Poster session paparazzi
There has been a slow, but steadily-growing poster session photography movement that started well before the Web 2.0 revolution. As a graduate student, each year when I strolled around the poster session at my favorite meeting, I began to see more and more people walking around with cameras. Not that conspicuous at first, until I saw many using their cameras for uses other than documenting their attendance for the expense reimbursement office. These photographers were snapping shots of posters, usually when the presenter was not actually presiding over his/her precious results.
As cameras became smaller, and then became ubiquitously embedded in our phones, the practice of taking a little more than just a few notes from a poster exploded. These “poster paparazzi” have even made their way into oral presentations, as discussed in a recent Nature news article. So is this practice any different than simply taking really good notes at a poster or talk, or is this practice something that should be targeted and culled??
I for one find the practice of taking pictures of someone else’s data, whether it is projected on a screen or printed on poster board, as a bit tacky, unless the eager photographer has the permission and blessing of the data owner. But I definitely do not see it as anything different from writing the whole of the presentation down (to answer my own question).
Attending meetings is usually a two-way street; an attendee gives as well as receives. On the receiving side, the attendee/presenter not only receives valuable feedback on his/her project, perhaps even from future reviewers, but also takes away knowledge from the presentations of others. In return, the attendee/presenter provides information to the community in a nice reciprocal relationship that forms the backbone of the socialized science practiced at most meetings. Photography is nothing more than a comprehensive extension of this give & take relationship in order to take away the gift of data and knowledge. Some presenters are even so comfortable with their data that they actually set a pile of “poster reprints” next to the presentation for public consumption, thus removing the need to snap a poster portrait. If a scientist is willing to share his/her results at a meeting, then the researcher has to understand and accept the risks that come with revealing the novel findings. A few Kodak moments are not going to allow another lab to re-create your study and scoop you any more than writing down a few key elements and methods onto paper.
The problem I have is that focusing on photographing makes it too easy and tempting for the photographer to not keep up his/her end of the scientific exchange. One click and the secret agent is gone, on to the next unwitting poster victim. At least when an individual stood in front of my poster scribbling everything and anything s/he could, while trying to avoid making eye contact, I could engage them, and perhaps extract some discussion in exchange for my hard work on the poster. If used sparingly, with respect for others, and “for honorable purposes”, I am happy to tolerate the camera phone-crowd at posters, even if I refuse to adopt the practice in my own travels.
However, this form of “data capture” actually brings up an interesting issue that is now becoming relevant with the advent of new avenues to publish data quickly and without peer-review. What if scientists start taking matters into their own hands, as described in the Nature news article listed above, and began to post data collected through camera-based espionage on public servers, just to get the information out into the public, providing them with a source to cite when analyzing the data on their own?? This is essentially what happened regarding the physics data on anti-matter. Researchers may begin to conduct their own analysis of others’ data, providing their own spin and interpretation. Currently, a server like Nature Precedings does not allow such third-party submissions of data, but if an individual wanted to make data harvested from a meeting public, there are plenty of options.
With the rapid growth and discussion regarding blog-based critiques and reviews of work, I could easily see an environment where bloggers would compete to post the first response to a study, even before the work is peer-reviewed and published. They would be out there scouring the meetings for the next big thing, the new groundbreaking technique, the latest gossip, rushing back to their laptops to upload the photos and an accompanying story like…like…the paparazzi. Could this be where we are heading? As Rachel Maddow likes to say, I need someone to talk me down on this one.