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Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Rights of Science Blogging

An article recently appeared on scienceweb, in relation to Daniel McArthur's blogging coverage of a conference he attended at Cold Spring Harbor, which has raised a few eyebrows (the related article is here). Cold Spring Harbor has a relatively strict policy for journalists, but it appears that Daniel wasn't constrained by it, since he's not a "journalist", by the narrow definition of the word.  More than half of the advice I've ever received on blogging science conferences comes from Daniel, and I would consider him one of the more experienced and professional of the science bloggers - which makes this whole affair just that much more interesting.  If anyone is taking exception to blogging, Daniel's coverage of an event is guaranteed to be the least offensive, best researched and most professional of the blogs, and hence the least likely to be the one that causes the outcry.

As far as I can tell from the articles, Cold Spring is relatively upset about this whole affair, and is going down the path that many other institutions have chosen: Trying to suppress blogging, instead of embracing it.
Unfortunately, there really very few reasons for this to be an issue - and I thought I'd put forward a few counter-points to those who think science blogging should be restrained.

1.  Public disclosure

Unless the conference organizers have explicitly asked each participant to sign a non-disclosure agreement, the conference contents are considered to be a form of public disclosure.  This is relevant, not because of the potential for people to talk about it is important, but because legally, this is when the clock starts ticking if you intend to profit from your discovery.  In most countries, the first time an invention is disclosed is when you begin to lose rights to an invention - broadly speaking, it often means that you have one year to officially file the patent, or the patent rights to it become void.  Public disclosure can be as simple as emailing your invention in an un-encrypted file, leaving a copy of a document in a public place....  the bar for public disclosure is really quite low.  More crucially, you can lose your rights to patenting things at all if they're disclosed publicly before the patent is filed.

Closer to home, you might have to worry about academic competition.  If you stand up in front of a room and tell everyone what you've just discovered (before you've submitted it), any one can then replicate that experiment and scoop you...  The academic world works on who has published what first - so we already have the built in instinct to keep our work quiet - until we're ready to release it.  (There's another essay in that on open source science, but I'll get to it another day.)  So, when academics stand up in front of an audience, it's always something that's ready to be broadcast to the world.  The fact that it's then being blogged to a larger audience is generally irrelevant at that point.

2.  Content quality

An argument raised by Cold Spring suggests that they are afraid that the material being blogged may not be an accurate reflection of the content of the presentation.  I'm entirely prepared to call B*llsh!t on this point.

Given a journalist with a bachelors degree in general science, possibly a year or two of journalism school and maybe a couple years of experience writing articles and a graduate student with several years of experience tightly focussed on the subject of the conference, who is going to write the more accurate article?

I can't seriously believe that Cold Spring or anyone else would have a quality problem with science blogging - when it's done by scientists with an interest in the field.  More on this in the conclusion.

3. Journalistic control

This one is more iffy to begin with.  Presumably, the conference would like to have tighter control over the journalists who write articles in order to make sure that the content is presented in a manner befitting the institution at which the conference took place.  Frankly, I have a hard time separating this from the last point:  If the quality of the article is good, what right does the institution have to dictate the way it's presented by anyone who attended.  If I sit down over beers with my colleagues and discuss what I saw at the conference, we'd all laugh if a conference organizer tried to censor my conversation.  It's both impossible and violates a right to free speech. (Of course, if you're in russia, or china, that argument might have a completely different meaning, but in North America or Europe, this shouldn't be an issue.)  The fact that I record that conversation and allow free access to it in print or otherwise should not change my right to freely convey my opinions to my colleagues.

Thus, I would argue you can either have a closed conference, or an open conference - you have to pick one or the other, and not hold different attendees to different standards depending on the mode by which they converse with their colleagues.

4. Bloggers are journalists

This is a fine line.  Daniel and I have very different takes on how we interact with the blogosphere.  I tend to publish notes and essays, where Daniel focusses more on news, views and well-researched topic reviews.  (Sorry about the alliteration.)  There is no one format for bloggers, just as there isn't one for journalists. Rather, it's a continuous spectrum of how information is distributed and for journalists to get upset about bloggers in general makes very little sense.  Most bloggers work in the niches where journalists are sparse.  In fact, for most people, the niches are what making blogs interesting.  (I'm certainly not aware of any journalists who work on ChIP-Seq full time, and that is, I suspect the main reason why people read my feeds.)

