Should Twitter be Restricted at Scientific Meetings?

June 3, 2011

This NCI Cancer Bulletin article on the use of social media at this week’s American Society of Clinical Oncology is worth reading.  It showcases how a major medical organization sees social media unfolding at a national meeting.  I’ll be following #ASCO11 closely where some sources predict the Tweet count could reach 10-15,000.

What caught my eye was discussion surrounding the speaker-imposed restriction of Twitter at scientific presentations.  Apparently some meetings such as the Biology of Genomes Conference at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, presenters have to grant permission to allow the use of Twitter (this apparently will not be the case at ASCO).

This is a quote from the meeting media policy at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Often, during the course of a meeting, a scientist will present a discovery, method, or current project that is not yet complete or published. Therefore, to prevent the premature release of confidential information, we require all media attendees to obtain permission in advance from the relevant scientist prior to reporting any spoken or printed information gleaned from the meetings. Media attendees are encouraged to approach scientists out-of-session (e.g. during coffee breaks, poster sessions, wine and cheese parties, etc.) for informal discussions, formal interviews, and/or permission to report sensitive information at the appropriate time.

While It’s hard to be critical of Cold Spring Harbor Labs, this policy illustrates the disconnect between the past and the present.  The reference to the media ignores the obvious reality that we are the media.  Communication tools like phones have become tools for publication.  Or, as Jay Rosen has put it, we are ‘the people formerly known as the audience.’

Clearly scientists need to protect data prior to publication.  But a dated system of review that stops doctors from talking will hold us hostage to the constructs of the 20th century.  Until this is sorted out, citizen journalists need to be respectful of information and how it is used.  Recipients of that information need to understand the context of scientific dialog.  And we need to understand that legislating the use of a platform will not stop the conversation.

h/t to Brian McGowan (@CMEadvocate) for directing this story into my stream.  Image via Lazy Crazy.


Kevin June 3, 2011 at 7:55 am

I couldn’t agree more! The review/publication process needs an overhaul. It’s telling when you look at how emailing and electronic submission of manuscripts has only come into its own in the last few years(and there are still journals that don’t accept emailed papers).

Edward Winstead June 3, 2011 at 8:03 am

Thank you for mentioning the NCI Cancer Bulletin article.

Readers may also be interested in this post about the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory meeting by Keith Bradnam, which includes Tweets about whether talks can be tweetable.

DrV June 3, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Nicely written piece. Thanks for making me think.

Larry Parnell June 3, 2011 at 8:44 am

Twitter today is no different than the pay telephone of decades ago. My PhD advisor did his PhD work on phage on the hells of its being on the leading edge of discovery of genes and gene regulation. He told me about the intense level of exchange and trying to outdo one another that was present at the annual CSHL Phage meetings. I learned from him that often when a competing lab presented data at CSHL, the other lab would run to a pay phone to call back to his/her lab and urge the colleagues not at the meeting to get to work right away on experiments to replicate/validate/do one better than what was just presented.

To me, such transmission and dissemination of what was presented at the conference is not much different than Twitter. Sure, the communication then was private, but may not remain so. Yes, the internet and tools like Twitter and blogs allow anonymity, but that is the nature of the age in which we live.

And, as stated above, we are the people formerly known as the audience. I did not have press credentials at the CSHL Biology of Genomes conference, but tweeted heavily in order to inform others of the really cool scientific results I saw.


DrGwenn June 3, 2011 at 8:56 am

Live tweeting is a fantastic way to discuss issues at meetings so if data or other topics are not yet ready for prime time the issue at hand is whether those topics should be discussed at open forum meetings to begin with. As a speaker, I think it should be assumed anything we say in our talks can and will likely be used for or against us in someone’s tweeter stream – which is the way it should be in 2011 with social media in the mix.

The “dated system of review” you mention is dated on so many levels that the only true fix is overhaul.

David Miller June 3, 2011 at 9:32 am

Scientific meetings are about sharing scientific knowledge. Period. They are not about sharing scientific knowledge with the chosen few with the time and considerable financial resources necessary to attend. Policies that restrict this — the silly Twitter ban as well as bans on photography for personal use/note taking — have no place at such meetings.

