Friday, June 26, 2009

"Bloggers", the media and science reporting.

Sometimes I read an article that I just cannot understand. The words make sense, and I can understand the logical flow, but the entire premise just escapes me. Consider the following exhibit: an article in Nature News on the "problem" of blogging from a conference. A snippet from the article (which I recommend reading in its entirety):
By disseminating scientific results far beyond the lecture hall, blogging and social networking blurs the line between journalists and researchers. Scientists in competitive fields may be more reluctant to discuss new findings if they can be posted on the Internet within seconds.
and then later:
MacArthur's comprehensive postings were read by many scientists but they irked journalists attending the meeting. The meeting rules stated that reporters had to seek permission from speakers before publishing material on their work, rules that Cold Spring Harbor instituted in part because some journals, such as Nature, discourage scientists from talking to the press before their work is published. But those rules didn't apply to scientist-bloggers like MacArthur and, after he posted details from a few talks, reporters contacted Stewart for clarification on the policies. The complaint was a wake-up call: "For the first time, I became aware that people were blogging about the data at the meeting," Stewart says.
If I understand this correctly, the premise of the article is that blogging from a conference is bad because it
  • "scoops" the poor journalists under embargo ?
  • disseminates information faster than someone might like ?
to which my only response is "HUH " ? Isn't the whole point of a PUBLIC presentation to disseminate results to - you kn0w- THE PUBLIC ? and how on earth does it matter how fast this happens ? And although I feel for the journalists who agree to weird embargo rules by control-freak journals, why on earth should I, as a researcher who happens to blog from conferences, care about this ?

Sometimes I think the media needs to get over itself....


  1. Totally agreed, this article makes no sense to me. How can it be bad??

  2. The most bizarre part of that article had to be this:

    In the United States, patent applications must be filed within a year of any information becoming available to the public. The exact date of that 'public disclosure' used to be difficult to nail down, but no more, says Michael Natan, chief executive officer of Oxonica Materials, a nanotechnology company in Mountain View, California. In the Internet age, time-stamped photographs of a talk can let competitors know the exact minute a researcher presented a patentable result. Consequently, "people in industry will be much more circumspect about what they present in public", he says.

    They'll know the *exact minute* it was presented! No longer will they only be able to narrow it down to a 20 minute window (for the article's example of the Biology of Genomes conference). So before you go presenting something patentable, you'd better really think about whether you're going to need that extra 10 minutes (on average) to file your application.

  3. I'll also add that, with or without blogging, if you present some results at a conference and they *don't* get back to potential competitors in short order, you might not need to worry about being scooped but you do need to worry about your apparent irrelevance.

  4. The key here is that the type of conference they're talking about is not very much like a CS conference. At CS conferences we present work that is largely complete. In the types of conferences this article is about, they present very preliminary work that is not fit for publication, possibly with sample sizes of 1 or 2, in order to get feedback from colleagues and find collaborators for very expensive studies. It's highly unfinished work, and shouldn't be disclosed to the public in the state it's in.

    Also, they can't make a tenure case on conference presentations. By presenting their work at conferences they are taking a risk, and if there are bloggers putting that stuff out far and wide, the risk may not be worth it.

  5. I actually think there's a lot to be said for Nature's embargo policy. It's not a good fit for some fields, like CS, but it's valuable in other fields, like biotechnology.

    As I understand it, the idea is this. There should be no limits on presenting results to scientists, for example by preprints or at conferences. However, science journalists (and scientists) are not allowed to publish anything for the general public until the week the article is published. The penalty for violating the embargo is losing future access to prepublication copies of papers and press materials, which is a severe enough penalty that journalists almost never violate the embargo.

    There's a small loss to the general public, since they aren't kept absolutely up to date, but the loss is tiny. The refereeing time for Nature and Science is measured in weeks (if you can't write a review in two weeks, they replace you with someone who can), and publication can be expedited for important papers. So, basically, the general public is being kept one to two months behind the state of the art available to working scientists.

    On the other hand, the gains can be big. First, it avoid cold-fusion-style science by press conference. Journalists and the general public are not equipped to judge breaking developments in science, and this can cause massive confusion. It's more effective to have the review process before publicizing the research. This is particularly important in cases of great public interest. (Sure, everybody would like to know the latest health breakthroughs as quickly as possible, but perhaps not at the cost of greatly increasing the number of bogus or misleading stories.) It also helps to avoid problematic incentives and pressures for scientists. It's a cartel, but a cartel that uses its powers for good: if you think all your competitors are rushing to the press before peer review, you feel great pressure to do so yourself.

    Second, writing good popular science articles is hard, especially for journalists without specialized background. The embargo system ensures that they have a week to interview researchers, investigate background, and write a clear and correct story, without fear that competitors will break the story early. Without embargoes, we'll end up with more shoddy stories written under great time pressure.

    Of course, there are trade-offs here, but the system works pretty well. When the last time you read a story in the Tuesday Science Times and really wished they had published a shorter, half-baked version of the article on Friday instead?

    Blogging makes things complicated. Some blogs (like yours or Lance's) are basically gathering places for professionals. I'm sure plenty of amateurs read them as well, but for the most part they don't seem to be an explicitly intended audience. Other blogs are more explicitly aimed at the general public and can be considered a form of science journalism. If they end up breaking the embargo system, we'll lost more than we gain. I don't know how to fix it, but I hope some reasonable compromise gets reached.

    I agree that the bit about patents is crazy.

  6. Jumping into the debate, I will suggest you a very well written blog article on this issue.


  7. I can't agree more with you. Why would it matter? The main point is the information has been disseminated to the public. Those press people don't want an instant publication because they are afraid the people won't buy their magazines or newspapers anymore because it's already available in the internet, for free...


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