Secret Science, Again

June 3, 2009

My usual preamble is that I don’t really get on board with the OpenScienceEverything!!!! types but I do back some essential principles. One, that if the taxpayer funds our work than that taxpayer has a right to the usual output of our work (i.e., the papers) without a lot of additional hassle or charge. Two, our usual output is intended to be public. Meaning that while various interests may want to make money from our output, the goal would be to make it available (again, at a charge) to as many people who would want it. Three, our usual output is also intended to be archival to history
Well, awhile back some colleagues and I were discussing a situation that was initially sort of amusing. Then I realized that the situation was complicated and I’m not really sure where I stand.
Should people be allowed to blog and Tweet and otherwise discuss results that are presented at scientific conferences?

The prior scenario was:

A few colleagues and I have been discussing some highly important RULZ sent out by an academic society at the opening of their annual meeting. The short version is: NO BLOGGING!!!!!
Now there was actually a lengthy set of remarks sent by the organization in question “reminding” their members that the society name could not be used in vain without permission in any press releases. But, and I kid you not, the opening premise was that they got wind that some “organization” had tried to get someone to blog the meeting.

I arrived at the following:

My question is whether one thinks that this violates the NIH directive that PIs need to put their published work into PubMed central. Obviously there is a letter-of-the-law difference between print publication and poster presentation but the spirit is the same. If we consider meeting presentations to be publication of information then why shouldn’t this be required to be openly available as well? If this approach is granted, what about the embargo interval? With print journals the idea is that you have to give the publisher an interval of exclusive marketing to keep up sales. What about meetings? The “sale” is the meeting registration. Already a done deal by the time the poster is presented. So the embargo should be what? Two hours? One day? Post-meeting?

Now one of our Sciblings, Daniel MacArthur of Genetic Future, has run across a similar situation. The ScienceInsider blog at Science Magazine has the call:

At a recent meeting at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York state, Daniel MacArthur from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, United Kingdom, brought into focus how fuzzy the line between journalist and scientist is becoming. In addition to reporting on genetic variation in a gene that is active in fast muscle fibers at The Biology of Genomes meeting, 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 didn’t 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 weren’t held to the same standards” as the media, says Stewart.
That is about to change. Stewart is revising the meeting registration form such that all participants will agree that if they are going to blog or twitter results, they need to let CSHL know in advance and get the presenter’s okay.

Daniel MacArthur reflects on the situation here.

Firstly, I should state up front that I think GenomeWeb’s complaint is valid – it would be unfair for conference organisers to hold scientist bloggers to a totally different standard on this issue than mainstream science reporters. I also welcome the move by CSHL to clarify its policies on conference blogging. As the number of scientists engaged in online media continues to grow, it is crucial that meeting attendees be aware in advance of what their responsibilities are regarding communication of results.

He then goes on to tick off the reasons why he would argue for more-open rather than less-open policies on the part of conference organizers. I tend to agree, see my opening points.
The argument for super sekrit meetings is that somehow this is required for some scientists to talk about some of their work. A protected environment is required. It is then assumed bloggers and Tweeters will violate this secrecy, presumably in a way greater than attendees going back home and phoning/emailing their friends. That is arguable. And I’m not convinced.
There are other issues. Scoopage. But as I think Daniel pointed out, all of the potential scoopers are either in the audience or their friends are. So you don’t have any additional exposure from Twitts and bloggers. This leads naturally to one of my favorite hobby horses, publication priority. The whole idea of publication priority/uniquity is corrosive to science anyway…a considerable amount of the secrecy sentiment comes from that particular problem in science. So why should we coddle that with academic meeting rules?
Sensationalism and over-the-top mainstream PR is a reasonable danger and probably the biggest objection that I credit. We’ve seen what happens with overselling some papers after publication. There is a legitimate fear of this happening to initial results or pre-peer-review results. Those of us within fields understand the differences but I fear main stream media does not. If we take the conferences which do approve media coverage (such as the SfN), you can often see presentations being described without much nuance about the preliminary nature of findings or the lack of peer review.
Other than that, I dunno. I’ve talked a little with some more senior colleagues about that prior little incident and I just can’t pin down any good reasons for the closed meeting idea. I think in the vast majority of cases people are overestimating how much anyone will really care…

No Responses Yet to “Secret Science, Again”

  1. Another reason for the secrecy of meetings would be the $ spent on organizing them – if you could get all your content from the meeting for free, from bloggers who are at the meeting, why bother paying the registration fee to go? I suspect all meeting organizers know that results from meetings are discussed/emailed/chatted about as soon as the participants get back to their labs, but it’s something different to have it in the public record. It’s sorta like the difference between complaining about your PI with friends at a bar, vs having a blog and bitching about the PI there. [ahem]


  2. Anonymous Says:

    My interpretation of privacy at meetings – especially the smaller ones – is that they are a good place to float, develop, or try out ideas amongst peers that aren’t quite ready for prime-time peer review and public scrutiny. I think some protection from tweeting and blogging might be necessary for this to occur, and it would be a sad loss if science were stunted just because of tweeting.


