Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Can you tweet from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory meetings?

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In genomics circles, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s (CSHL) annual Biology of Genomes meeting is a biggie. It consistently brings together the top players in genomics, and is always oversubscribed.

This year’s meeting, which was no exception, ran from May 11-15. A few days into the meeting, Discover‘s Kat McGowan emailed me. She had been following the many tweets from the meeting eagerly — hashtag #bg2010 — since she couldn’t attend. But she wondered whether all of those tweets violated CSHL’s media policy, which “requires all media attendees to obtain permission in advance from the relevant scientist prior to reporting any spoken or printed information gleaned from the meetings.”

That sounded like a good question to me, so I contacted CSHL’s media office, who put me in touch with executive director of courses and meetings David Stewart. David runs at least 50 such courses and meetings every year.

David told me that CSHL’s media policy was designed to allow professional science writers and journalists to attend and learn from conferences, but also to protect scientists presenting data that they might not want to see in print yet — see the Ingelfinger Rule.

Last year, however, a number of scientists, who were not professional reporters, started to tweet from conference sessions. David got a complaint about that from an editor who hadn’t attended the meeting but had a staff writer there. Wasn’t this a violation of the CSHL media policy?

David saw the conflict. CSHL “moved pretty rapidly,” he said, “and made it a policy that everyone should get permission” before tweeting from a session.

This year, there was a similar apparent violation. Some of the 500 attendees began tweeting from sessions as soon as the meeting started, and no one had asked permission. But neither had any of the 70 speakers complained.

Still, David wanted to keep the spirit of the policy, so organizers began asking all the presenters whether they minded tweeting from their talks. If they did, he put a note on the blackboard behind the speaker, so everyone would know. He also put an asterisk by the presenter’s name on the live streams of the meeting.

That seemed to go over just fine with presenters and attendees alike. “What we tried to do was put the responsibility on the presenting authors,” David told me. “There will be some who will Twitter anyway. If there was a really egregious situation, we might ban them, but that would be quite a drastic step that I wouldn’t be comfortable taking unless it was really offensive and otherwise damaging.”

Of note: CSHL still asks professional science writers and journalists to ask specific permission to write up a presenter’s findings in a blog post or story. *They don’t have to ask special permission to tweet if the speaker has already given that. The thinking is that the character limits of Twitter make it difficult to tell a complete story of the sort that might violate the Ingelfinger Rule.

So there’s a bit of a two-tiered system at work. “We’re trying to allow people to Twitter, and be Twittered about, but also extend common courtesy. That’s where we stand. You kind of have to have a sensible policy for what i would call the professional reporters, and a somewhat more informal policy for people who are scientists and posting stuff occasionally.”

As David pointed out, a lot of the tweets aren’t actually scientific news from sessions anyway: One tweet that used the hashtag was about going on a run near CSHL and nearly being hit by a car.

CSHL is happy to have people tweeting about the meeting, because it’s always oversubscribed, and this way it can reach more people, David said. Twitter can even be a forum for questions there aren’t time to ask during a session. That’s why there’s online streaming, too.

“I said ‘Look, we can just turn off the Wi-Fi in the auditorium,’ and they said ‘Oh my, we can’t do that.’ I feel we’re trying to change with the times.” The issue, he says, is keeping a more strict policy involving professional science writers. “We want people to talk about unpublished and pre-published work. That’s what’s valuable about meetings.” And David will seek feedback on the policy from reporters, attendees, presenters, and organizers.

Here’s my feedback: The policy isn’t perfect. The two tiers are difficult to articulate, let alone enforce, in an age in which a scientist blogger or Twitterer is as likely to build an audience as a traditional journalist. But my guess is that those tiers will evolve or disappear, and that David is very open to well-considered change. The fact is that perfection isn’t likely when there are legitimate competing interests.

I really like several things about the policy:

  • David is frank and honest about CSHL’s motivations. Nowhere does he claim, as journals like to, that one of the main reasons for the policy is to help journalists — and yet CSHL does plenty to give reporters access to top scientists.
  • It’s transparent and clear. I might suggest that the media policy include a note about Twitter, but given the way CSHL has set up the “Twitter permission” arrangement, Twitter’s covered, too. There’s nothing worse than being invited to cover a public meeting as a member of the press and then being told significant parts of it are off-the-record once you get there. CSHL isn’t doing that.
  • It’s nimble, and it tries to evolve along with technology. When CSHL saw people tweeting without explicit permission, but didn’t see anyone complaining, he moved to ensure that everyone was comfortable with it — and that those who weren’t knew they could object.
  • It leaves things up to CSHL’s scientist-presenters, who should really have control over the information they’re discussing. CSHL will no doubt get some publicity in stories based on these talks, but unlike an institution that refuses to lift an embargo despite an obvious break, I see no evidence that CSHL is trying to control information flow for their own benefit.

Some scientists may decide not to allow tweets from their sessions, but let them tell reporters why they’re doing so. Others may not have thought things through as well as David and CSHL did. Witness this tweet from Chris Gunter about a speaker who had given permission to tweet his talk:

Whoops — embargo break there, as Jeff Barrett mentions he’s submitted paper to journal. Not a good idea to reveal this generally. #bg2010

Barrett, of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, had just said “we submitted this as a Perspective to PLoS Biology,” Chris later told me. That’s generally a bad idea — it’s one thing to say “we’ve submitted this for publication,” another to name the journal. The Ingelfinger Rule is why.

Still, that anecdote only reinforces the fact that it’s up to scientists to decide what happens to the information at a session. A few missteps are inevitable, but good intentions go a long way.

So kudos to CSHL for a well-thought out policy.

Update 8:15 p.m. Eastern, 5/24/10: Added sentence with an asterisk in the middle of the post, to clarify that professional science writers and reporters can tweet just like anyone else. And also added two great links I wish I had seen earlier by Daniel MacArthur, who blogs at Genetic Future. One was about what happened last year, and one was about what happened this year.


Written by Ivan Oransky

May 24, 2010 at 9:00 am

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2 Responses

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  1. In my many years of editing research papers and helping researchers write their talks, we always kept unpublished data out of the talks. If the researchers have submitted their data for publication, and then they present it in a talk, or discuss it in a semi-public forum, then the “secret” is out, and it’s not the audience’s fault.

    Nancy Lapid

    May 24, 2010 at 9:15 am

  2. Agree totally with Nancy. Oddly, I was just writing a similar comment in another forum about the same topic.

    Generally, if tweeting or blogging about meetings I use common sense and don’t mention unpublished data, but it has occurred to me that it does create a conundrum that many scientists fail to see. Essentially they have revealed the results themselves and potentially broken a publication’s embargo.


    May 24, 2010 at 3:27 pm

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