Sharing data is important, but Twitter can be used for much more than that, says Eileen Parkes.
Attending a large conference is often accompanied by a flurry of excitement – daily news releases, early access to abstracts, lanyards and conference bags suddenly becoming ubiquitous citywide.
One more recent aspect of conferencing is the rush to jump on a Twitter hashtag —conferences release their lists of Twitter influencers alongside growing lists of suggested tags. At this year’s American Society of Haematology conference, attended by over 25,000 scientists and medics, at least 20 hashtags were suggested, including #ASHaiku for haematology poets.
Is Twitter now an essential component of conferencing? Or is it just feeding FOMO?
In an age of open data, sharing our data as widely as possible is, most would agree, a good thing. On the face of it, that’s a key advantage of conference Twitter, enabling attendees to share findings widely and rapidly. But Twitter provides a way to circumnavigate embargos and, some worry, could lead to scientists presenting their work to a trusted audience being scooped later. And writing “unpublished do not post” on a slide won’t always have the desired effect. Should all those presenting at conferences, which are not necessarily open to the public, take it for granted that their data is open for sharing widely across the internet?
The American Diabetes Association drew widespread criticism for their stance on social media at their annual conference in 2017 — banning tweets from the meeting and publicly calling on attendees to delete their tweets. The organisation said this policy was a measure designed to protect the intellectual property of speakers. Twitter coverage from the previous meeting resulted in a significant share price drop. Some called this policy censorship, and it certainly doesn’t seem to fit in today’s sharing culture. As one cardiologist put it, “Once you present data […], it’s fair game”.
Attendees tweeting from conferences are usually aware that their thoughts are being made public and may have an impact on share prices or patient groups (in the case of medical research). While some argue we should have clearer guidelines on the use of Twitter to discuss results presented at scientific conferences, others feel that any guidelines are too restrictive, and undermine their freedom of expression on social media.
Twitter has other advantages beyond data-sharing. After presenting your work, you can get instant feedback and engagement from a worldwide audience. Live polls can also help a speaker connect with a wider audience in a structured, productive way. Engaging with a global network of tweeters (or twitterers) opens up even more opportunities for collaborating and making new research contacts. For some, “meeting” someone on Twitter can help to establish an interpersonal connection before meeting face-to-face.
With the ability to virtually attend a conference via Twitter, and given the high costs of attending in person, conference organisers should consider that data-sharing is not the main aim of a modern meeting. A good conference design will allow time for networking, a meeting of minds, and opportunity for early career researchers and experts to meet and learn from each other. The buzz of being in a real-life breaking news session, listening to experts debate the nuances of the field, can’t be captured on Twitter. Hashtags are here to stay, but a well-designed conference should leave us with a fresh enthusiasm that can’t be matched by a cheap digital cheep.
Eileen Parkes is a clinical post-doctoral researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, exploring the immune response to DNA damage. Outside the lab she loves spending time with family and using social media to talk science. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.