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Social media etiquette at academic conferences

In today’s society, social media and social networking are almost universal. While some colleagues both old and young eschew Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms, many have embraced it to some degree within their personal lives. A professional scientific conference is not the same, however, as posting baby or vacation photos on your news feed. Unpublished and sometimes very sensitive scientific data are being presented at conferences. One has to be careful with social media, because it effectively changes the ‘publicising’ of information from the original author’s choice to present to a conference room of select people, to the social media user’s choice of broadcasting to the world. So how should a social media-savvy person act? And how can you, if you are among those who do not like social media creeping into every aspect of our lives, make sure that your wishes in regards to social media at the conference be respected?

Become familiar with the guidelines

First and foremost, read and become familiar with the official conference social media policy. As an attendee, you are responsible for abiding by it. Don’t take photos of talks or posters without the permission of the author (and especially don’t try to sneak a photo…people notice, and it’s not cool). Although the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) media guidelines state that tweeting is allowed, if someone asks not to tweet something, don’t tweet it. Simples. If you walk into a talk late, you may have missed the presenter requesting that their talk not be covered by social media, and so it’s best to play it safe. Having a ‘no tweeting’ symbol on sensitive slides can help to avoid any potential misunderstandings in this case. And, be civil when discussing scientific work! As a rule of thumb, don’t say anything about someone or their work unless you’d be prepared to say it their faces. If there is no social media policy, then consider getting together with other social media savvy members of the community and drafting one for your society!

No tweeting logo

How and when should you broadcast information?

Provided you are in a talk where the author has not disallowed social media coverage, what then? Do you try and tweet every single sentence? Hit the key supporting information? Or just cover the broad overall idea of the talk? That is going to depend on your level of knowledge and your personal preferences as well as your audience. Some information shouldn’t be delved into in detail – no one wants to read a long list of anatomical features for a new species, even if it has not been published yet.

But, remember that you are primarily communicating for an audience that is not present at the talk you are attending. What would you want to take away from the talk if you weren’t there? Saying, ”Wow, cool skull,”, or “Great talk by Dr. Smith” with no supporting information is kind of odd, and doesn’t ‘add value’ to people tuning in online. A good example would be when the new material of Deinocheirus was announced at SVP a few years ago. People were tweeting that it was strange, and some broad aspects of the anatomy, but the specifics were left to the formal publication. This allowed the interested public and researchers to know what was coming down the pipeline without giving away information that might have been sensitive (or boring). [note that even though this presentation was tweeted before publication, it still made a very high profile splash in a widely distributed journal!]. What would be the key information you’d want to take away from a presentation? That’s what you should be communicating.


Sensitive data: The presenter’s role

One thing that might often be overlooked in the discussion of social media at professional conferences is what to do if you are not a fan of live-tweeting/social media dissemination etc., often for fears of being ‘scooped’, or just not wanting research that hasn’t been fully vetted communicated more broadly just yet.

Firstly, if you do not want people tweeting or otherwise sharing your results, say so up front (if the default policy is that presentations are open to being shared). SVP’s social media policy states that communication of presentations on the internet is the default as soon as the presentation begins. Make it clear and unambiguous what you don’t want communicated. The whole thing? Just your results? One specific picture? Make sure your audience understands your expectations. You don’t need to apologize or feel bad for your decision. Just state your position and move on with your presentation. You may want to repeat yourself a few minutes into the talk; we all know that people tend to show up after the presentation has begun. SVP has provided a “no tweeting” logo you can include in your presentation or poster. I would recommend putting this prominently on your title slide or as a full slide directly after your title slide. At the SVP meeting in Dallas I was live tweeting and one of the presenters did not want a certain section of their talk tweeted. They conveyed this with a small “no tweeting” logo in the corner of their sensitive slides and therefore didn’t mention anything verbally. Bam, easy.

Why social media?

If you are not part of the social media crowd we would like to reassure you that social media users aren’t doing this to disseminate your research against your will. We are excited about what you have discovered and want to share new knowledge with the world! Research thrives in an open environment, and by using social media like blogs and tweets, we are able to communicate about research more effectively and open up new audiences and possibilities. However, if you think it is best to not include social media, then of course we will respect that. At the end of the day, it should come down to respect for our colleagues and community, irrespective of perspectives on science communication. We want you to share your research with everyone so our science can grow, but only in ways in which you find comfortable. If you do have a concern, by all means communicate that (in a respectful fashion). Odds are quite good that if someone posted something you didn’t want posted, it was probably done without ill intent.

This is part 2 in an ongoing series on how to be a conference pro! Next week: networking!

  1. Thanks for this. I am all for respecting explicit wishes of presenters. However, I am also all for discussing and questioning how we share and communicate. What I never understood is the posters thing. How come people love to get as many of the 5000 megaconference attendees as possible to come by and watch and discuss their poster during the 3 days of a conference, but do not want to share that online, thus denying the other 95% of potentially interested colleagues to see and discuss it as well and have something to go back to after the conference? I do not buy the scoop argument, because if you fear that why show your work to 5000 people? I think it has more to do with people feeling vulnerable and not wanting a traceable record of preliminary output that may contain not fully developed thoughts or even some errors. But that means you expect that readers are not able to differentiate between a poster and a reviewed paper. If that is really the case could we solve that by adding a short disclaimer on every poster reading something like this: “With this poster we wish to share ideas in an early phase. The ideas are still under development and may contain errors. This has not yet been scrutinized by peer review. Please be kind and treat it as such.” I would love to see those hundreds of thousands of unpublished posters become available online to generate more discussion and feedback from which the poster presenters and academia as a whole could benefit greatly.

    BTW My latest poster with not fully developed ideas is here:
    Would love to get firm but fair feedback on it 😉

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