  3. Danny O'Reario Says:

    The tweeters and bloggers have just ruined things for themselves. The really interesting preliminary stuff will be shared and vetted in other ways. The more popular small meetings will die or become recognized as essentially like SFN — post print publicity ops, journal club for busy PIs.


  4. daedalus2u Says:

    As I see it, blogging helps prevent scooping. If a result is widely blogged about, and then someone tries to scoop it by publishing it without crediting the meeting or the blogs about the meeting, the more widely the result is blogged about, the more difficult that scooping becomes.
    I think a problem is that MSM doesn’t want to acknowledge that blogs can be a useful source of information. MSM and the print science journals want to be the gatekeepers of science and don’t want to “share” that with bloggers.
    Blogging about a scientific meeting is “fair use” of what ever was talked about at that meeting, unless there are specific upfront restrictions as in the Gordon Conferences. If you don’t want your results blogged about, don’t present them at a meeting.


  5. David Crotty Says:

    As others have noted, the idea is that for a good meeting, you want people to talk about current work, unpublished data. That’s much more interesting than hearing a recitation of a paper you’ve already read. The confidentiality attempts are there to encourage these kinds of talks. Yes, word does leak out, but in the past this has been via phone calls, e-mail, private means of communication. Now we’re reaching a point where word leaks out to the entire world, rather than a small group of individuals. It’s something of a dilemma. Meeting organizers want publicity, they want the science world to see the value in their meeting, but in doing so, it can lead to the meeting being less valuable.
    Note that CSHL does have a specific disclaimer printed in all abstract books that all talks and posters should be treated as “personal communication” and that you need the speaker, the organizer and CSHL’s permission to reproduce the material (and the author’s permission to cite an abstract). In the case mentioned, it sounds like the journalists honored these conditions, where the bloggers either failed to read the notice in the abstract book or chose to ignore it. Funny in a way, we usually see bloggers pointing out the ethical failings of the mainstream media, not the other way around.
    One final question–if the public has a right to access publicly funded research, does this right also apply to patents? Lots of researchers support their families and labs through money generated by patents, and most universities are heavily dependent upon their patent portfolios for funding. Should patents be outlawed on any research supported by public funding?


  6. DrugMonkey Says:

    First, it is not “funny” to have a blogger screw up, bloggers are people just like anyone else. They make mistakes. The guy sacked up and admitted his mistake like a champ. I am not suggesting that he didn’t screw up, nor disputing that CSHL rules are for privacy and he should have known that.
    I am questioning the assertion that that privacy is really required, and if you get me going, objecting to the notion that we should be coddling and encouraging that belief instead of combating it. Scientist’s concerns are overblown in the first place and sustain the scoopage/primacy/Glamour nonsense in the second place. There is another issue dear to my heart which is the inevitable clubbish insularity of small, closed meeting approaches to what should be at least Guild-public if not general-public meetings and activities.
    With respect to patents, no I have no problem with our patent structure of protecting intellectual property in the abstract. Nor do I have a general problem with the idea that taxpayer funded government activities benefit private companies that turn around and charge the taxpayer.
    It is a question of balance. When the BigPharma companies started fighting back against Congressional attempts to reign in drug prices a few years ago I got particularly incensed by their copious whines about development costs that totally overlooked the MASSIVE contribution of tax payer funded research to just about everything they do and every drug they’ve developed. Those kind of events make me think that yes, perhaps the NIH needs to retain some patent participation.


  7. Jim Hendler Says:

    I found this blog entry quite interesting (and, in fact, immediately twittered a pointer). It is clear there is some amount of field specificity to these ideas – at many Computer Science conferences we encourage blogs and twitter – in fact at the Web Science conference in Greece this March (#websci09 for twitter types, for the rest) one of our more controversial panels got enough online discussion going that it was a “twitter trend” for a couple of hours (and when we announced that from the stage, we got a big round of applause). There are certainly meetings that are closed, and usually people are told not to talk about what occurs there (and that includes online), but these should be a rarity. Frankly, the people who make money off conferences seem much more worried about this issue than the scientists. Maybe when they start paying us to submit papers, do reviewing, and attend – instead of asking us to pay for these privileges – I’ll change my mind.


