Conferences, and why I won’t be blogging from mine.

The North American conference season is upon us and my colleagues are leaving left right and centre for their favourite excuse for escaping the NZ winter.  My excuse this year is the Gordon Conference for Ecological and Evolutionary Genomics, a small meeting held in the woods of New Hampshire. 

There’s been a bit of talk around lately about people using blogs and twitter to report from conferences, initiated mostly a small furore surrounding Daniel MacArthur of Genetic Future blogging from the Cold Spring Harbour Biology of Genomes meeting (read his take on it here).   The issue here was that mainstream science reporters attending the meeting had to obtain permission from the speaker before writing about their work, but for scientist-bloggers like MacArthur there was no such requirement.  Nature then weighed in with an article discussing the pros and cons of allowing details of conference presentations (which often include preliminary, and almost always non peer-reviewed results) to be disseminated far and wide through the social media.   

A general consensus seems to be forming that blogging from conferences can be a positive thing, but that researchers should know in advance if their presentation is likely to disseminated further than the conference room.  An editorial in Nature this morning makes the point that meeting organisers need to be explicit from the start about whether their conferences are “open”, with attendees free to disseminate results on their blogs or whereever, or “closed”.   For situations where the conference itself doesn’t have a policy on blogging, the use of icons on slides which presenters can use to indicate whether their presentation is off limits, has been suggested.

I think these ideas are a positive step, although in my case it would be unlikely to alter what I would actually present – as I am not working in an area where I’m likely to be scooped.  And I wouldn’t normally present anything that I wasn’t happy with the wider scientific world knowing about.  However, the meeting I’m attending falls into the “closed” category and it is made very explicit.  As part of registering all attendees have to sign up to the following condition:

To encourage open communication, each member of a Conference agrees that any information presented at a Gordon Research Conference, whether in a formal talk, poster session, or discussion, is a private communication from the individual making the contribution and is presented with the restriction that such information is not for public use. The recording of lectures by any means, the photography of slide or poster material, and printed reference to Gordon Research Conferences papers and discussion is prohibited.

And part of the GRC mission statement…

Placing a premium on the “off the record” presentation of previously unpublished scientific results and on the consequent ad hoc peer discussion.

I am quite happy to sign up to something like this when it is clearly stated from the outset.  Obviously if I was wanting a conference to be a source of material from my blog, I would choose another meeting to attend.   I will be interested to see if there is a feeling that people at the Gordon conference are presenting more “work in progress’ type stuff because they deem it to be safer given the closed nature of the meeting.  So there won’t be any posts from me about exciting new research I hear about at the meeting, but I hope to have a bit of time while I’m away to find other things to post.

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