Stifling Science?

Author: Stacey Johnson, 07/29/14

 

On June 18, 2014, I walked into the enormous, blue lit plenary hall of the Vancouver Convention Centre excited to hear Canada’s own Janet Rossant give the opening remarks for ISSCR’s Presidential Symposium.

I glanced up at the information screens and read, to my dismay, “no live tweeting from the conference.” So what’s a communications professional, phone-in-hand-ready-to-tweet, supposed to do? Naturally, I immediately tweeted this news to CCRM’s and ISSCR’s followers.

My tweet

The reaction was swift. Some wanted to know why was there a ban (presumably to protect against the dissemination of unpublished data, a speaker expectation at ISSCR’s meetings), while others objected to the stifling of science (“if you don’t want your work presented to the world, then don’t present it”).

ISSCR quickly jumped into the discussion: “live tweeting of general findings is encouraged. Like you said. No specific pics or data please.” So there it was, in 96 characters and no uncertain terms. And just to hit the point home, ISSCR’s follow up tweet stated, “We ask that you respect our presenters, as many plan to share unpublished data.”

That could have been the end of it, but it was far from over. Many people on Twitter objected to the notion of findings not being shared and wondered how this could be enforced anyway.

Alexey Bersenev, a popular stem cell blogger, wasn’t at the conference, but was monitoring the conference hashtag (#ISSCR2014) in order to follow the proceedings – a common practice and tremendous benefit of Twitter. He jumped into the fray early on to voice his opinion pro sharing and then blogged about it.

Richard Pearse, of Harvard Medical School, is an enthusiastic proponent of sharing scientific findings. A note affixed to his ISSCR poster invited people to “photograph this poster” and even tweet the contents if, as he put it, you’re “feeling rebellious.”

Pearse tweet

When his tweet prompted followers to tweet back that he should share his work on some specific online sites, he quickly uploaded A centralized smart platform for open sharing of iPS cell information to F1000Posters.

Dr. Pearse’s invitation to photograph his poster and tweet the contents may go against the grain. Science is a competitive field and who published what, first, can have huge consequences to a person’s career. For that reason, secrecy is frequently the norm. But how does that play out in a society where the tools to share information now make this as simple as hitting send?

ISSCR may have inadvertently opened a can of worms with its directive not to tweet unpublished data, but at least they are acknowledging this new reality rather than ignoring it. ISSCR can be lauded for taking a leadership role on this issue. Is it the position we should all take?

The article “Guidance for reconciling patent rights and disclosure of findings at scientific meetings” (Lipkus, Mackie and Singer 2010) sheds valuable light on the topic. When it comes right down to it, “first-to-file” should be a scientist’s mantra.

In industry, non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are commonly employed to explore the commercial viability of an invention before applying for a patent.

From Lipkus, Mackie and Singer: “In the scientific meeting context, a non-disclosure agreement could have a similar disciplining effect among researchers as it does among companies in large industries. Scientists seen as “scooping” inventions of other attendees in violation of non-disclosure agreements would develop poor reputations among all attendees of a meeting, and would consequently be seen as untrustworthy within the academy. Non-disclosure may therefore provide the appropriate degree of discipline at the outset of scientific meetings to ensure mutual respect for the rights of researchers at the meeting.”

I realize it’s impractical to ask conference attendees to sign NDAs and is it required anyway? Unless you are tweeting photos of a presenter’s slides, how would you share enough data, through tweets, to allow someone to scoop valuable findings? And this, too, would presumably be frowned upon by the scientific community (as per above).

An article in the Ottawa Citizen offers a “primer on disclosure for those aspiring to acquire patent rights.” The writer, Sheema Khan, gives easy to follow guidance on what to do – or not – and reminds readers to file for patent protection before publicly disclosing your invention.

From what I can find, social media isn’t much of a consideration yet in the context of scientific conferences, but this could change as more scientists adopt Twitter. However, this article addresses the issue of a company disclosing up and coming products on social media websites before said company has filed for patent protection. In summary, this should be avoided.

But back to the main point at hand. Tweeting is not very different from speaking to someone directly, the scale is just much (much) larger. If a researcher shares unpublished data during a talk at a conference, every person within earshot has the opportunity to use this information. Tweeting the data only disseminates it more widely and rapidly. ISSCR says 3,300 people attended this year’s conference. That’s already a large number of people within earshot for every plenary presentation.

In my opinion – and I’m not a scientist – there is really not much of an argument for telling people not to tweet from a conference. In reality, if your article isn’t published or in the process of being published and/or you haven’t filed your patent application yet, a few tweets will be the least of your worries.

So, to tweet or not to tweet? What should be allowed? Will Twitter help in knowledge translation or make scientists ever more fearful of sharing their unpublished work publicly? The Till & McCulloch Meetings are just around the corner. Should CCRM and Stem Cell Network impose a no tweeting policy? I’d love to hear your comments.

 

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Stacey Johnson

Stacey Johnson

For almost 20 years, Stacey has been providing strategic communications counsel to government, corporate, technology and health organizations. Prior to that, Stacey was at the CTV Television Network, first as a researcher, then as a story producer for “Goldhawk Fights Back,” a special ombudsman segment that aired weekly on the National News and Canada AM. Before joining CCRM as the Director, Communications and Marketing, Stacey was the Director of Communications for the Canadian Arthritis Network. Stacey is editor of Signals. You can follow Stacey on Twitter @msstaceyerin.
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2 Responses

  1. Victor Venema (@VariabilityBlog) says:

    And I thought the title referred to people tweeting preliminary findings. Thus making it harder to share preliminary work and get feedback from scientists outside of your direct inner circle. This lack of feedback would lead to more erroneous papers and slow down scientific progress.

    I do not agree that twitter is the same as a conversation. You fix the statement and store it forever. That is very different from oral communication. The fixing exposes mistakes and makes it harder for people to change their opinion, which in a preliminary stage should happen.

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