Science Online – the London Edition

This weekend I’ve been down in London for Science Online London 2009 conference, held at the Royal Institution yesterday. Those of you who follow my Twitter feed will know I was using it to live-blog the event (along with many others), and I’d like to think that the (slim) majority of my tweets were actually pertinent to the discussion in the lecture theatre. Nonetheless, here are my thoughts into a brief overview of the sessions I attended.
Legal and Ethical Aspects of Blogging
(in true lawyer style, I’ll note that I’ve given an interpretation of what was said in this very thought-provoking session, so it should not be taken as gospel. After all, I’m not even sure what ‘tort’ means)
I’m probably not the only blogger who gives very little thought to the legal consequences of putting my stuff up on the internet. However, the take-home message from Jack of Kent and Dr. Petra’s illuminating presentation was that just because I don’t consider myself to be particularly adversarial, that doesn’t mean that I can be complacent about my legal safety. Legally, the moment that you put up a blog post (or make a comment on another blog or forum), you are a publisher; and whilst the ease with which you can now get stuff into the public domain – and bypass the gatekeepers of the mainstream media – is a major attraction, by freeing yourself from that layer of control, you also lose the protection that comes with it. No-one but you is going to check for potential libel prior to publication, and you will have to rely on your own legal resources should any claims result.
Also, blogging under a pseudonym is no protection at all: as blogging is a public activity, you have no right to privacy and people can legitimately join the dots by any legal means they like – more importantly, they can join the dots through less than legal means and then work backwards to construct a legal post-hoc trail. This doesn’t mean that pseudonyms are useless (a very good point was made about how a pseudonym does for the most part allow you to keep your professional and online identities separate in the eyes of Google), but it does mean that, just like everyone else, pseudonymous bloggers should never publish anything that they wouldn’t be held to. And if you want to avoid libel, avoiding making actionable comments basically boils down to limiting critical remarks to effects (e.g. pointing out flaws in a particular study) rather than motivations (making personal judgements, such as allegations of dishonesty). Also, If you’re using your professional persona online, it would be a good idea to make sure that you adhere to the relevant codes of conduct
Finally, if you do somehow attract a claim, don’t panic, but do take it seriously. Clearly identify the phrase, paragraph, or post which is at issue, and don’t be afraid to admit and correct a mistake (although I’m not sure the latter doesn’t break one of the cardinal rules of the Internet).

Blogging for Impact
One interesting feature of this session had nothing to do with its content: I got my first look at Second Life in action: not only was the action being viewed by a group of Second Lifers, but one of the speakers, Dave Munger was presenting in avatar form. So, video conferencing without quite so much costly equipment; pretty cool.
As for the session itself, Dave provided a nice positive overview of the future of science blogging as he saw it, particularly focussing on how tools like are starting to more explicitly link to the scientific literature. As a counterpoint Daniel MacArthur looked at some potential roadhumps, including the old chesnut about balancing blogging against the time demands of a life in academia (I’ve always argued that the way blogging forces you to think bigger picture and at a wider range of research is a good thing), and how he got into trouble for liveblogging a conference which journalists were barred from. Another issue raised was peer backlash due to critical analysis of your peers’ research being put into a public forum (something I’ve touched on before).
I think perhaps this session could have made more time for audience input; a wider discussion on making blogging more mainstream, particularly on the academic end of the science communication channel, might have been more useful.
Online Communication of Science by Institutions and Organisations
The next session served as a reminder that it’s not just universities that are hard to convince about the value of public outreach through blogging. Research charities and museums, as represented by the likes of Ed Yong and Paulo Viscardi, have also had trouble getting the Powers That Be on board. You can’t just fire up the browser and start blogging and tweeting: you have to define clearly what you want to achieve (what target audience do you want to reach? What do you want communicated to them?), and somehow discover if those goals can be, or are being met, through the Web. Although, rather ironically, the take home message seemed to be “blog first, ask permission later”. Your argument is made much easier if you have a tangible proof of concept to show off, although presumably you need to be careful about giving the impression of an official connection with your institution when none exists yet.
Cat Herding: The Challenges and Rewards or Managing Online Scientific Communities
This session stalled somewhat; there was a discussion from the cat-herders themselves about the various challenges of building and moderating an online community, and even an acknowledgement that a true community only emerges when all (or at least a decent number) of its members are involved; but what it really needed was time for those who would be herded to give their views. It probably didn’t help that the communities used as examples (Scienceblogs, Nature Network, ResearchGate) are all different beasts, with different aims, problems and levels of interaction, making it harder to have a coherent general discussion.
Google Wave: just another ripple or Science Communication Tsunami?
Google Wave is supposed to be the Next Big Web Thing, and we were given a peek at what it was all about by the likes of Cameron, who argue that it’s going to have a big impact on the way we all work together. As far as I can gather, it’s an attempt to merge features of e-mail (inbox-like organisation), wikis (editing by multiple users and tracking changes over time), and things like Twitter or FriendFeed (real-time conversations). I now have more idea about what Wave is all about than I did before (which admittedly wasn’t hard), and I’m certainly impressed by it’s drool-inducing web technical shininess; but I’m still less clear on exactly how I (or any other scientist or scientific communicator) would use it to obvious benefit. That said, after sleeping of it I have a few thoughts, and I’ll be hoping to kick off a discussion about this in an upcoming post.
General thoughts
Katherine has already noted that in comparison to the Unconference-heavy North Carolina shindig earlier this year, the London conference had a much more traditional format. Although I enjoyed the Unconference format back in January, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; but I do agree that some sessions may well have benefited from opening up the floor for discussion at an earlier stage. In this crowd, a sizeable majority not only have interesting things to say, but also have no scruples about saying them, and thus the more time and opportunity is set aside for them to do so, the better. Still, I got a lot out of this conference, not least a well-timed infusion of enthusiasm that always results on the rare occasions when I find myself in a room where not only does everyone know what a blog is, but also have a positive view of them.
I also had fun using Twitter during the sessions – from my perspective it worked quite well as a note-taking tool with some bonus interactivity with other attendees. I’m not sure how much sense it all made to those in the outside world though, especially I’m having to transcribe my tweets into blog form in order for them to make sense to me in the future…

Categories: bloggery, conferences, public science

Comments (7)

  1. BrianR says:

    Thanks for the recap … sounds like an interesting meeting. So does having these conferences and discussing legal aspects mean that the “wild west” days are behind us?

  2. Coturnix says:

    Are the legal issues discussed there VERY UK-specific?

  3. Bob O'H says:

    Bora – even if it was, English and Welsh libel laws can be used to sue anyone online, simply because the material can be read in the UK. So it is important that everyone is aware of the laws.
    I don’t think this message has sunk in over there yet – look at the reaction when Stephen Curry had a post taken down for legal reasons.

  4. Chris Rowan says:

    Perhaps you should consider asking an American legal blogger to N Carolina next year.

  5. Ori S. says:

    Maybe, if we are famous or rich.
    But then, journalists are rarely get sued. As we know, they are not famous for writing honest or unbiased stuff. That’s when “selected information” defense is commonly used.

  6. Davie P. says:

    Chris, you might want to correct a typo in your third paragraph:
    ‘..the ease with which you can now get stuff into the pubic domain…’
    (Unless that’s what you meant to say, of course.)

  7. Coturnix says:

    I actually tried, but was not successful, in having that kind of session last year. Will try harder for next January.