Live tweeting of the ASV meeting

25 July 2011

asm gmLast week I attended the 30th annual meeting of the American Society for Virology in Minneapolis, Minnesota. During the morning symposia, which consist of formal 35-minute talks, I decided to post ongoing summaries of each talk on Twitter, a process known as ‘live tweeting’ or ‘live blogging’. Some individuals were skeptical about this activity, because many of the speakers presented unpublished data which they might not want circulated. I continued to live tweet the rest of the meeting, but wondered about the future of this practice.

Live blogging is often done at tech conferences (MacWorld Expo, South by Southwest, to name just two). My efforts at the ASV meeting were inspired by Jonathan Eisen, a microbiologist who frequently live blogs from a variety of scientific presentations, such as the American Society for Microbiology annual meeting, small conferences, and seminars.

Shortly after I began live tweeting the ASV meeting (you can find the stream on Twitter by searching for the hashtag #asv11) one of the speakers asked me if I was ‘broadcasting’ the conference. She had mentioned unpublished data in her talk and was concerned that it would now be ‘public’. Later another conference attendee voiced similar concerns. In particular, she asked whether I had permission to live blog. I did not, and I did not find guidelines about dissemination of information at the conference website. I asked Jonathan Eisen for his thoughts on the issue of live coverage of scientific meetings:

Generally I am usually pretty careful to try and not post details about unpublished work without permission. Sometimes it is hard to tell what is published or unpublished but if people specifically say “this is unpublished” then I avoid it and if they say “published” or give a citation, then I feel fine.

It is a fine line … mostly I feel that people like to see general details on twitter and thus even published stuff is useful to post.

As Jonathan writes, it’s often not possible to determine which information given in a talk is published or not. Even restricting the blogging to ‘general details’ can be problematic if these include unpublished information.

One conclusion that I reached while thinking about this issue is that meeting organizers need to have a policy in place to regulate live blogging. Reaching such a policy decision will require discussion among meeting organizers and participants. A recent article on this topic in PLoS Computational Biology summarized the issues:

…live blogging does not change what information is broadcast from a conference, merely how fast it is propagated. [...] Organizers and scientists alike gain from embracing social networking applications, which now support an unprecedented timeliness and level of visibility for both social aspects of the conference and the knowledge presented there. Conferences where information is intended to be public should embrace this timeliness as an amplifier. Other conferences may be better served by more restrictive policies, although presenters should always have the ability to make their presentation public. Whatever decision is made by conference organizers, a clear policy regarding publication of presented information should be advertised. Organizers, attendees, presenters, and journalists all require clear and equitable guidelines. By following the suggestions presented here, conference organizers can shape their policies quickly and simply, and bloggers can provide a useful, timely record of a scientific meeting.

I would be interested to hear your opinions on live blogging at scientific conferences. Have you ever done it? Was it permitted by the meeting organizers? If not, did they object? Moving forward, should guidelines for this activity be clearly stated in the meeting materials?

 Lister, A., Datta, R., Hofmann, O., Krause, R., Kuhn, M., Roth, B., & Schneider, R. (2010). Live Coverage of Scientific Conferences Using Web Technologies PLoS Computational Biology, 6 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000563

Photograph by Jonathan Eisen

  • http://twitter.com/sindhu1901 Sindhu Vangeti

    Vincent, 
    I think everyone should give this issue a thought. You have no idea how exciting it was for me to receive your tweets throughout the ASV, which due to various reasons, I could not attend. Although I did wonder if you would get into trouble later, for broadcasting unpublished data. :) I am a  big fan of your blog, and your tweets, copyright infringing or not, are always a pleasure. Keep up the good work!

  • Anonymous

    I like live blogging and tweets. I’m also a huge fan of webcasts. All of these allow me to “attend” multiple events at the same time or events that I don’t have time to travel to.

    There is also another pilot project funded by the Sloan Foundation called Skolr where scientists will be able to display and archive poster sessions from meetings like this. The project doesn’t mean the posters are “published,” but it will allow the ideas in poster sessions to have a slightly longer half life.

  • Alan Dove

    I’ve been dealing with this issue since long before the term “liveblog” existed. Traditionally, reporters covering conferences have tried to follow the general guide of the “Ingelfinger rule,” which is the policy of many journals to reject papers whose data have already been made public. As a result, we try to leave out enough details that our stories can’t be considered prior publication of the data. Of course, that’s a fine line and different journalists (and journals) will interpret it differently.

    On jobs where I’m working for the conference organizers, I’m almost
    always asked to circulate the entire writeup to the researchers whose
    talks I’m covering, so they can redact any unpublished results they
    aren’t comfortable having reported. That’s obviously not going to happen with liveblogging. When I’m working for a publication rather than the conference organizers, things are less clear. In those cases, I generally err on the side of caution and ask speakers before writing about anything that I think might be unpublished data. Very few conferences provide any guidance about this, though, and some journalists take the opposite tack – that if it was stated at a public meeting that didn’t specifically ban reporting, then it’s fair game to report.

