Field of Science

On live-tweeting at conferences

Nature News has an interesting piece on another novel aspect of the collision of 21st century social media with 20th century scientific culture, this time related to the phenomenon of live tweeting from scientific conferences. The piece talks about a meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) which in its latest annual gathering asked social media enthusiasts to seek permission from speakers and poster presenters before live tweeting material from the meeting. As the piece indicates, many of the attendees were rather unhappy about this.

I can personally relate to the pleasure of live tweeting from a conference as I have been guilty of this sin several times. In fact I believe that there's no getting away from it in the Age of Social Media. The most recent instance was when, egged on by our spirited colleague Peter Kenny (aka "slayer of druglike metrics") a group of us participated in gleefully live-tweeting the Gordon Conference on Computer-Aided Drug Design (CADD). Now Gordon Conferences are supposed to be "private" in the sense that they are supposed to be forums for dissemination of unpublished data. But as far as I could vouch, at least 90% of the work in the conference was material that I had seen or heard before. My colleagues seemed to concur.

Basically here's what it boiled down to when we decided to tweet the CADD GRC

1. The conference chair did not object. 

2. 90% of the talks were based on material that was already published or presented. 

3. In all our tweets we were careful to separate the messenger from the message. In addition we refrained from tweeting when someone explicitly referred to unpublished material. 

Also, a lot of the tweets referred to reiteration of aspects of the field that are well known, although many are underappreciated and therefore in fact deserve to be highlighted. This point deserves emphasis. There's a lot of underappreciated wisdom in every field that, while not well-known, is crucial to the progress of that field. A good example in computational chemistry and modeling would be the use of statistics which has been woefully under-appreciated until recently. Thus, every time someone referred to the proper use of statistics or the lack thereof, it was a point worth sharing with the broader community.

4. As always, "when in doubt ask for forgiveness, not permission" - Grace Hopper.

5. In an age of crowdsourcing and massively interdisciplinary problem solving, it's not just a bit elitist but impractical and outdated to declare any public meeting as opaque to public inquiry. I believe that withholding information from a public conference goes against the spirit of science in the 21st century. This point is thus also a plea against the traditional guidelines for Gordon Conferences which restrict dissemination of information; guidelines which as indicated before seem rather futile in the face of a preponderance of already published or presented material. As science changes, conference rules need to adapt.

All this being said, I think it's important to respect someone's wishes if they wish to keep their presentation confined to the people in a conference room and explicitly request the audience to do so. In that case I will grumble but acquiesce. As I mentioned, in the CADD GRC I was careful not to tweet material that was explicitly marked as unpublished (although again, this amounted to a vanishing fraction of the total material). 

On the other hand, I think it would be absolute folly to insert an injunction against tweeting along with those against taking photographs in the official guidelines for any conference. For one thing, a picture is worth a thousand words so a photograph can convey much more than a tweet. Secondly, tweets in a sense are no different from notes that one might take in a conference: would we expect an injunction against sharing these personal notes with our colleagues to find even an iota of support? Then why the pushback against tweets?

Live-tweeting along with the other paraphernalia of social media is here to stay. Whatever my negative feelings about outrage and public shaming on twitter have been recently, there is no doubt in my mind that live tweeting from conferences is a net positive to the global scientific community. At the very least it will make up for the blot of public shaming on twitter, which wouldn't be a bad thing at all. So, if tweeting be the food of appropriate conferencing, play on!


  1. Schneller Heinz was not somebody who usually asked for permission but would you have wanted to ask for forgiveness from his boss?

    1. Especially after von Stauffeberg forgot his briefcase in the conference room...

  2. Bit sad that 90% of the GRC material was old, recycled or otherwise not new. What purpose do conferences really serve in the modern Age, and how should they be transformed to be more relevant?

    I always found conference chair & session organisers to be sadly lacking in their "host" duties - facilitating introductions, meeting, greeting, mingling. Instead they normally find their clique at the front of the hall and stay there.


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