  8. TomJoe Says:

    … if you could get all your content from the meeting for free, from bloggers who are at the meeting, why bother paying the registration fee to go?
    I doubt you’ll be able to get sufficient content from a blogger about a meeting. Blogs and Tweets are short bursts of communication, and I doubt they’d adequately cover a complete lecture, let alone an entire conference.
    I recently blogged (trying to finish, based on my notes) the ASM General Meeting, and I won’t come close (even with my notes) of covering every important facet of work done by the presenters there. No one is going to get scooped based on my blogging.


  9. Danny O'Reario Says:

    DM (in response to #6): I think you are forgetting human nature. If you are invited to a juicy coffee klatsch, and then immediately go blabbing everything to everyone, or worse — you get on your cell phone and start repeating everything you’re hearing…
    You won’t get invited back.
    And if you don’t understand why, well then I don’t know what to say.


  10. David Crotty Says:

    I meant “funny” as in odd, or out of the ordinary, rather than “funny” as in ha-ha.
    Sounds to me like your arguments need to be directed more at the scientists themselves, rather than those organizing the meetings. I’m pretty sure that most organizers would okay with public dissemination of information, if they felt that it wouldn’t have any effect on speakers and their willingness to talk about work in progress. They’re reacting to a perceived need from their speakers. It’s a bigger issue with human nature and the culture of science, more than any attempt by meeting organizers to keep things secret.
    And I’m not sure I follow the logic on patents. The public has a right to the fruits of public-funded research, except when a university or a scientist/scientist’s private company can make money from it? So basically science results must be exposed, but can be kept from being used by the general public? Everyone is allowed to profit at the public’s expense except publishers? Seems contradictory to me–if you argue that the public paid for it, so they own it, then patents must be thrown out along with subscription-access publishing. I’m not sure you’d get many universities or scientists jumping on that bandwagon.


  11. Lorax Says:

    I can think of reasons meetings should be “closed.” First, the public has a right to the scientific information they are paying for in some way. I do not believe they have the right to any and all information. Can Joe the Plumber come to your lab and start going through you notebooks, since he paid for it? (Well he didnt but tax payers did.) Information presented at meetings is often preliminary, it certainly isnt peer reviewed, so that information is not as scientifically “sound” as published information. If my exciting research gets blogged about and for some reasons gets inflated and hyped prematurely, I dont want to be the one that has to do the walk of shame rectifying this if after a few months more work I find the initial findings were not as cool as originally thought. I guess we could have meetings with only submitted material is presented, but that would be a suck ass meeting. (I know some fields are like this, but mine isn’t and I wouldn’t want it to be.).
    Also, I disagree that scoopage is not a concern. From the registration you know who is there and who is not and not everyone goes to meetings that everyone in the field goes to (small meetings are fun and generally more intellectual productive in my opinion). You may not present some information if certain competitors are there. Yes, their friends may be, but Im thinking they have their own agendas which isnt necessarily to get all my information for one of their associates ASAP while its all still fresh (and even if it were, I know who’s there and can make a decision myself).
    Yes the media could also alert your competitors much like a blogger could. But it is clear that the interwebs have dramatically changed how information is disseminated. Rapid and immediate dissemination is not necessarily a good thing.


  12. bill Says:

    I’m not sure you’d get many universities or scientists jumping on that bandwagon.
    You’re probably right, and yet I don’t see much evidence of universities — or more especially, individual scientists — making money on patents. I know quite a few scientists who hold multiple patents, have worked with tech transfer offices, seen their IP commercialized — but none of them has made more than the price of a beer.
    It seems everyone wants to be Brian Druker (gleevec), but high profile cases like that are high profile precisely because they’re so rare.
    Lots of researchers support their families and labs through money generated by patents, and most universities are heavily dependent upon their patent portfolios for funding.
    This comes as a surprise to me. Could you provide some links, data etc? I’d like to know more.


  13. bsci Says:

    What’s odd here is the issue is more about what is or is not appropriate for blogging in general. If you have a private conversation with a few people, you don’t blog about it and name them without asking permission.
    If someone stands up in front of a room and gives a talk to 30+ people then it’s public presentation. I don’t even see a reason why a reporter would need to ask permission to report about it. Of course, write responsibly. If someone present early results with a lot of caveats, don’t write that they are making definitive pronouncements.
    I’d say the grey area is things like poster sessions or very small discussion groups where the speakers might be making some assumption that it’s a private conversation.


