Blogging and reporting from meetings

3 minute read

No, I’m not doing that right now. Elizabeth Pennisi reports that some science writers are miffed about bloggers at scientific conferences:

In addition to reporting on genetic variation in a gene that is active in fast muscle fibers at The Biology of Genomes meeting, ["Genetic Future blogger Daniel] MacArthur wrote several on the spot blog posts covering advances discussed by the participants. Francis Collins also mentioned results on his new Web site.
A specialized Web-based news service, Genomeweb, complained. To attend CSHL meetings, reporters agree to obtain permission from a speaker before writing up any results. But MacArthur didnt have to click that box when he registered and was free to report without getting any go-ahead. Several other participants were twittering, says CSHL meetings organizer David Stewart. They werent held to the same standards as the media, says Stewart.

CSHL is Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which puts on a roughly weekly series of conferences during the spring and fall on topics in biology. Organizers invite a relatively small number of researchers to present a plenary program, and a larger number of researchers and students pay fairly high fees to attend. It’s a nice place, and although the fees run high, they’re comparable to other conferences if you include the cost of the usual meeting hotel (since CSHL provides housing). But you can understand that a writer might want to be sure to get leads or background on several stories.

A non-attendee who followed blogs could pretty easily figure out several interesting stories and then make phone calls to the authors. It’s not the same as networking in person, and it doesn’t give the kind of context that conference attendance can give. But it’s lot cheaper.

Dan MacArthur has posted his own reactions.

It's worth mentioning here that most of the dangers of live-blogging are (in my mind at least) generally over-stated. For instance, the risk of being scooped due to data posted on the web seems rather far-fetched given that most of the potential scoopers are already sitting in the audience watching the presentation. There is a fear that live-blogging distracts people from watching the seminar; I would argue in response that - given the number of people I see programming or working on their grant submission in genomics meetings - we should be grateful that live-bloggers are actually engaging directly with the material being presented.

An interesting conversation has emerged in MacArthur’s comment section, and another at 2020 Science. Some commenters argue for openness at all costs, others that blogging a conference presentation is bad, bad, bad. And then there’s the topic of tweeting. I’d be more likely to report conferences in haiku than on Twitter.

What do I think? Well, I often take notes at meetings, but rarely blog about the talks. That’s not a hard policy, it’s just the way my writing style works out for me. I hardly ever uncritically repeat what somebody may have said or written, I tell you what I think about it. Sure, sometimes my thoughts don’t add much value, and sometimes it’s my own misunderstandings that come out. But generally I want to explore why something looks wrong, or the assumptions that somebody missed. If I’m going to seriously engage with somebody’s ideas, I need more to work with than a conference talk. It’s too easy to make simple mistakes in a talk that you’d easily catch in a manuscript, and too hard to judge from a talk which mistakes are easily fixed and which may be fatal.

There are some posters and talks at every meeting that deserve more attention – they tell a story that might not strike the casual observer as newsworthy, but that have real potential if told in the right way. Is it doing the authors a favor to blog about them? I can think of several better favors. Buttonhole a science writer and tell her why it’s a story. Offer to interview the authors instead of just twittering their results. Always ask first before writing anything. How do you know that somebody who just saw the poster before you didn’t tell the authors about some egregious error?

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed public meetings getting more and more scripted and boring. What a drag. There are lots of reasons for this, and blogging is not even close to the top of the list. But blogging and twittering and cell phone cameras are part of the technological changes that have helped to dull things. When you go to a talk that shows slides only in 50 millisecond increments, you know they’re thinking about camera phones and bloggers taking notes. It’s hard enough to keep from seeming like a jerk; technology doesn’t seem to make it any easier.