but asking for permission to say loud anything about somebody’s work cannot be correct. I suggest that the tweeting rule should simply be *Do not harm others with your tweets”. Feynman could add a rule for the rest: Why do you care what other people tweet…

  15. “The lack of peer review – Surprisingly, this came up very little in the discussions. Information presented at conferences has not been peer-reviewed, and as such, do not have the same quality stamp as results presented in a peer reviewed journal.”

    You seriously think this is an issue? You worry that people tweeting conference presentations will dilute the otherwise very high standard of reliability and reproducibility on Twitter?

    • I find the peer review argument to make no sense. Specifically for SVP, abstracts are reviewed, and the society does provide instructions for the citations of these abstracts. I’d say that if something is good enough to be endorsed by the society for citation in scientific literature, it’s good enough for Twitter.

  16. I appreciate nobody is talking about the law here, but I think it is interesting that the new (British) Defamation Act 2013 gives a ‘qualified’ privilege to information given at science conferences anywhere in the world. According to my journalism law textbook

    “this.. allows these ‘statements’ – including media reports of certain documents and events – to be freely published in the public interest, with no requirement for the publisher to prove them as true” (McNae 2014)

    Which suggests that under the law, information presented at academic conferences is deemed to be pubic knowledge.

  17. After strongly arguing against the above post Steven Hamblin wrote: “If you ask me not to tweet your talk, I won’t.”

    In my view, that is basically what the above post was asking for: To respect the wishes of the author.

    Not too long ago it was possible to go to a scientific meeting and get feedback from knowledgeable colleagues (including people not in your circle of friend and outside of your direct area of expertise). This feedback is very important to me. I am not infallible and I do not only go to conferences to broadcast, that is what publications are for.

    This safe space allows people to try out daring new ideas, without leaving a documented trail of mistakes. I feel that that is important for scientific progress.

    I can understand that some researchers are so well known that they should always count on people disclosing what they said, but until recently I was able to speak openly and get important feedback from colleagues.

    The above legalistic arguments somewhat surprise me. No one is talking about putting people in jail for tweeting. Just explaining that in case the author does not want this this is disrespectful.

    It is a much more extreme example, but to illustrate the difference between social and legal norms: Once a colleague asked (almost) all the women at a scientific conference to sleep with him. That is not illegal. It is disrespectful. I sure told him that and it had real consequences for his career. Social rules are socially enforced, you cannot regulate everything legally. Being disrespectful is not directly illegal.

    There may be a cultural difference between both sides of the Atlantic. Telling someone what someone else said or did against their wishes is called “klikken” in Dutch and “petzen” in German. It is not illegal, but it is socially sanctioned and normally only children do so and grown-ups have learned when it is appropriate to talk about what someone did or told.

    I am unable to find a good English translation for that word. This indicates that Anglo-Americans think differently about it. Offered translations are: reveal; disclose; blab; give away; inform against; tell tales; tattle; betray; peach. Maybe it is my bad English, but I have the feeling none of these terms really fit and expresses the negative social stigma of such behaviour.

    It is good to know that I should not expect to be able to talk about preliminary work when I go to an American conference. That makes it less likely I will go to such conferences and if, I will just tell you old stuff about which I am reasonably sure that it is right, partly because of valuable feedback from European colleagues.

    Signed, the author of “This blog post.” 🙂

  18. I think it’s worth reminding people that “what is permitted” and “what is ethical” are not equivalent categories. There are many things that are permitted that are not ethical. Meetings do not make you sign a binding document that says you will not steal the research design or ideas presented by others and publish them under your own name, but we all agree that this is unethical.

    Can you tweet about something said by a colleague in a talk? Sure, no one’s going to stop you. Can you tweet about something that a colleague says to you in confidence? Once again, sure, you can, no one’s going to stop you. Can you tweet about something you overhear a colleague say to someone else at the bar? Sure. Not like we control your twitter feed.

    Is it ethical, though? And, more importantly, what sort of research environment will this create?

