We are in the midst of a clash of conference-going cultures. Attendees who have taken to blogs and other social-media applications such as Twitter and Friend Feed will value the instantaneous communication of fact, conjecture and commentary as a way to network beyond badge-holders. Most researchers, in contrast, will focus on the science and ways to network with fellow attendees. If they are aware of social-networking applications, they are likely to regard them as distractions at best. At worst, they will fear them as tools to undermine and scoop, to release data not ready for consumption by anyone other than the trusted colleagues who bothered to make it to their talk or walk up to their poster and start asking questions.
Conference organizers are stuck in the middle. They want to let the world know that their meetings are worthwhile, and yet they also want to attract speakers presenting the newest and most cutting-edge findings. So how to protect speakers from having sensitive, unfinished or 'scoopable' work broadcast to the world?
There is a problem of attribution worth considering. Suppose some young blood watching a presentation has a great idea. Maybe it’s an idea the presenter has already thought about, maybe not. Now, she blogs it. Now anyone can see how great (or obvious, or terrible) the idea is, and how it applies to the topic of the presentation. What are the presenter’s obligations? As she prepares the publication, does she need to cite the blogger? Does she need to invite the blogger as a coauthor? Will reviewers know about the blogger’s idea and demand that the manuscript be altered?
If we’re going to open science conferences, we have to think about the meaning of authorship. Comment systems on scientific papers may help address the issue, by giving more opportunities for sharing ideas. But in the worst cases, a topic may draw such broad interest – and at the bottom be seemingly so simple – as to create a tangled mess of irresolvable ideas. Imagine crowdsourcing the hobbits….