Despite anything I might have to say on the subject, the final answer will be decided by the courts, who have been working on this particular thorny issue for years.  (Try plugging "are bloggers journalists" into google, and you'll find more nuances to the issue than you might expect.

What it comes down to is that bloggers are generally protected by the same laws that protect journalists, such as the right to keep their sources confidential, and bound by the same limits, such as the ability to be sued for spreading false information.  Responsibility goes hand in hand with accountability.

And, of course, that should be how institutions like Cold Spring Harbor have to address the issue.


Treating science bloggers the way Cold Spring Harbor treats journalists doesn't make sense.  Specialists talking about a field in the public is something that the community has been trying to encourage for years: greater disclosure, more open dialog and sharing of ideas are the fundamental pillars of western science.  To force the bloggers into the category of the journalists in the world of print magazines is utterly ridiculous: bloggers articles can be updated to fix typos, to adjust the content and to ensure clarity.  Journalists work in a world in which a typo becomes part of the permanent record and misunderstandings can remain in the public mind for decades.   The power to reach a large audience exists - but only bloggers have the ability to go back and make corrections.    Working with bloggers is a far better strategy than working against them.

No matter how you slice it, institutions with a vested interest in a single business model always resist change - and so do those who have not yet come to terms with the advances of technology.  Unfortunately, it sounds like Cold Spring Harbor hasn't yet adapted to the internet age and are trying to fig a square peg into a round hole.  

I'd like to go on the record in support of Daniel McArthur - blogging a conference is an important method of creating dialog in the science community.  We can't all attend each conference, but we shouldn't all be left out of the discussion - and blogs are one important way that that can be achieved.

If Cold Spring Harbor has a problem with Daniel's blog, let them come forward and identify the problem.  Sure, they can ask bloggers to announce their blog urls before the conference - allowing the organizers to follow along and be aware of the reporting, I wouldn't argue against that.  It provides accountability for those blogging the conference - which serious bloggers won't object to - and it allows the bloggers to go forth and engage the community.  

To strangle the communication between conference attendees and their colleagues, however, is to throttle the scientific community itself.  Lets all challenge Cold Spring to do the right thing and adapt with the times, rather than to ask scientists to drop a useful tool just because it's inconvenient and doesn't fit in with the way the conference organizers currently interact with their audience.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This statement "So, when academics stand up in front of an audience, it's always something that's ready to be broadcast to the world" is absolutely not true. Conferences can also serve the function of allowing people to discuss ideas and seek feedback. Those who hew to your statement are suppressing open science, by not being open with their ideas and not yet ready for publication plans.

All of us have been to meetings where one talk after another is work that's already been published. It's BORING. And it limits the free exchange of ideas.

June 5, 2009 10:44:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Anthony Fejes said...

Hi Anonymous,

Maybe I should clarify - It may not be published, but it's in the process of being published. (Certainly, it's being put into a manuscript and prepared for submission, at the very least)

I would have a hard time believing that anyone standing up at the podium is telling you everything they know - it would just open them to being scooped. But seriously, if you know any labs that seriously tell EVERYTHING about their work, let me know.


June 5, 2009 3:47:00 PM PDT  
Blogger such.ire said...

I think that depending on the venue, the acceptability of journalism varies. You'd never write publicly about a labmate's group meeting talk. Even at a department seminar, I wouldn't say it's appropriate for someone to publicly disclose the contents of others' presentations. The huge national conferences, on the other hand, are definitely open game for public reporting and commentary. In between, I think conferences should have a clearly stated policy. I think both types of conferences are useful, whether to emphasize either publicity, openness, disclosure, and perhaps fame, or a close-knit, collaborative, protected community.

For point three, what right of free speech? "Right to free speech" is about a social contract between a government and its citizens, and has nothing to do with other contract law between citizens or between citizens and private organizations. As you said, it's up to CSH if they, for example, make you sign an NDA to attend a conference. It might be stupid of them to do so, but it's perfectly within their means, and that isn't "censorship."