    Will we see more and more people holding back preliminary results until the paper is already through review? Will we see less bar talk about studies in progress? Will we see less correspondence between workers who are not currently collaborating?

    The scientific community relies on trust and mutual respect. Tweeting about someone’s unpublished work may be harmless (or it may not be) but it violates that basic trust and mutual respect that is necessary for our community to function.

    • Trust and mutual respect shouldn’t, cannot, trump critical , constructive scientific debate. You can’t stop anyone in the audience discussing the quality of the presented research, their agreement with the interpretation etc, with any other third party. That twitter is now a medium by which we as scientists conduct discourse with the public and our colleagues doesn’t change this.

      The important thing to note here is that I’m talking about the normal day-to-day discussion of the science, not the petty squabbles or sniping or backstabbing that may go on. That is a distraction to this discussion; that stuff just shouldn’t happen (but it does, and Twitter won’t change that). Once we push that petty or nasty stuff to one side, the ethical issues, for me at least, disappear; a presenter has no basis to assume I won’t discuss their talk or research with other people or that it is unethical to do so. This applies to Twitter, or a blog post, or email, or any other media I might choose to conduct that communication via.

      This level of debate happens anyway and I for one welcome wider discourse on the science we present and undertake. I don’t see anything unethical about this. People are just getting hung up on the novelty of the medium.

      • What Gavin said. 😉

      • Trust and mutual respect shouldn’t, cannot, trump critical , constructive scientific debate. You can’t stop anyone in the audience discussing the quality of the presented research, their agreement with the interpretation etc, with any other third party. That twitter is now a medium by which we as scientists conduct discourse with the public and our colleagues doesn’t change this.

        Let’s break this down.

        1. You can’t have critical, constructive scientific debate on unpublished data. You don’t have any data to discuss. You just have a brief overview provided by the speaker. Criticizing conclusions without data is the opposite of critical and constructive.

        2. The larger issue, though, is not criticism. It is ownership of data pre-publication and respecting the right of researchers (often graduate students and other early-career scientists!!!) to have first dibs at publishing the results of their very hard work. It is also about respecting the right of researchers to get credit for innovative approaches, theories, or ideas that they applied in their studies.

        Saying “respect shouldn’t trump critical debate” is too often used as a smokescreen for bad behavior. This is exactly what’s going on here. There’s plenty of time for critical debate once the paper is out, once the researchers who did all the work have proper recognition of their work, and all the data are available for reference. No one’s telling you not to have debates. They’re telling you to be a little patient and wait for the paper.

        • 1) If we can’t have a critical discussion based on a talk, what is the point in giving a talk? To build a better echo chamber? My experiences giving talks on unpublished data don’t support the assertion that critical (helpful discussion cannot emerge from talks. If this is true, we need to reconsider having conferences at all.

          2) I’ve yet to see a demonstration that tweeting a talk leads to scoopage. That people like me (graduate students) will be harmed by having ideas stolen from having their talk tweeted about is pretty false. I actually credit Twitter and pre-publication buzz from giving talks on my unpublished data with a big chunk of the almost 5k pageviews on my recent article. People keep making this argument that I have been hurt by Twitter, but I only see evidence to the contrary in my own career.

          If people are choosing to not cite the talk abstract or work, that’s a separate issue. But I don’t think you can blame Twitter for that. Especially given that many in the anti-Twitter camp are also pushing for citing abstracts to be considered unethical.

          I disagree with your assertion that for people to talk about a talk after the talk is disrespectful. The only evidence of bad behavior I’ve seen has been from people aggressively upset about Tweeting, one of whom I had to block during the meeting for abusive spam. And I don’t think that ideas are immune from criticism until they’re published. What you’re arguing for here is an echo chamber, and that’s the opposite of scientific. I welcome the criticism and consideration of my scientific peers, and consider it to be the single most important reason to give a scientific talk.