  14. David Crotty Says:

    Bill@12–most of my evidence is anectodal. When I was at Caltech, there was a running joke about a new Porsche-only parking lot for professors, the requirement being a personalized license plate that named the company you founded with your patented technology. I was in a lab that certainly spun off several such companies, and the researchers were cut in nicely on the revenue. I know CSHL makes a good portion of its yearly income from licensing technology, and the companies formed by several professors have done well. Each institution has different policies as to sharing the funds raised from patents with those who did the research, but everywhere I’ve been, they’ve been pretty generous in order to encourage innovation. Hmmm, actual links, let’s see.
    According to this article, Caltech files around 200 patents a year and gets $10 million in income from them. They note that Columbia has made “hundreds of millions” from its patent portfolio:
    Caltech’s office of technology transfer notes:
    In the last 10 years licensing efforts have resulted in 40 to 50 patent licenses per year and OTT fosters start-up companies at a rate of about 8 per year
    Here’s a spin-off company formed on Caltech patents that just received $16 million in funding:
    Here’s a company licensing patents from CSHL:,+Inc.+Expands+Its+Patent+Portfolio+Related+To+DEP-1+Phosphatase-a0105558088
    And here’s a company licensing Greg Hannon’s patented technology from CSHL:
    And here’s a company formed by Tim Tully based on his technology discovered at CSHL (and Tim has apparently done quite nicely for himself with the company):


  15. bill Says:

    Thanks, David. There’s some more data here:
    Maybe move the conversation if we want to continue, so as to avoid derailing this thread?


  16. Very interesting! Never heard of the blogging ban policy for the physics and mathematics conferences so far. On the other hand, at many such conferences (i still mean phys & math here) it is common to post online the slides, and sometimes also the audio recordings or the videos of the talks.


  17. Danny O'Reario Says:

    Uh, I don’t know about all of those companies, but Helicon went bust when its lead candidate flamed out in clinical trials with no effects. If anything, CSHL had to lose on that one. Tully, an inveterate salesman, is now involved in another biotech.
    My impression, shared by friends and relatives in biotech, consulting, and big pharma, is that with a few buy-out exceptions, most of these entrepreneurial endeavors flame out after burning the start up capitol. If you’re an investor, it’s basically a lottery. Back when startup capital was easy to get in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, you weren’t cool unless you had a biotech company on the side. I think that’s changed. It’ll change a lot more if we go toward nationalized healthcare and pharma profits are reined in.


  18. Carmen Says:

    Great discussion everyone…
    @ TomJoe- I agree with you- no one is going to get enough info to scoop anyone else based on a meeting blog post. I’d like to think even a short blog post might have value-added for folks that weren’t in the audience. Meeting blogging is something I’m still working on improving (I’m a journalist at a weekly magazine but also blog). Ei: a medicinal chemistry symposium with speakers from industry, where chemical structures are disclosed. I’m guessing folks in the business are going to want to see structures of initial hits, lead, key modifications, up to the drug candidate that makes it into clinical trials. That’s what everybody at the talk is scribbling down in their notebooks anyway. It’s harder for me to think about whether there’s equivalent “key information” in other areas.
    @bsci- While it of course depends on the conference (reporting on GRC’s is a no-no!) I generally agree with your sentiment. If I have an inkling I might blog about or otherwise cover a talk, I introduce myself to the speakers before the session and give them a heads-up. That way I get a more direct contact with someone who might be a source in the future…


  19. Danny O'Reario Says:

    Here’s a scenario: I float my latest & greatest idea at a little conference and show some promising preliminary data hoping for feedback. Good idea, right? That’s what little meetings are for. Let’s say some audience member comes up with a brilliant alternative explanation for my data and suggests an experiment. Maybe this happens in the Q&A, but more likely this happens over beers or dinner, the way a lot of the best stuff happens at small meetings. Anyway, I go back to my lab, try the suggested experiment, and find out my great idea is a bust. Whew! The meeting did exactly what meetings are supposed to do, and science moves forward. I email the person who suggested the experiment and thank them.
    But now let’s say someone blogs my talk. Have you guys ever had your research blogged about or covered by the press? I have, many times, and even the most well-intentioned and skilled reporters mess stuff up. Plus, there is a heck of a lot of secondary reporting that goes on by people who never check with the primary source. It’s like a game of telephone, where the facts get more and more distorted as they’re passed on. Anyway, when the failed experiment eventually comes to light, I end up looking like an idiot who does questionable science. But the blame should really be on the bloggers who reported my stuff prematurely! If I thought my results were ready for prime-time, I would have submitted them for publication. And told the press about things myself after the paper passed muster. Remember that cold fusion was only a public scandal because it was reported before the research was finished or peer review was done.
    So meeting blogging & tweeting etc is not all about scoopage or freedom of information or issues like that. It’s about using good judgement with regard to whether or not something should be publicized. There are plenty of peer-reviewed papers to blog about. There is precious little actual science in the science blogosphere these days. In any case, there is no reason to blog meetings. Doing so is basically being a gossip. We all like gossip, but no one likes a gossip.
    Don’t. Blog. Meetings. It’s irresponsible. It’s rude.


