Yesterday evening I returned home from the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting – held this year in Pittsburgh, PA. It was a blast. Meeting so many friends, readers, and colleagues was a fantastic experience; many thanks to everyone who had kind words for this blog. I felt honored by the overwhelmingly positive response.
As wonderful as my first SVP experience was, though, there was one aspect of the conference which I think can be significantly improved. Blogs and Twitter have become increasingly important tools for science communication, but even though many within the SVP community write, read, and otherwise make use of these platforms there seems to be a reluctance about using the tools in the setting of the annual meeting. What I want to suggest here is a way forward in which paleontologists can make the most of the unique communication opportunities presented by the annual SVP meeting.
Although often marginalized by cranks and pundits, blogs and micro-blogging tools can provide excellent opportunities for scientists to engage with the public. These tools can be used to communicate exciting new discoveries, analyze specific areas of debate or research, counter sensationalized media coverage, and share supplemental online materials (photos, video, etc.). Some scientists are already onto this. There were several posters and presentations at SVP this year about the utility of online tools for communicating with various audiences. There is no one way to go about it. Twitter is a great way to share news and stories for discussion, whereas blogs can serve as platforms for science communication at a variety of levels (from the technical explanations of SV-POW! to the popular treatment of the Witmer Lab’s research at Pick & Scalpel and the more personal, “Hey, this is cool” style of Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs). Based upon the conversations I have had with paleontologists about this, at the very least science blogs are a way to keep up with the latest research in the field, and have become a useful resource for both the public and academics alike.
So what can the SVP do to improve their engagement with the online conversation about prehistoric life?
To the SVP’s credit, they did set up a Twitter account and a hashtag for the annual meeting. Unfortunately, I don’t think they made the most of Twitter. The SVP Twitter account doesn’t follow anybody and is rarely updated, and I did not know that there was an official SVP hashtag until I arrived at the first conference sessions. (This caused me to create my own hashtag for the meeting, and many people from the event used both to keep up with events.) Both the account and hashtag should have been listed on the meeting webpage, they should have been included in the meeting’s promotional materials, and ideally someone should have been running the SVP Twitter account to keep things lively during the meeting. Likewise, I think the SVP would do well to take a lesson from the Geological Society of America. Not only does the GSA encourage web coverage of their meeting, but they set up a listing of attending bloggers so that readers know where to go for coverage, and it would be just as simple to set up a similar list for Twitter.
The fact that WiFi cost about $12 a day at the conference center did not help matters. Given that I already had to pay about $10 a day for internet access at the SVP-selected hotel, I was not about to shell out another $12 at the conference center itself. I imagine that others felt the same way, and this probably hindered online communication during the meeting. Perhaps setting up free WiFi service was not possible due to pricing or a deal with the convention center itself, but I would encourage the SVP organizers to look into engaging the services of a group such as SignalShare, which provided excellent free WiFi service to this year’s ScienceOnline meeting. What good is setting up a hashtag for online conversation about the meeting while hindering the ability of attendees to make use of it?
But the problem extends beyond logistics. From what I have been able to tell, paleontologists are nervous about their findings being reported too early. Almost everyone has a story about someone who was not able to publish a paper in journal X because a reporter wrote about their research before it was actually published. The meeting is open to anyone who pays the registration fee, and many researchers hold back from naming species or giving away too much information, but overall it seems that the SVP community is skittish about the idea of opening up communication about the event. There is a good deal of concern with making SVP a safe place to communicate ideas – as there should be – but I think we can find a way to communicate exciting new findings presented at the meeting while also protecting scientists.
What I am proposing is fairly simple. Create a logo – perhaps the Twitter bird with a green checkmark superimposed on it, or something similar – which could be placed on posters and the first slides of presentations as a signal that it is okay to tweet or blog about the information being presented. I don’t know how many presenters would participate – perhaps not very many at first – but it would allow researchers to take the initiative in opening up communication. Many people who cannot attend SVP are interested in what happens at the meeting, and the use of such an icon would allow scientists to take another step in communicating their work outside of the confines of the meeting itself.
As a supplement to this, I would like to see an official SVP annual meeting blog highlighting research presented at the event. Many scientists read and write blogs, and I think it would be a good idea to select a small group of scientists to share their work through an official SVP outlet directly, similar to the way in which particular SVP presenters were tapped to talk to members of the press at a meet-and-greet session. This should not supplant the regular press interactions, but rather would be a way for scientists to take a direct step in engaging with the public since there is certainly more information at SVP than is ever going to be covered. There are already paleontologists who do this on their own time, so I am sure that enough candidates could be found to do at least one post for each day of the meeting.
I imagine that there might be some initial resistance to these proposals. As a cranky editorial recently-published in Analytical Chemistry perfectly exemplifies, blogs and Twitter are often seen as cesspools of vanity where know-nothings go to gibber about their half-baked ideas:
I believe that the current phenomenon of “bloggers” should be of serious concern to scientists. Bloggers are entrepreneurs who sell “news” (more properly, opinion) to mass media: internet, radio, TV, and to some extent print news. … This magnifies, for the lay reader, the dual problems in assessing credibility: a) not having a single stable employer (like a newspaper, which can insist on credentials and/or education background) frees the blogger from the requirement of consistent information reliability, so that b) blogging “agencies” are popping up that openly advertise “no formal search for “qualifications of bloggers” revealed).
Thankfully I don’t think this kind of ranting speaks for the SVP community as a whole – I was pleasantly surprised by the positive reaction this blog received at the conference – but it certainly does not help that there is a prevalent public impression that bloggers occupy a space on the Great Chain of Being somewhere lower than journalists but just above hagfish.
As Carl Zimmer pointed out at this year’s ScienceOnline conference – and which I have reiterated – blogs are software. They are not inherently good or bad. The quality of a blog depends on the viewpoint of the writer and the expectations of the audience, and it would be foolish to write off blogs entirely. While the quality of science blogging will always be mixed, in general I think that blogs have been a very fertile, free platform for writers, researchers, and enthusiasts to dig into subjects which are often treated superficially in traditional media. This is certainly the case with paleontology – blogs often provide more in-depth coverage of paleontology research than traditional news outlets do, and many bloggers have far more comprehensive backgrounds in the subject that staff science reporters. I don’t want to inadvertently restart the old blogger vs. journalist skirmish – that debate is stupid and unprofitable – but I think bloggers must be judged on the quality of their work rather than whether they have gone through the meat grinder of formal journalism training or not.
I don’t expect the SVP leadership or community at large to immediately embrace the idea of making the annual meeting more blogger/Twitter friendly, but I certainly think that we could take a few steps toward using these tools for wider engagement. I have no doubt that there will still be some anxiety about how this will effect the chances of being published in Science or Nature – the fear of having a paper rejected on the basis of a popular report is common – but I by employing some of the suggestions I mentioned above I think we can find a way to better communicate paleontology while also protecting the interests of researchers. After all, most SVP attendees are going to be students, scientists, and other people already within the paleontology community, and I see the opening of communication as less undesirable elements invading SVP than people who are already involved finding new ways to extend communication outside.
Those are my initial thoughts. I wanted to outline them here before drawing up a more formal proposal to the SVP leadership, but obviously there may be a number of things I am not thinking of. Either in the comments or by e-mail, let me know what you think about opening up online communication at SVP. (Though, since next year’s conference is in Las Vegas, I would certainly understand if the leadership did not want that particular meeting broadcast over the web.)
Image: A cast of the juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex known as “Jane” on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.