          • 1) There are a variety of reasons to give a talk. Speakers may be giving talks in order to report on research they they have completed. They may be giving a talk because they have data or results they do not know how to interpret and want input from other scientists at the meeting. They may simply be updating colleagues on what they’re up to. They may be advertising pre-publication results to colleagues. They may be commenting on research best practices. They may be trying to establish priority of research on a specific topic so that others know that this research is already being done. They may be trying to network for postdocs or jobs. They may be advertising collaborative opportunities.

            Tweeting can facilitate some of these. It may not facilitate all of these.

            2) On the subject of scooping, we don’t actually know the effect of social media on scooping because scooping is something that we don’t really talk about as a field. I know it happens because it has happened to me and because I have seen it happen to friends and colleagues. Everyone I know has stories that they’ll tell behind closed doors, but until people are willing to break the omerta protecting this sort of professional misbehavior, we really will not have the first clue how to assess this. It’s very possible that a public twitter record may protect people against being scooped, but it’s equally possible that it will only benefit well-known tweeters who have already established a repertoire with other social media users.

            Finally, I’m sorry to hear that people have been flinging abusive spam in both directions. We’re all ostensibly adults and we should be able to have a discussion about these subjects without people bullying each other. I was specifically uncomfortable with Gavin’s statement: “Trust and mutual respect shouldn’t, cannot, trump critical, constructive scientific debate.” This sort of language is far too often used to defend all sorts of bad behavior.

        • 1. Nonsense. I go to plenty of conferences where even in 15 minutes, people can present detailed, in depth studies that are thought-provoking and rich. Similarly, there are plenty of repetitive talks where there isn’t a single interesting new point. Regardless, these are *presentations* to an audience that the presumably the presenter wants them to take note of. I consider it a positive thing if people talk about my results (often unpublished). Tweeting is no different in concept, only in audience.

          Secondly, you are being extremely presumptive of what I or anyone else might tweet about – assuming that all tweets/blogs/conversations can’t be constructive is just odd, but in any case, I don’t see that anyone has an automatic right to demand that everyone be constructive in discussing their work. In my own tweets, I often decide that it is better to say nothing than to say something critical, but that is my choice, not yours.

          2. This is odd too. Where did anyone claim that stealing data or not giving people credit for their work was ok? It isn’t. But this has zip to do with tweeting.

          3. I am beginning to have an inkling for the scenario you have constructed for what I’m talking about, but you are way off. I’m not interested in denying people proper recognition, nor am I for people stealing data from presentations to use in their own work (see the Planck/BICEP fiasco), nor am I trying to short circuit the publication process. Rather, I am just pointing out that when you put your ideas out into an open meeting, you no longer get to control what people do with those ideas. You can’t stop people from thinking about them, you can’t stop people from talking about them, and you can’t stop people tweeting or blogging about them. If you don’t want those things to happen, then don’t present them in the first place.

          But here is a better example: an established scientist presents some old work, combined with some provocative and sensational unpublished content. An audience member thinks that the assumptions behind the provocative content are weak, makes this point in the Q&A and the presenter disagrees strongly. There are media present.

          Under your proposed rules, no-one would be able to be tweet their thoughts on this, or even report on the disagreement without the scientists’ express permission, which of course, is unlikely. Meanwhile the media get to publish on the speculative unpublished claim with the scientist’s full cooperation. I totally reserve the right to tweet about this in such a situation (#RSArctic14), and I make no apologies for doing so.

          This is a case where there isn’t ever going to be a paper to wait for, nor is the data secret and nor is the recognition at all ambiguous. Tell me why this is not ok, and then explain how your proposed guidelines don’t compromise the scientific debate.

          • I think we’re talking past each other. I’m not concerned about constructive vs critical discussion. I’m concerned about people reporting on preliminary data that the presenter wants feedback on from colleagues but which may not be ready for general dissemination. I’m also extremely concerned about scooping.