As for your fourth point, I don't really see a difference between what bloggers do and what journalists do, formally. Both publish written works for an audience in some sort of medium. Sure, journalists can be backed by large infrastructure, but so can bloggers. Bloggers might publish electronically, but so can journalists. There's no real difference other than institution, so I think any policy that applies to journalists should also apply to bloggers. It's a separate issue entirely from the problems of public disclosure.

June 5, 2009 9:50:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Anthony Fejes said...

Hi Such.ire,

I really appreciate your comment - it's a great counter point to what I said, and really emphasizes the fact that this debate will have plenty of nuances, which will undoubted carry this conversation on long after the blogosphere has finished with it.

To rebut a few of your points, however, I should point out that your examples aren't all correct.

Yes, conferences are well within their rights to ask you to sign NDAs as an attendee - or to require that confidentiality is a part of the conference - there is no debate on that point. However, if you attend a conference that is open and does not have an explicit policy, then it really is an open forum, and they do not have the right to retroactively dictate what you can (or can't) do with the information you gathered at the conference.

I think all of us would agree that the boundaries for a conference should be clearly specified at the time of registration.

As for lab talks for your lab members - those are not "public disclosures" in the eye of the law. All of your lab colleagues are bound by the rules that govern your institution, and I would be surprised if your institution hadn't asked you to sign various confidentiality rules or policies about disclosure at the time you joined them.

Department seminars are somewhat different - if they are advertised outside the department to individuals that are not members of the institution, then again, I would suggest they are fair game.

I don't blog departmental talks or RIP talks for that reason. They are not public disclosures of information.

Finally, my last point was not that journalists and bloggers do anything different up front, but that the method of their publishing should have a major impact on how they are treated. Bloggers can make corrections that reach all of their audience members and can update their stories, while journalists can not.

If a conference demands to see the material a journalist publishes up front, it makes sense. If they demand to do the same thing for a blogger, it completely ignores the context of the media in which the communication occurs.

June 6, 2009 8:11:00 AM PDT  
Blogger such.ire said...

I think we mostly agree with each other. I do agree that CSH trying to retroactively prevent reporting of something isn't kosher, and that if the conference is open, the stuff should be open. I think a conference that demands to see any journalistic/blogger material up front is asking a little much. If the conference really wants control, they should just close the conference under an NDA and then write press releases.

I wasn't asked to sign any confidentiality agreements when I joined my university. Undoubtedly I'll have to sign something like that if I join a company, but I've never heard of universities requiring that kind of agreement. Is that a common practice outside of industry?

I do, however, think that the fact that things can be revised on the internet doesn't really change the context of the medium that much, nor does it reduce the amount of responsibility or permanent impact that a blogger has on public discourse. With services like the Internet Archive, Wikipedia, Wikileaks, and even the Google Cache, if something is misrepresented on a blog, it can have lasting impact even after the blogger revises what he/she writes. Not to mention, print journalists use the internet for research, too, and thus online content can move into the permanent record without the original author's being aware of it. It's easy to see how much science journalism relies on things like Eurekalert; it's not much of a leap for bloggers to have that sort of long-lasting impact, too. Finally, print journalism has Errata; it's not the same as revising stuff on blogs, obviously, but it's another thing that makes print and online media not so different from each other.

June 6, 2009 6:24:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Anthony Fejes said...

Hi such.ire,

For the most part, I think we are agreeing with each other. So, I only have a couple of points.

When I joined the Genome Sciences Center, as a graduate student, I had to sign a stack of papers, which I believe included a form that said I would abide by the rules and policies of the institution. I'm sure this varies from institute to institute, but I would be surprised if any graduate student were exempt from the policies of their institution. And, I'd be willing to bet that all universities have a policy on intellectual property and probably on disclosure as well.

Even if it's not explicit, I think it's fairly obvious to any outside observer that discussions within a working group (such as a lab meeting) are not public disclosures,

Anyhow, your other point is that online content can make it into print content and become permanent, which is a valid point. However, my suggestion was that bloggers register their blog affiliations with the conference organizers, which would have the net effect of allowing the organizers to have instant access to the posted content, and to provide monitoring of the blog post without imposting a significant hardship upon the blogger.

There will always be a significant sacrifice on one end or the other, and (of course), I'm going to side with the blogger and not the conference organizers on this particular matter. (=

June 7, 2009 9:23:00 AM PDT  

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