2 Comments »Posted on Thursday 9 July 2009 at 3:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

A number of people thanked me for my coverage on the World Conference of Science Journalists, saying it was useful to have a summary for those who couldn’t make it. I’m not the only one who blogged the conference – see here for a more extensive list.

All wonderfully Web2.0 then, but whilst journalists want people to hear about their work, scientists sometimes don’t. An editorial in this week’s Nature asks whether the closed scientific conference can survive in the face of blogs and Twitter.

Traditionally conferences allowed scientists an arena to share incomplete work with colleagues, with the understanding it would not be further disseminated. Work could be discussed without fear of being scooped, or finding themselves unable to publish because the journals see it as old news. With the rise of blogging scientists this has changed, and Nature describe a clash of cultures between the online and the offline.

Some institutions are now explicitly warning bloggers, with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York announcing that anyone wishing to publicise a session should ask permission first. Another proposal is for speakers to place a “not for publication” logo on their presentation slides.

It’s a difficult issue. When people see something interesting at a conference, they are going to want to write about it. If the speaker doesn’t want that information shared, then why are they talking about it in what is essentially the public sphere? Perhaps scientists with preliminary results should also go online, but discuss their work in private, password-protected forums. I’m not sure that is an approach that will take off!

Scientists should be able to share ideas freely without worrying about where they might end up, but Nature’s answer of separating conferences in to “open” and “closed” just won’t work. Someone will always bend the rules, thinking perhaps one small Tweet won’t hurt, and then the information is out on the internet forever. Unfortunately I don’t have an alternative solution, so for now scientists will just have to trust their blogging colleagues to know when to keep quiet.


  1. 2 Comments

  2. I think a lot of the concerns people have about reporting on conferences stem from the fact that journalists are often very bad at putting research in context.

    Instead of saying “Preliminary results, yet to be published, suggest that…” they just go with “Scientists say…”

    If conference proceedings were reported as mere preliminary I think it would be OK.

    By Neuroskeptic on Saturday 11 July, 2009 at 11:53 am

  3. Neuroskeptic really hit the nail on the head.

    Most reporters fail to address scientific research correctly and often make definitive claims in their write-ups, even though all educated researchers know that rarely can anything definitive be claimed. Scientists not wanting their conference work written about by journalists have a legitimate concern.

    But, I believe that blogging conference proceedings can actually be beneficial, for both the conference and those showcasing their work in it, so long as the bloggers understand how to accurately report the research they post about.

    By Keith Dowd on Tuesday 14 July, 2009 at 6:51 pm

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