            I don’t care if someone says “Pardo said ___ controversial thing, I’m not sure I buy that interpretation of the data.” I do care if someone says “Pardo shows that dramatically changes our interpretations of widely-available data” and proceeds to outline the specifics of what I’ve done with discussion of what the implications are.

            I think in part this a function of where we are in our respective careers and the differences in how data are collected and handled in our respective fields. In fields where research efforts are broadly collaborative and very large datasets are being collected with unique or rare equipment, it is difficult to scoop someone. In fields where research efforts are of smaller scale and where the potential for reproducibility is very high, scooping can be extremely easy. Getting scooped matters a lot less for someone with a permanent position than for an early-career scientist (e.g. graduate student, postdoc, or pre-tenure professor). It’s great to say that we do this because we’re selflessly committed to the truth, but the reality is that I like to eat and I’d like to have a job that guarantees me financial stability down the line. If a critical mass of grad students and early-career scientists do feel that conference presentations make them susceptible to being scooped, we’re going to see a lot less preliminary data presentation, and instead conferences will simply involve presentation of completed and often nearly-published data.

            Now, I’m not sure whether live-tweeting is likely to affect the level of academic misconduct, but we don’t have data on this because talking about being scooped is apparently a bigger faux pas than actually stealing someone else’s research. But the perception is there, and if so, livetweeters need to respect that and tread carefully. If people don’t want the details of their methodology tweeted about, then respect that.

          • The scientific debate takes place in the scientific literature. Whatever happens before that hopefully helps to write better articles, but is, in my view, not part of the scientific debate.

            The affair at RSArctic14 you are talking about is about the public debate. I was already thinking that you had this affair in the back of your mind. While this started the debate, I would argue that the real problems are elsewhere.

            It could be that my post was the first on tweeting conferences. I started with RSArctic14, but mainly to start at a point people knew. My own reason to write it was because I am just working on something where the consequences are so big that I presently find the evidence too thin. At this years EMS I have chosen not to talk about it because of this and only talked about it with my most direct colleagues. As a consequence I may have missed important feedback. I think that is a pity. A few years ago, I would still have been able to talk about something like that.

            Fortunately, I work in a country with constitutional Freedom or Research and thus no FOIA harassment. Had I lived in one of the countries without Freedom of Research, I would be extra careful. The mitigation sceptics could launch a (FOIA) campaign that would make work nearly impossible for quite some time, which would delay the research and publication and would be a serious problem for me as a project scientist.

            To me the talk at RSArctic14 is irrelevant for this discussion. There was no request not to tweet. Had the presenter thought of it, he would most likely not have asked for this. He wanted to spread his alarmist message and had arranged to get it into the press multiple times. It also makes no sense to make such a request in a large session with much press around. Furthermore, the examples of the worst science possible, extrapolating a few years of data, were already in the public domain, to which one can naturally respond. Naturally, when the press reports you can do so as well. If there were no outside reports about the talk, there would also not be any need for outside critique of the talk. You could help the people in the audience to see the problems by asking a question after the talk. Without outside reports that would be sufficient.

            The request not to tweet would in my view just be a request. Ignoring would be socially sanctioned, people would think that someone doing so is disrespectful, but it would not have any official consequences. If you really get problems with your conscious not tweeting you could do so. If your colleagues would agree with you that other considerations are more important that would null the social pressure for such a case. If someone does not want you to report that the Earth will be destroyed next year because he is only 99% sure, I guess most people would understand your decision to tweet and have more people search for a solution.

            I am not thinking of an alarmist trying to block you from tweeting, but of providing a safe space where people can show preliminary results. Science goes through many stages, from a hunch to an idea, to some evidence to a solid paper. In each of these stages scientists may want to get feedback from their colleagues, ask for collaboration partners, hope that other people have better data and methods to study the problem, and so on.

            Fixing these preliminary stages on paper (or on the internet) solidifies it. Makes the mistakes public and visible forever, which makes people less willing to make mistakes and consequently take less risks. Fixing ideas also makes it psychologically harder to change then, that is bad in a preliminary phase where ideas should change.