  20. Carmen Says:

    @Danny- given permission from the speaker, and with the right disclaimers about the non-peer reviewed status of the data, couldn’t a blog entry expand the audience that would hypothetically suggest an alternative explanation and an experiment? The conversation between you and the “audience member”, thanking them for their suggestion, could then take place in the comments section of a blog entry. You’d also have the opportunity to correct any mistakes in the comments as well.
    I think that problems have a bigger chance of coming up when people blog about things without talking to the source.


  21. Danny O'Rerio Says:

    Carmen: Well, yea, obviously if the authors are on board, it’s OK. Because the authors are then choosing to publicize their results. You can report on anything you want with author permission, whether the work is presented at a meeting or not. If you know about something cool going on down the hall or through secondhand sources, go ahead and interview the authors and blog about what they say. That’s fair reporting. The pro media (Scientific American, The Scientist, etc) does this sort of stuff all the time. The key thing is that bloggers/tweeters/etc need to understand that participation in a meeting is NOT necessarily an implicit agreement to have results publicized beyond the meeting.
    This doesn’t mean you always need author permission to talk about someone’s work. If you don’t have author’s permission, a reasonable rule of thumb is to only publicize stuff to an extent that the information is already available to the potential blogging audience. Blog all you want about published papers. Blog all you want about stuff you find on a lab’s website, or in publicly-available abstracts, or reported already by other media. That’s all fair game.
    Alternatively, you can be a sniveling gossip — one step away from lurking in toilet stalls waiting to overhear something to blog about. Your choice.


  22. bsci Says:

    Your example makes no sense. As you clearly state all those problems are already happening due to bad reporting from people who are professional reporters. The issue is whether they did their homework before writing something up. Even if it is written well, a blogger or reporter can easily write something up with the appropriate caveats and it may or may not be distorted in later articles, but this has nothing to do with blogger vs. traditional media or asking permission vs just writing.


  23. Danny O'Rerio Says:

    Yea, I agree bsci. But just because professional reporters can be irresponsible too doesn’t make anything more acceptable. If you want to make the comparison: Bloggers who irresponsibly blog & tweet meetings are like the nastiest of professional paparazzi. They may get paid for what they do. They may get read by all sorts of nosy people. But they won’t get respect. And they’re even more dangerous because they’re typically anonymous and unedited. Bloggers, like other reporters, are presumably also legally liable for their actions. If someone gets scooped or misrepresented and is angry, I’d hate to be the blogger who blogged the scoopee’s presentation unauthorized or screwed up the story. Especially since the victim could argue loss of future grants and income pretty reasonably, depending on the circumstances.
    I’m curious whether Scienceblogs offers guidance with regard to legal matters, or in any way checks for stuff that might make them, as publisher, end up in hot water. Or do they make disclaimers regarding any content? Would those disclaimers hold up in court?
    I’d love to hear a lawyer’s opinion in this thread.


  24. bsci Says:

    I’ve yet to see any conference reporting on blogs that would approach anything that could even remotely put someone at a legal risk. Short of libelously misrepresenting results or violating a personally signed non-disclosure agreement (not something buried on fine print on the registration form), I can’t think of anything a blogger could post that would make them legally liable for anything in the US. Note, that in the US, libel requires both intentional falsification and malicious intent.
    There are ethical issues, but virtually nothing here would enter the legal realm.


  25. H Says:

    @DamnGoodTechnician (#1): if you could get all your content from the meeting for free, from bloggers who are at the meeting, why bother paying the registration fee to go?
    Many of the technology conference organizers explicitly encourage blogging / twittering, as they realize that blogging / twittering the conference content only builds buzz around their conferences and helps to increase registrations for the following year’s event. For example, O’Reilly’s OSCON conference ( pulls in all twitter posts with the hashtag #oscon to the conference homepage.


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