Fading walls: Communication, conferences, and sharing science

The front walls of the convention center are mostly glass, but you’ll need your name badge to get beyond the lobby.

I was at the 100th annual conference of the Ecological Society of America in Baltimore last week. I saw some great science, I reconnected with some friends, and I spent some time thinking about communication in science. This post is about that last part.

Much has changed in the 30 years since I went to my first science conference. Although there’s still a big component of “scientists in dimly-lit rooms talking at other scientists” at many traditional scientific conferences, the walls are coming down (or at least getting transparent) in some ways, and that’s a really good thing. As I spend more time engaging with other scientists and non-scientists through various and assorted forms of social media, I can’t help noticing changes in the way we communicate science and share science. And conferences are a really interesting place to see those changes happening, especially within the scientific community.

I think there’s more value placed on story than there used to be. Great presenters don’t just dispense the data and results and implications of their research; they invite the audience into the research, weaving a story of why they asked that question, and what it all means. The best science ventures into art and literature and more, and comes out stronger. And that’s a great thing. Just because your DNA lab has to be sterile, that doesn’t mean your talk has to be. The talks and posters I remember most are usually those done by a student or post-doc who instantly helps me feel a connection to a study system or question or place I know nothing about. That’s scientific communication!

My own interests are strongly rooted in natural history, so I’ve been really delighted to see the prominence of natural history at ESA in recent years. One of the benefits of that for communication is that natural history presents such a strong opportunity to connect institutional research with public interest in nature; to connect professionals with amateurs; and to connect science with art. Strengthening these connections across traditionally separate domains is a great way to increase the understanding and appreciation of science outside the walls of ScienceWorld. It was fantastic to see people stopping by booths in the big exhibit hall to sketch specimens at the Natural History Section booth, or sketch their research at the Science Communications Section booth.

Another change that’s increasingly obvious wandering through the exhibit hall is the way we publish and share science. A mainstay of conference exhibit halls are the displays from publishers, both the big publishing houses and university presses. As a book junkie, I love it. But in among the usual Wiley and Springer and Cornell University Press booths, other pathways to publishing and sharing science are gaining ground too. Big data repositories make data shareable, verifiable and accessible; open access journals make the results of our science accessible to people; and changes in the way peer review works may just streamline one of the most annoying and capricious parts of the publishing process.

Although there were a few thousand ecologists at the conference, far more people interested in the field and the presentations weren’t. But that’s becoming less of a divide too. Speakers are increasingly posting their posters, slides, code, or data on figshare, github, or other websites. You no longer have to be IN the room to see them. The rise of Twitter has led a huge shift in the way science is shared beyond the meeting room too. The ESA meeting in 2014 was my first conference after joining Twitter and I posted some thoughts after that meeting about the positive side of Twitter at meetings. So I arrived at ESA 2015 ready to connect or reconnect with some Twitter people, and share my 140-character perspectives on the meeting (at least the parts I saw) with people beyond the room.

Then things got a bit peculiar.

ESA has a Code of Conduct for conferences. This is important and I wish every conference did this. The Code of Conduct, with some additional conference-specific pieces, was printed in the conference program. Two pieces were related, directly or indirectly, to live-tweeting presentations: don’t photograph slides or posters without author’s permission; and “we ask that attendees posting to social media avoid posting detailed information from presentations”. Both these seem reasonable, and are in line with last year’s policy. Most people would, I think, interpret that to mean: tweet about the speaker’s topic, general question, coolness of study, etc. but not actual data. And ask before you take pictures. And that’s what most conference live tweets do anyway.

But then on the eve of the meeting, when many people had already arrived in Baltimore, ESA reminded attendees, via Twitter, that any live-tweeting without the prior permission of the author was prohibited. That’s pretty different from the printed policy, and that caused a whole lot of confusion. Essentially, it put the onus on presenters (many of whom aren’t active on Twitter and thus would be unaware of this) to opt in to people in the audience live-tweeting their work, instead of the much more usual, and logical, opportunity for presenters to opt out of people live tweeting sensitive or eminently scoopable results (and that is a whole other discussion for other blogs and other posts). So, basically, by tweeting out (repeatedly) this new restriction on live-tweeting presentations early in the meeting, ESA was taking a step backward from their fairly open social media policy from previous years. Confusion ensued. Those of us used to live-tweeting talks were not sure what we should be doing (follow the printed program? do what we’ve always done? obey the new revised/restrictive tweet rules?). Ecologists who weren’t at the meeting were wondering why the usual stream of live tweets of presentations wasn’t coming as fast and furious as in past years; and there was little explanation or justification from ESA about why the opt-out policy had been replaced by an opt-in policy.

That’s a problem.

That’s a problem because the branch of science, and one of the biggest conferences in the field, that deals with some of the most pressing problems we face—climate change, conservation, urbanization, food security, sustainability, water quality, and more—should be making our research and its implications more accessible, not less accessible. The underlying principles of open science, and of good science communication are all about sharing. And as communities of scientists, we should be doing more, not less, to make sure the great science gets out. As double-edged a sword as social media can be, it’s one of the most powerful tools we, as scientists, have to explain to the big wide world what we do and why it matters.

I hope that, when we all turn up at ESA 2016 to share our excitement about what we’ve been doing for the past year, there’ll be a clear and open policy in place that recognizes the enormous overall benefit of open science, open communication, and the value of sharing.

Because sharing isn’t just nice; it’s absolutely critical.


About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
This entry was posted in Science Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Fading walls: Communication, conferences, and sharing science

  1. mmb317 says:

    Reblogged this on MedHealthTalk and commented:
    The ongoing controversy regarding conference attendees tweeting conference related information continues causing us to ponder that if the purpose of scientific conferences is to share information, what better way to disseminate findings, ideas, hypotheses, etc., than via the most immediate and far-reaching method than Twitter? Or perhaps, the information is not ready for worldwide reception, but if that’s the case then should it be presented at all?

    • Thanks for the reblog. And yes, couldn’t agree more: if research is ready to be shared at a conference, it’s ready to be shared more widely. I can certainly see exceptions for sensitive, proprietary, etc. data, but that’s a very good example for having a clear opt-out policy at conferences if individual speakers so desire.

  2. Good to see that conferences are starting developing clearer rules concerning live twitting. From the general perspective of classical scientific conferences, which are the meetings of a limited number of registered scientists (sometimes a very small number of scientists working in a narrow field who know each other), live tweeting “by default” seems problematic, UNLESS the conference rules specifically allow live twitting OR the presenter agreed to allow live twitting.

    • Thanks for the comment. I think clear rules and policies are key. I think, however, that “classical scientific conferences” have evolved (or at least should have evolved) to the point where organizers and participants recognize that open science is here to stay. Arbitrary walls are the biggest obstacle to open science, and to a more general appreciation of science, and I think the onus is on us, as a community, to adapt to new ways of sharing the work we do. It’s definitely an interesting time for conferences.

  3. Αgro-Κnow says:

    Thanks to the nature of our work, we travel quite often and we frequently participate in scientific events like Conferences; even though we do not focus on sharing information during the events, we like to share what we find interesting so that others (not attending) can access at least these parts of the published research outcomes. In fact, this is usually encouraged by the organizers, by providing e.g. a Twitter hashtag for the Conference, so that all tweets can be followed, no matter the source.

    The ESA use case is not a good example in our opinion; even though they clearly define their policy on that, it seems that in practice what they would like to achieve was something much more strict. As we are currently in an era where research and science make leaps forward in terms of open access, open data and open science (among others) which aim at breaking down barriers in sharing research outcomes, such incidents should be carefully examined and maybe discussed with the organizers of the event.

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