Live-tweeting at conferences

The main appeal of scientific meetings is that you get to see results, and what other people are working on, before any of it is published (and free food – seriously, oh so much free food). Given that there is an increasing number of people using Twitter to cover meetings, it’s no surprise that there is an active discussion about what is off-limits, in terms of what to tweet, and what to keep on the down low. To have an idea of the range of different opinions and issues, you should read open science advocate extraordinaire Jon Tennant’s blog post on the topic.

Many folks have been calling for event-level policy. SFN14, for example, banned all live-tweeting while the sessions were proceeding. Gordon Research Conferences are notoriously restrictive about what you can share of the events that transpire during them (hint: nothing). Event-level policies might be good, but they have the huge problem of effectively overruling individual opinions about what is tweetable or not.

I start my talks with a slide saying that everything is fair game as long as I get credit for it (that’s the basis of the CC-BY 4.0 license, under which I release most of my non-code, non-data stuff, including this very blog). You can record the audio (Worst. Podcast. Ever.), a video, take pictures of the slides, and share them online as long as my name is attached to it in some way. Starting from a few months ago, every slide set I presented had a DOI attached to it, and more often than not, it is given somewhere in the slides. And I made it a rule to never present already published material at meetings. No one wants to hear me talk for 12 minutes about anything when the alternative is reading the paper in warm, comforting silence.

Slides that present results, in particular, seem to be the most problematic. I have a lot of trouble following the argument. Some people opposed to having them shared online (as is their right to do – if they don’t want you to share, don’t share). But the argument that is usually given is “people might see my results”. As opposed to the people that are sitting in the session, that will close their eyes, put their fingers in their ears, and go na-na-na can’t hear you until the non-results part of the talk is reached, I suppose.

All sarcasm left aside, I understand that the fear of getting scooped is real in some people, and justified in some fields (I don’t think it is the case in ecology, fortunately). But the whole point of going to a conference is that people will see your slides. And hear what you have to say about them. If your fear is of being scooped, the people in the room that have access to the slide in context are much more threatening that the people that will only see one blurry picture and a one-sentence summary on twitter.

Having your science shared on twitter (unless it is “holy cow you guys look at how bad this paper is!”) is all win for you. It’s free publicity about what you do (so people might go to your website and check your other papers, or go read the preprint, or send you emails to talk about it). And because twitter only allows short messages, at best, people will only have a photo and a single sentence. This is very, very far from enough material to reproduce a paper and scoop you.

And it’s a great ego boost too! A few months ago, I was talking in a room with no clock, so I laid my phone on the stand in front of me. And people in the room where saying good things about my talk. This is real-time feedback, and it feels awesome. Seeing that the fruit of your labor is making people in a positive way in real time never happens in science except in this particular context.

To wrap things up – I am fine with conference-level policies, as long as they allow each individual speaker to decide how much can be shared, and how. This is why we have open (and closed, too) licenses, and they apply to all sorts of intellectual property. It would be productive for conferences to state the default (assumed) policy, in case speakers are not explicit. It would make sense that this default be opt-in: if the speaker says nothing, you can’t share. But saying all sharing is prohibited is absurd; conference organizers have many jobs, none of which involves deciding, for me, how I can or cannot share my own research.

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