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Tips for blogging from meetings

Posted by on May 11th, 2010

At the Node we welcome reports from scientific meetings, but only if the meeting organizers and speakers allow it. I’m currently writing the Node’s guidelines for meeting reports, and then realized I could fill an entire post with additional information and links. Unlike the guidelines, anything in this post is very general advice and not Node-specific.

First, find out if the meeting organizers have outlined a specific media or reporting policy. It varies a lot between meetings, and what is fine for one type of conference is absolutely not okay for another. For example, you are not allowed to report on any of the presentations at a Gordon Research Conference. They’re very explicit about this policy, and you should respect that. At the the other end of the spectrum is the Society for Neuroscience, who encouraged bloggers to write about their 2009 conference, and even selected a group of official “Neurobloggers”.
Most meetings will have a reporting policy in between these two extremes, and if they put their policy on their website, it usually tells you to ask for permission. CSHL updated their reporting policy in 2009 to include bloggers, and requires you to ask permission from the presenters before you write about them or their research. They also ask you to let them know whenever you intend to blog from or about one of their meetings. Keystone Symposia’s policy is very similar, and also asks you to ask permission from the speaker before blogging about their presentations.

What if there are no guidelines published? To avoid catching speakers and organizers by surprise, e-mail the meeting organizers to let them know you want to write about the meeting, and suggest that you will ask permission from each speaker individually before mentioning any scientific content. If the meeting organizer says that you’re not allowed to blog anything from the meeting, don’t do it. If they give you permission, save that correspondence in case you get into an unexpected conflict later. (This is why e-mail is better than asking in person!) The speakers’ e-mail addresses will usually be in the program booklet. Once you have decided that you liked a talk so much that you want to write about it, drop them a line. They might want to see your blog post before you upload it, or want to know where to find it.

If you haven’t asked for permission, or haven’t received it, you can still write a little bit about the meeting, but only as much as is already publicly available. This means that if a meeting organizer only publishes the name of the conference and the location, you can’t even mention the names of people who were there without their consent. If the entire program and all the poster abstracts are publicly available, you can include the names of speakers and the general topic of their talk or poster.

So why are conference organizers so strict about blogging? Aren’t the talks public knowledge now that the audience heard them? No!
The purpose of scientific conferences is not to tell the whole world about new research, but to update a group of other scientists about current projects. This means that a lot of unpublished data are shown; data that still need to be published in a journal. Most journals will not publish data that have previously been published elsewhere, and that includes results mentioned on a blog. To put it very bluntly: A blog post that contains unpublished data has the potential to ruin someone’s career.

A lot of journals do publish official meeting reports, but these are sent to the speakers before it’s published. When speakers see a draft of the meeting report that includes a little too much detail about their work, they ask the author to remove it. If you write about a talk on your blog, speakers have no such control over it. Organizers and speakers may still contact you after you publish the blog post, and ask for it to be removed. Please do so if they ask.

To summarize: if you want to blog about a meeting, make sure you have permission from the organizers and speakers, or only mention as much as is already publicly available.

(Photo by Eva Amsen. Taken at Science Online London 2009 - a conference that explicitly encouraged participants to blog about the talks.)
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  1. Heather Etchevers says:
    Eva, having been through this recently, as you know, I’d add something.

    You write: “If the meeting organizer says that you’re not allowed to blog anything from the meeting, don’t do it. If they give you permission, save that correspondence in case you get into an unexpected conflict later. (This is why e-mail is better than asking in person!)”

    I have twice asked for and received written permission to blog from conferences, and in the first did not avoid and in the second narrowly avoided conflict over it.

    The problem is that usually there is more than one conference organizer, and (a) the other organizers may not recognize their authority to agree to a blogging policy for all of them, and (b) the ATTENDEES may not agree to it, either.

    At the last conference I blogged in tandem, I went up to the mike after the first session or two, at the invitation of a second organizer, and orally informed everyone who had come to a plenary lecture - presumably really everyone - that we were blogging about the conference, and that we would contact by e-mail the speakers whom we planned on featuring before going live with the article, to check the comfort level of disclosure. And I quietly axed live-tweeting, which I’ve done from other conferences rather unwittingly to no apparent lasting damage.

    It was a fastidious pain, and made me feel much more like a reporter than an attendee.

    The ISSCR also had (at least in Philadelphia) a very open blogging/tweeting policy, which I found incredibly refreshing. Good to hear about Society for Neuroscience.


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  2. Eva Amsen says:
    Yes,the ISSCR was indeed very clear again this year, and only said “there is an embargo that ends at the start of the talk”. So you couldn’t write about an abstract you saw in the program if the talk hadn’t yet occurred.

    Most meetings that have an explicit policy have the same one as Keystone, where you need to ask speakers individually to check if they’re okay with it.

    For the Node we recommend to ask the organizers about the policy if it’s not explicit, and then also check with the individual speakers if they aren’t aware someone is writing about the meeting. If you write about published data, find the matching publication and link to it. If there is no paper to be found, it’s either not yet submitted for publication, or in review/press, and possibly embargoed, so the speaker may or may not be okay with it, and that’s a key thing to check. The speakers at the ISSCR meeting knew that there were media and bloggers present, so they didn’t need the extra reminder, but especially at meetings without a published media policy they might think that “nobody is watching”.


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