Thursday, December 29, 2016

Conferences and Technology:

Intellectual Property in the Digital Age

I came across an interesting opinion piece recently by Wolf Frommer from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, that criticized the growing trend of people taking digital photos of slides at conference papers--and then posting the images on social media.

The concern was that some speakers present work at conferences that has not yet been published, and rampant unauthorized publication could ultimately drive such authors away, and thereby undercut the value of technical conferences.  This, of course, is an issue that affects all scientific and engineering disciplines, so I thought the topic might be of interest to those reading this blog.

I, too, have been noticing people taking photos at meetings instead of taking notes, but I had not thought that they might be sharing this material.  And I hadn't thought about the potential implications of such sharing.  My own concern was really limited to whether someone raising their arms over their heads to take a picture would block my view!

I therefore found this broader concern something worth thinking about, and shared it with a couple of my colleagues.  The reaction convinced me that there were more dimensions to this issue than I first thought.

One person pointed out that some meetings have begun posting the presentation slides.  For example, the NRC Regulatory Information Conference does so.  Of course, in such cases, the conference organizers normally make it clear in advance that they plan to post the slides, and presumably, they allow presenters the option for their slides not to be posted, or to provide a redacted version for the website.  And I did get a couple of reactions that organizers should provide advance warning if they plan to post the slides or record the session, and not pull it on the speaker at the last minute. 

Some felt that it is the responsibility of the conference organizers to establish guidelines for conduct at their meetings.  They can either ask people not to photograph slides, or to remind people that slides shouldn't be shared without the author's consent.  And/or, the speaker can make such a statement at the start of his/her presentation.  People taking this view liken the unauthorized distribution of slides to the unauthorized sharing of copyrighted music downloaded from websites.

When people understand potential copyright and other issues, most will respect the boundaries.  Everyone acknowledged there will always be people who don't respect such restrictions, and that it will be very difficult to get 100% compliance.  Expelling people from meetings, as Frommer suggests, requires more oversight of audiences than is likely to be possible.  However, if people become aware of material posted without authorization, they can request that it be taken down or contact the employers of the individuals violating the rules.

This is not a perfect solution, of course, but the issue appears to be one more example of the fact that we have to adjust all our practices to the realities of the ability of modern technology to allow everyone to record and distribute material.  This seems to be a situation that merits more attention, and the development of explicit guidelines for conference organizers, speakers, and attendees. 


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