I’m shocked, shocked to see live tweeting going on at this conference

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One has to have some pity on the American Diabetes Association.

This highly prestigious and influential organization drew the wrath and scorn of Twitter aficionados worldwide last week when they asked people to delete tweets about their scientific sessions showing images from presentations at the meeting (Medscape has a nice gated account of the fiasco here).

Some pity … but not a whole lot because we are in the latter half of the 2010s after all. Live tweeting from medical conferences is not just the norm but a now, a well-established form of knowledge transfer.

A lively twitter chat at the Philippine-based #healthxph last Saturday showed just how unanimous social media advocates have been in condemning what the ADA attempted to do.

The rationale used by the ADA was that they were just protecting the copyright of presenters and as such could not permit photographs of presentations which often contain as-yet unpublished data. Following the events of last week the ADA said they would be re-evaluating their policy, and so they should.

In a world where major medical conferences (including the ADA) go to some trouble to establish hashtags and encourage people to tweet from their meetings, policies which restrict this free flow of information and ideas are doomed to failure.

The ADA is not alone in fighting a rearguard action to restrict wider circulation of information presented at their meetings. More than once in the last six months I have been at meetings where repeated attempts to ban taking photos of presentation images have been made. In addition, I have heard speakers ask people to not more broadly circulate some but not all of their remarks (“Then, I adulterated my lab mate’s Petri dish so as to render his experiment invalid. Oh, but please don’t Tweet that.”)

Having attended medical conferences for 40 years, it is clear social media is dramatically changing the world within which such conferences operate.

Conferences are often financially important for the organizations that host them so it is logical to see them wanting to restrict the benefits of hearing presentations to those who have paid to attend. The fact this is no longer possible or even necessarily desirable could render moot the business model upon which these meetings are based.

Alternately – and this is a scary idea raised by someone at the #healthxph chat – conference organizers could start blocking transmission from the conference rooms during presentations so live tweeting would be impossible.

In the #healthxph chat I made two other points that bear repeating, I think.

  • Since attendees to a meeting are going to repeat the information they hear anyway, wouldn’t you rather have them do so through direct images of your data rather than rely on their scribbled notes.
  • If you are presenting at a conference for reasons other than the broader dissemination of your findings, then you are probably in the wrong place and in the wrong business.

Finally, there are still some grey areas. While mobile phones and other devices make it impossible to prevent taking images from presentations, there is a stronger case for banning live transmission of talks through Periscope or Facebook due to more significant issues of copyright.

Even though only a minority of medical conference delegates make use of social media, live tweeting is changing this very fundamental channel for the dissemination of medical information. How it will all play out, remains to be seen.

(For another excellent view of this issue please read @JBBC (Marie Ennis-O’Connor)’s: How The American Diabetes Society Unleashed The Streisand Effect

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One thought on “I’m shocked, shocked to see live tweeting going on at this conference

  1. Hi Pat, a very balanced summation of the issues at play here. I can’t help feeling a degree of sympathy for the ADA, but the bottom line is that the fundamental nature of how we conduct conferences in the digital age has changed the parameters of privacy and this is a conversation all organizers must now factor into their meeting strategies.

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