I went around and around with an American Society of Hematology staffer about their photo ban at the ASH annual meeting. I concluded from the conversation it came down to this: Disallowing photos allows presenters to more easily lie to journal editors about not presenting their data previously.

So much for academic integrity. I expect the roots of the Twitter ban come from the same place. Academics want to double-dip into the publish/perish pool without getting caught. They support these silly restrictions because they don’t want any Google-able evidence out there to reveal their deceit.

David Miller

Dr. Wes June 3, 2011 at 10:26 am

Can a meeting that invites media to attend really be considered “closed?”


Me thinks there’s a double-standard being imposed.

How about this suggestion: if media’s there, then Twitter should be fine, too. Otherwise, the aire of censorship exists…

Emily Lu June 3, 2011 at 11:30 am

I totally understand you and your commentors resistance to this policy because after all, we live in an age when information demands to be free and the system of scientific review is clearly dated, fallible and in need of radical overhaul.

However, I also see the merits of CSHL wanting not-yet-published scientific results to not be published for reasons of scientific integrity. Sure, the system of scientific review may not be perfect, but from individual researchers’ perspective there may be many reasons, experiments not yet complete, need for further verification, etc. that they have not yet submitted their results for review and are presenting it at a conference for feedback and discussion.

Be that as it may, I still feel that CSHL’s perspective should be less one of censorship but more one of organizers and presenters taking an active part in the social dialogue that proceeds from the conversation. Make the caveats where they need to be made about the science not being complete (because they can be often interpreted as such, esp. in <140char bulletins!). And open up the discussion for the richer possibilities for conversation that social media provides.

Just my two cents.

David June 3, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Maybe I’m reading between the lines, but it seems to me that there are only two reasons to ban tweets: big pharma is supporting a lot of research (and by extension, big pharma is “lawyered-up” with IP counsel who are communication-phobic) ; some conference organizers still think taking notes requires pen and paper and think it “rude” to use a (smart) phone during a presentation. It’s always interesting to read about the battle between digital immigrants and digital natives.

Simon Sikorski, M.D. Twitter @medmarketingcoe June 4, 2011 at 7:05 am

It’s ironic that a scientist who would not want to publish his research holds a public meeting where media is invited :)

Dr. Dean Brandon June 4, 2011 at 9:14 am

Twitter streams are becoming the norm at most meetings. The use of twitter #hashtags is commonplace. As was stated above, if you have an open meeting, you pretty much have to assume everything you say or present will be tweeted all over the Internet. The “audience” can tweet, blog, post to Facebook all over the place almost instantaneously. A presenter can request no video or audio recordings, as there is some argument for this as some speakers product is their presentation, they are professional presenters. Still, it is too easy to surreptitiously record or take a photo at any meeting whether the presenter requests restrictions or not. If the information presented really is proprietary or restricted in some way, then the meeting should be closed. Even then you are really relying on the good will of the audience not to communicate anything outside the room. Look at Congressional closed meetings discussing supposedly secret information, there are often “leaks” because someone didn’t want to obey the “rules”.

As presenters, the assumption is pretty much that it is an open broadcast to the world. If the information is intended to be secret, don’t show it at all. Twitter is just one method to transmit the message.

Samantha Gluck June 5, 2011 at 11:53 am

As a member of the Association of Healthcare Journalists, but not a medical doctor or scientist, I have to say I agree with the assessments of Dr. Wes and Dr. Simon Sikorski (for the most part). Physicians and researchers I have interviewed on the subject of Twitter, and social media in general, have disparate views on the matter — I find some fully embracing the trend and others completely rejecting it. I think what’s happening here is, as Dr. Vartabedian pointed out, a disconnect between the past and the present. People are still wary of Twitter and many (professionals and others) view it as a media channel “owned and operated” by college frat boys; whereas, they see the traditional media channels as more sophisticated and reliable.

While I think hosts of conferences, and the like, can “ban” Twitter on the surface, it would prove very difficult to actually stop it.

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