Sunday, November 3, 2013

Should societies facilitate making scientific meeting presentations publicly available?

The answer always sounds simple and obvious initially, yet it never seems to pan out that way, and the problems always come down to money and career advancement. The value of science comes not from doing experiments but from relaying the results and interpretations of completed studies. Science has no value while it sits in a lab notebook or on a laptop's hard drive-- it has value when others can see it, use it, test it, and expand upon it, so knowledge is shared. Shouldn't we make our results as publicly available as possible, and as early as possible? Further, our research was sponsored by federal funds ultimately deriving at least in part from taxes-- it was done on the backs of our friends and neighbors. How can we justify not maximizing its speed of impact?

You may think I'm talking about open- or free access to refereed scientific journal publications, or to deposition of scientific pre-prints to services like bioRxiv, arXiv, or Haldane's Sieve. The argument certainly can apply to both of those activities, but I'm actually talking about something different. I'm talking about scientific presentations at conferences.

I have a proposal that I'd like to raise with one of my scientific societies in a few weeks-- one that was discussed in an earlier blog entry. It sounds simple-- the society should facilitate recording (with permission from the presenters) contributed talk presentations and put them in YouTube or equivalent. This has been done successfully before for smaller meetings (see this conference). Let's also facilitate having presenters (again, with their consent/ permission) upload posters to a free online site (e.g., this one). What better way to maximize impact and speed of sharing? Anyone in the broader community can watch the talks and learn the exciting new ideas, potentially long before a final manuscript is ready, much less a refereed publication. And for conferences with multiple concurrent sessions, this allows the possibility for attendees to see talks they'd missed-- who wouldn't want this?

It's not contentious in some sense, since it'd all be voluntary. If you don't opt-in, it doesn't happen. If you don't want to share for whatever reason, then fine, don't.  In talking with several colleagues, though, it seems the idea of a society even facilitating this effort is at least potentially contentious. Many concerns were raised:

1) Would such presentations online constitute "publication" and thus prevent the author from being able to publish the final version of these results in a refereed journal? Most journals in my field would not be so ruthless, but some journals especially in biomedical areas, are ruthless (see this list of journals/ publishers and their policies onprepublication of manuscripts). From the publisher standpoint, they want the press associated with the findings (hence "money"), and they thus manipulate scientists by limiting their ability to translate the work into refereed journal publications (hence "career advancement"). The concerned ask-- by providing this service to facilitate recording, is the society potentially hurting some of its members?

2) Would such online presentations potentially open the facilitating society or conference organizers to damages or lawsuits if the presenters fail to consider copyrights? Many scientists are careless in grabbing images from Google image search (irrespective of copyright) or failing to get proper permissions to show figures from work published in non-open-access journals. If the society or conference organizers "sponsor" conference recordings, could they be sued (hence again, "money")? Or perhaps a junior scientist may make an off-hand negative comment about an established scientist's work, and be penalized in some way (hence again "career advancement" concerns)?

3) Would allowing a fraction of the conference to be posted online make it so fewer people elect to attend the conference in person, thereby devaluing the conference ("career advancement" for all participants) and potentially also causing the sponsoring societies to incur a financial loss ("money")?

4) Would ruthless others attempt to "scoop" results by copying the work or rushing a related experiment, particularly affecting junior scientists who generously opted to have their presentations shared ("career advancement")?

5) Would people see yet misuse the results without fully understanding the context the way the presenter does?

Again, a seemingly simple idea, but many complications. The discussion is worth having. I'll give my answers to the five criticisms above, though there are others I won't go into.

On #1-- I have two replies. First, it's rare at least in my subfield. Second, I think the community should take a strong stance of not publishing in journals that elect to have such ruthless behavior and demonstrate such an antagonism to scientific dissemination (their purported goal).

On #2-- I think there is reason to be cautious and to give guidance to presenters on proper attribution/ permissions. That said, I find it hard to believe that, short of airing clips of popular movies currently in theaters, there would ever be retribution sought more severe than a demand that something be removed from the internet in a specified timeframe (which can be done). On the junior scientist issue, that issue is potentially "better" if the content is taped, since he/she is likely to be correctly quoted rather than potentially misquoted as having said something worse than they actually did.

On #3-- The biggest benefit of conferences is not sitting passively in talks-- far from it (see this blog). I'd never skip a conference because a fraction of the talks were online. Further, I can't imagine, at least in the near-term, that more than 20% of a very large conference would opt-in given the concerns associated with #2 above and #4 below.

On #4-- This is an issue for every conference presentation, irrespective of whether online or not. People have cellphones with cameras, so if they are so ruthless, they can snap a picture of the poster. They can take detailed notes at talks. I totally acknowledge that it's a greater concern when the material is made so much more accessible (though it also potentially allows clear documentation of when they had presented this work and thus their primacy). So yes, this is a concern, and merits consideration by participants in whether to consent to taking this risk in exchange for sharing their results. But I think they should be allowed to make this decision for themselves rather than having the society paternalistically decide not to permit the option.

On #5-- People misinterpret the context of results from fully documented peer-reviewed journal publications all the time-- it's hardly a unique problem. This concern was raised repeatedly in the context of trying to stop the now-mandatory sharing of data used in published papers in my field. While I'm sure this happens, bluntly, I've always found this criticism as a reason for not sharing to be uncompelling, and condescending to one's colleagues.

But I invite readers of this blog to submit their own thoughts. Maybe I'm totally wrong in my responses, or maybe there's even zero interest in this as a service. Is offering the OPTION to record talks at a conference and make freely available a good idea? Same for submitting posters to an open repository? Do the concerns outweigh the benefits, and am I just being audacious by pushing this idea? Comment very welcome!