    The basic problem with all of these interpretations is that the Ingelfinger rule is an outdated kludge, implemented in the early days of science journalism to keep peer-reviewed journals in charge of knowledge dissemination. Science blogs in general, and conference liveblogs in particular, have illuminated just how faulty this policy is. Unfortunately, we’re still stuck with it, at least until someone figures out what the next science publication system is supposed to look like.

  • Sciencegirl

    I think live-blogging conferences is a fantastic idea for dissemination of data to the widest audience possible. I suppose I can kind of understand some sensitivity by presenters who feel the need to “protect” unpublished data, however, I don’t really agree with them on the bigger picture of being able to share our findings  to the widest audience possible. Particularly if funded by taxpayers, I don’t think we “own” our data in the sense that we should have control of who sees it when have chosen to present it at a conference. If you want to prevent others from seeing data, don’t present it at a conference. If it is so exciting that you want to share it with your peers and present it in a conference forum, there should be some expectation that it is now “out there” for anyone to see. 

  • Marymsch

    Other fields of scholarship don’t impose these embargos. We freely circulate working papers. I wonder how much of this practice of embargoing work-in-progress has to do with the commodification of the information.

    I find most egregious, in a democracy, the practice of censoring medical research to those outside the field because subscriptions are tied to the number of expected viewers. There was a time any interested person could peruse medical journals in a university library – now if you are in the arts and sciences you have to cajole a friend with a medical degree into downloading an article from JAMA.

    Is it a coincidence that increasingly abstracts – which are freely viewed – “spin” the results, as increasingly the important details – bibliography, characteristics of the data set, strength of the model, and viability of the statistical analysis – are barricaded out of view?

    All this secrecy also enables a few to censor results of which they disapprove – at least in other fields a paradigm- testing idea can circulate freely.

    Any rules have costs and benefits. As a professionals, medical scientists must ask themselves whether the costs of censorship are worth the benefits.

  • Anonymous

    Ok, so what do you think of Paprotka et al?  They made their data known before it was published.

  • Anonymous

    Anyone can still go to the university library and read anything they want.  I’ts a marvelous place.  The top floor of the library here has all the pre-1990 journals, including a lot of stuff that is not on line.  It is quiet and smells like old books.  There are treasures there and the browsing actually uses your whole body and mind together.  

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    That’s not the case everywhere, Rich. At Columbia med, all the journals are gone – replaced with computer stations and workplaces. No more old books either.

  • Marymsch

    Not true at Penn, either.

  • Marco Vignuzzi

    Nice work Vince! As for the plenary session speakers, we were told ahead of time that the talks would be recorded and made available to the public in DVD form and had to sign permission agreements, so the choice to present unpublished data was at our own risk. That said, I have always found it odd that we should fear having our work out in the general public, if we are presenting our unpublished work to the thousand or so virologists in the room. Everyone has their own approach and level of concern with respect to presenting new results. My own belief is that if I put it out there, at least everyone knows I’m doing it and potential collaborators/competitors can come and talk to me, to work together or avoid publishing conflicts – I prefer the good karma approach to science. Ultimately, you are among the first in virology, but there will be countless more as the facebook and twitter generations move up into the ranks of PIs. I only wish I were receiving your tweets while I was presenting up on stage, it would be a great way to confirm that I was staying on track ;-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matthew-Lalonde/653863812 Matthew Lalonde

    I think live blogging should be allowed at meetings, so long as attendees are made aware that they should use good judgement and respect the presenter’s requests not to disseminate some or all the information the presenter discloses.

    This seems to be a question of how many people have access to unpublished information in order to limit the possibility that the work will be scooped. It think that, if you present your work at a meeting, researchers attending your section are probably the most capable of scooping you because they care enough about the topic to be there. When I present at meetings, I assume I’m talking to my direct competitors, so I think the risk is no greater if my unpublished work reaches a larger audience.

    I agree there should be a policy on live blogging but, similar to many arrangements in science, trusting your peers with privileged information is a necessary part of communicating with them.

  • Anonymous

    Wow.  I didn’t know.  I’m shocked.  That is indeed a tragedy.  Another reason for open access.

  • Anonymous

    I attempted to do day-by-day blog reports of some sessions at this year’s CROI, and I must admit I didn’t think too carefully about the implications. I can understand the needs of the conference organisers to be informed about who is blogging an event, just in the same way they monitor (and perhaps try to maximize) press coverage.

    However, I really don’t understand the attitude of speakers who present data at a national or international conference, then don’t want comments on the results to be distributed to a wider audience. As previous commenters have pointed out, their biggest competitors are probably in the room listening to the talk anyway. As well as that, the whole point of scientific conferences is for information to circulate on recent work, and I don’t see much of a difference between
    a) liveblogging a conference session, and
    b) giving a meeting report to colleagues on returning from a conference.
    In both cases, people who didn’t attend the meeting are rapidly informed of the data that was presented – and that’s a good thing, surely?

  • HotLipsVirologist

    I think this is a null issue.

