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on and off the internet with the following tweet: “I do think we need to have a discussion about live tweeting unpublished results & conclusions though.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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- [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.).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
*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.