The pros and cons of social media at scientific conferences

By Dr. Phil Molloy

Today I was sitting in a great talk about how heavily overfished species in Hawaii bounce back when fishing stops. A good friend of mine was wildly prodding his iPhone. I initially thought he was texting, which surprised me not only because the talk was gripping and colourful but also because my friend is typically very polite. Curiosity got the better of me and I snuck a peek. He was tweeting the main results being presented by the speaker.

I’ve noticed a few other people tweeting in talks. This is probably the first conference at which I’ve noticed an obvious social-media presence and it has got me thinking.

On one hand, it’s becoming clear that social media is a hugely powerful tool for marine conservationists to reach more people than ever before. For example, where I work in the Philippines almost everyone uses Facebook; even if they don’t have internet access, they connect to Facebook on their phones.

At home in Vancouver, just about everyone I know under 25 uses Facebook and Twitter, and tell me how often they LOL, that they’ll BRB, and “OMG <3” this, that and the other! My nephews will probably laugh at me simply for the fact that I’m even writing a blog about how innovative social media can be. Clearly social media has and will continue to play a huge role when it comes to engaging people about environmental problems and building support for conservation. Definitely a plus.

On the other hand, I — and many of my colleagues — use conferences to discuss new ideas and results. But the ideas we share here are not always our final say; often they’re part of the long thought process that goes on behind the scenes in research.

Unless I’m presenting work that has been or is about to be published in a scientific journal, my conclusions could change. (Even after they have been published, new evidence may change our conclusions — that’s how science works.) It might sound odd to a non-scientist that I present preliminary results, but it’s actually very common.

Scientists often use conferences such as IMCC to showcase hot-off-the-press results. We do so either in the spirit of collaboration or to remain cutting-edge. Presenting preliminary results, as we call them, allows us to tap the wealth of knowledge available at conferences before we go to press. You should rest assured, though, that whenever scientists do present preliminary work, we say so. My concern is that when such preliminary results are tweeted, this context is lost.

So, I guess the bottom line is, does it matter if tweets misrepresent results? Probably not in most cases. First, the nature of Twitter is such that the half-life of any given tweet is miniscule; moments later another tweet arrives about something totally unrelated and audiences move on. In rare cases, a conclusion may be totally misrepresented and trigger misdirected gossip. I imagine such misunderstandings would resolve themselves after even the smallest amount of digging. Nevertheless, the use of real-time communications tools at scientific gatherings raises some interesting questions.

Online social media are profoundly useful tools to help all scientists but particularly conservationists to communicate to an incredibly diverse group of people (and by god do we need help communicating); that much is clear.

I’ll end with three words of advice: 1) For those presenting at conferences, be aware that giving a talk at a conference now means giving a talk to a massive social network; 2) Tweeters, be aware that your posts will be read out of context and results can be easily misunderstood; and 3) Twitter followers — take posts about conferences with a pinch of salt.

Dr. Phil Molloy is a post-doctoral research associate with Project Seahorse.