    A conference is a open meeting, so a member of the public could happily buy themselves a ticket and go along, and many have done so in the past (and chances are, I will as well after my masters ends). Science needs to become more open and more comfortable with the speed that information can spread. If data is unpublished, then it is unpublished, it still exists, and any scientist that isn’t happy with talking about their data in a public forum, shouldn’t present it at a open conference, its just that simple to me.

    Now if we were talking about a closed meeting, or a seminar within a college that is identified as closed, then it would be wrong to post whats said on twitter, over wise, its not really fair to demand that opinions and unpublished data not be passed on via social media. It’ll happen anyway through word of mouth.

    It would almost be suspect to me if someone was worried about data spreading outside a conference, I’d question the reasons they’d have to restrain the spread of their work?

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  • http://antiviralimmunity.com/ Jennifer Ring

    I have blogged scientific conference material (Immunology 2011 – the annual meeting of the American Association of Immunologists), although I did so the week after I returned from the conference, as opposed to live blogging/tweeting at the conference.  I found this blog post very interesting because it mentioned the same concerns that I had when I was writing up a conference summary for my blog, “Antiviral Immunity”.  Usually at the beginning of a conference, they just say not to take photos, but don’t address the practices of blogging or tweeting at all.  I ended up making my own set of rules based on general professional courtesy, which are essentially the same as Johnathan’s.  I tried to write up only published information, as far as I could tell what was published vs. what was unpublished.  In cases were the data was unpublished, I did not include any information in excess of what was in the conference abstract book.  I think that conferences should address blogging practice at the very beginning of the meeting, and also write a policy note in the conference program so that we are not left guessing. I didn’t ask permission to blog the conference material because I didn’t even know who exactly I would ask, and I would feel silly asking.  I obviously love the idea of blogging conference material, and based on my site analytics, my readers loved this material too.  I would link to my Immunology 2011 conference summary here, but I don’t want my comment sent to spam.  However, you can easily find it via Google with the search terms:  antiviral immunity immunology 2011 a bakers dozen.  Thank you for sharing your ASV conference experience, as I personally was unable to attend due to a family wedding.

  • http://antiviralimmunity.com/ Jennifer Ring

    I have blogged scientific conference material (Immunology 2011 – the annual meeting of the American Association of Immunologists), although I did so the week after I returned from the conference, as opposed to live blogging/tweeting at the conference.  I found this blog post very interesting because it mentioned the same concerns that I had when I was writing up a conference summary for my blog, “Antiviral Immunity”.  Usually at the beginning of a conference, they just say not to take photos, but don’t address the practices of blogging or tweeting at all.  I ended up making my own set of rules based on general professional courtesy, which are essentially the same as Johnathan’s.  I tried to write up only published information, as far as I could tell what was published vs. what was unpublished.  In cases were the data was unpublished, I did not include any information in excess of what was in the conference abstract book.  I think that conferences should address blogging practice at the very beginning of the meeting, and also write a policy note in the conference program so that we are not left guessing. I didn’t ask permission to blog the conference material because I didn’t even know who exactly I would ask, and I would feel silly asking.  I obviously love the idea of blogging conference material, and based on my site analytics, my readers loved this material too.  I would link to my Immunology 2011 conference summary here, but I don’t want my comment sent to spam.  However, you can easily find it via Google with the search terms:  antiviral immunity immunology 2011 a bakers dozen.  Thank you for sharing your ASV conference experience, as I personally was unable to attend due to a family wedding.

  • http://antiviralimmunity.com/ Jennifer Ring

    I have blogged scientific conference material (Immunology 2011 – the annual meeting of the American Association of Immunologists), although I did so the week after I returned from the conference, as opposed to live blogging/tweeting at the conference.  I found this blog post very interesting because it mentioned the same concerns that I had when I was writing up a conference summary for my blog, “Antiviral Immunity”.  Usually at the beginning of a conference, they just say not to take photos, but don’t address the practices of blogging or tweeting at all.  I ended up making my own set of rules based on general professional courtesy, which are essentially the same as Johnathan’s.  I tried to write up only published information, as far as I could tell what was published vs. what was unpublished.  In cases were the data was unpublished, I did not include any information in excess of what was in the conference abstract book.  I think that conferences should address blogging practice at the very beginning of the meeting, and also write a policy note in the conference program so that we are not left guessing. I didn’t ask permission to blog the conference material because I didn’t even know who exactly I would ask, and I would feel silly asking.  I obviously love the idea of blogging conference material, and based on my site analytics, my readers loved this material too.  I would link to my Immunology 2011 conference summary here, but I don’t want my comment sent to spam.  However, you can easily find it via Google with the search terms:  antiviral immunity immunology 2011 a bakers dozen.  Thank you for sharing your ASV conference experience, as I personally was unable to attend due to a family wedding.

  • http://antiviralimmunity.com/ Jennifer Ring

    I sometimes email the authors of studies whose work I blog about, and I’ve found that the scientists that reply to the email are generally flattered that their work was written up favorably on my blog, and like that they were made aware of a new blog that they didn’t know existed. It’s not quite the same thing as circulating the story before reporting/publishing it, but it’s not a bad policy for science bloggers. And I usually try to call attention to published works instead of writing up unpublished data.

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