            At least I cannot get all the feedback I need from my direct colleagues. They mostly have a similar background and I may well need feedback from other disciplines and also from disciplines I did not know I should ask. Scientific conferences used to be places where you could discretely get such feedback, at least for me as a small scientist, maybe you do not have this privilege any more. That would be a great loss.

            There is naturally an issue with the size of the audience. If you have a plenary talk for more than 100 people, you will normally only discuss solid science. Not just because the ideas may get into the public domain, but also because such an audience normally wants an overview and not details that may well be wrong. Whereas in a smaller more technical session, you expect more specialist people that are also better able to give quality feedback. There more preliminary work would be appropriate and hopefully also possible in future.

  19. Hi Jon,

    I enjoyed your post. I also think this is a really important discussion for scientists to have. I covered it here: and it generated some healthy discussion on Twitter and the link was included in some other blogs. This topic is going to keep coming up as scientists spend more time on Twitter. In the regenerative medicine community, adoption still seems low. (People may have handles, but that doesn’t mean they are tweeting much and especially not live tweeting from conferences.)

    Thanks for the interesting read.


  20. This is a comment by Steven J. Gibbons, left on the EGU Facebook page regarding this topic:
    “I did try “live tweeting” from EGU a couple of years ago but soon stopped and won’t attempt it again for the simple reason that it distracts you from what the speaker’s actually saying. Try to communicate a couple of key points and you miss the punchline. As for the ethical side, I have no problems in somebody reporting what I say in a talk – if I say it in a conference auditorium it means that it’s in the open as far as I’m concerned. However – I’d want you to get it right(!) and in the intended context (the big picture is everything!) – so I’d probably rather you were paying attention.”

  21. This was a fascinating discussion, and Kudos to Jon for facilitating it. Here’s my perspective as a former scientist, former journalist, and current university PIO charged with training scientists in media and communication.

    1) That which you state publicly is public information. Unless explicitly forbidden by the agreed upon rules of the conference, you must assume that anything and everything you say can and will be reproduced and re-transmitted in several forms, including on Twitter. As a journalist, I am free to tweet as much as I please about your work, and those tweets (even if they contain opinions or perceived misrepresentations) are well within the scope of my professional ethical code, and are strongly protected by U.S. and (I’m told) E.U. law. Argue as much as you like about what is “proper” behavior, but do not expect any audience member to abide by those restrictions.

    2) Point #1 is actually a really good thing for scientists, the science press, and society at large. Open access is a good thing. It does foster debate, it does promote better scientific discussion, it does expose your work to a wider audience, and it does force you to think more critically about the impact and import of your work on the wider world. Pining for the lost days of the cloistered conferences where only a few trusted colleagues could hear you is self-indulgent and a waste of time. Embrace the new order, because it is not going to go away.

    3) It is a mistake to refer to the misappropriation and misattribution of research as “scooping.” To “scoop” someone in journalism is to beat them to the punch, to break a story before anyone else does, to be the first one to find and reveal important information. It’s a good thing. The unauthorized distribution of information before it is publicly disclosed is called “leaking.” To present someone else’s work as your own is plagiarism. Call a spade a spade.

    4) [Jon’s Point #6] Regarding journals is a fair point. Extensive twitter coverage may jeopardize publication in some journals. That is not Twitter’s fault, it is a function of the fact the academic publishing apparatus is antiquated, elitist, ineffective, and wildly unethical. Some of the most well-regarded journals are the worst offenders. Thankfully, that model is dying, but it will be a slow death. The exemplars of the emerging new model (PLoS et. al) are embracing broad open access. Until that model has fully taken over, if you want to keep a piece of research under wraps, then don’t talk about it at a conference.

  22. “To tweet about someone’s work without their knowledge or permission is disrespectful and unethical.”

    No way. If you’re presenting work in a public forum like a conference, then its fair game. Tweeting about it on the internet really isn’t much different than talking about it among peers after the fact. Information flows freely, sorry.

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