Friday, August 20, 2010

My Summary of This Year's Coolest SVP Abstracts

... can't be written.  The abstract volume for SVP 2010 came out today, and contains loads of interesting news for us paleontologists.  But the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has a ridiculous policy that-

"Unless specified otherwise, coverage of abstracts presented orally at the Annual Meeting is strictly prohibited until the start time of the presentation, and coverage of poster presentations is prohibited until the relevant poster session opens for viewing.  As defined here, “coverage” includes all types of electronic and print media; this includes blogging, tweeting and other intent to communicate or disseminate results or discussion presented at the SVP Annual Meeting. Content that may be pre-published online in advance of print publication is also subject to the SVP embargo policy"

I wish to know- exactly what is the point?  Anybody who cares about the contents has the abstract book anyway.  So disallowing public discussion does absolutely nothing to keep the material secret, and is not going to make the presentations and posters more of a surprise.  It's the Shiny Digital Future- when something's released online, everyone has it.  So you can't claim it's to prevent stolen ideas ala Aetogate, since any paleontologist who cares has the abstract before SVP anyway.  Even assuming they somehow didn't, public discussion is allowed after the meeting (or they could just attend the meeting itself), and it's not like the papers that (some) abstracts lead to are published immediately.  There's plenty of time to get your own knock-off paper published, especially if you're the editor of an in-house journal so that you can speed the process up.

The only people who don't have easy access to the abstracts are those outside the paleontological community, and the media couldn't care less about basically any of the content.  Even on the incredibly rare occassion the general public might care, like the Triceratops-Torosaurus synonymy announced in an SVP abstract last year, the news outlets mostly got it wrong and most people misunderstood it anyway.  For last year's SVP, Google finds a whopping eight news stories that cover six abstracts, and that's due to only about five reporters.  Does the SVP really think that reporters are going to scour the abstract volumes of scientific meetings or dinosaur blog posts for stories?  Even things like the PepsiCo ScienceBlogs mess that caused Pharyngula to go on strike barely get noticed.

Who does notice and care though?  Us, the amateur and professional paleontologists who host blogs and use mailing lists, message boards, and newsgroups.  We'd gladly write up summaries of all the cool stuff happening at SVP, which would be seen by the portion of the public that is actually interested in paleontology.  That's free publicity for the society, the authors, and their work.  But by the time we're allowed to, there will be new stories to cover, and we won't be nearly as hyped about it.  All this accomplishes is decreasing the excitement and interest in SVP's meeting among the young readers who could make up its membership in the future, and thus be paying to attend, subscribe to the journal, etc..

(Of course there's also the obligatory crowd that claims abstracts are gray literature that isn't properly citable, but they should be on my side too, because what sense does it make to have an embargo on information you consider to be equivalent to hearsay?)


  1. I agree with you. I'm a blogger so of course I would. But it seems counterproductive to me, and bad PR. You're correct - the general public isn't going to be affected by this. But the internet has empowered people to join in and share news. I see no real danger in releasing the abstracts; if anything it would get us more involved and excited. SVP would be more of an event, like a con or festival, and those of us not lucky enough to be there would at least know what's being discussed and what sort of research will be coming out in the next year. How is that bad?

  2. Huh? I care about the contents, and will be in attendance. But I'm not a member of SVP and have yet to register for the meeting, so I really don't have access to these abstracts.

  3. Apparently, you care about the content, since you're blogging about it. The purpose of abstracts are to provide a reviewable, referable record of presentation, to provide the meeting organizers the necessary data to construct the meeting schedule, and to announce research to colleagues.

    Presentations at SVP (or any other scientific meeting) are peer-to-peer communications. They are not intended for a general public audience and the abstracts are not intended for public display or reportage prior to presentation. The embargo exists to protect the intellectual property of researchers, which is why the Grown Up Media respects it.

  4. Surely the point is that if the abstracts were made public and the fact that they would already provide sufficient data regarding researchers and their "intellectual property", then there would be no point in attempting to hijack (or similar) anybodys research since it was obviously miles too late anyway.

    Besides, those people who are even capable of doing such a thing are/were almost certain to be well aware of that particular research strand anyway.

  5. Priority for disseminating research should belong to the researchers themselves, which is why abstracts are embargoed until after the meeting.

    I wouldn't be so cavalier in dismissing threats to research: Presenters at SVP aren't doing so on lark- they're professionals and students who have invested their livelihoods and futures in their research. Again, there are reasons for publishing abstracts, but feeding the blogosphere isn't one of them.

    And intellectual property as a term does not need to be attributed with quotes- ask any lawyer.

  6. "The purpose of abstracts are to provide a reviewable, referable record of presentation, to provide the meeting organizers the necessary data to construct the meeting schedule, and to announce research to colleagues."

    The latter purpose would be better served by having the blogosphere involved.

    "The embargo exists to protect the intellectual property of researchers, which is why the Grown Up Media respects it."

    Err.. but my first discussion paragraph showed that doesn't work. The very people who are capable of stealing intellectual property (i.e. other paleontologists) are the very ones who are likely to attend SVP and have the abstracts before the meeting anyway. And once they attend the meeting and/or hear about the abstracts after the embargo is lifted, they still have years to write their own article and get it published before the SVP presenter does. Think of how few abstracts from even ten years ago are published papers by now. Giving them an extra month head start is so insignificant as to be worthless.

    "Priority for disseminating research should belong to the researchers themselves, which is why abstracts are embargoed until after the meeting."

    But the publication of the abstract IS the dissemination, just like the publication of a technical paper is the dissemination. Yet we don't have a no-discussion embargo on published papers before the author blogs or issues a press release.

    I get the impression that the SVP is quite behind the times when it comes to how information is handled in the digital age. Their pointed ignoring of blogs during Aetogate, the reference to non-blogs as "Grown Up Media" above, etc.. I think David's suggestion above that SVP be more like a con is excellent. Just imagine people recording talks, interviewing poster presenters, live-blogging news as it's made. That's exciting. That's modern. Just because we study ancient material doesn't mean our methods have to match.

    And before someone claims that's a security risk- I repeat, the people who can rip off others ideas can already attend. They can already take notes. If anything, having more extensive coverage of a presentation can provide further evidence for intellectual proprty theft when it occurs. You can say, "Oh look, your data and conclusions look suspiciously similar to those presented at this SVP talk on Youtube."

  7. Again, the point of the embargo is to allow the author of the research priority in presenting that research. Even though it is made available to members and attendees prior to the meeting, you cannot see the abstracts until you agree to the embargo. So your statement about publication is not accurate.

    SVP is a professional scientific organization like SICB, AGU, GSA, etc., with meetings that function as a source of information exchange between and among professionals and students. Its not a festival or a Con. If you want that type of environment, agitate for the resurrection of Dinofest. Or devote more of your time to Star Trek and Sailor Moon.

  8. Sailor Moon? I'd go for Full Metal Alchemist or Nana myself. Cosplaying as Komatsu Nana at a con would be kickass. ;) But seriously, do the other organizations you name have this kind of embargo? The GSA even suggests to "Follow the meeting on Twitter via hashtag #Cord10" on the page about its latest meeting. That's the kind of New Media 'con-like' interaction I'm suggesting. Keep the professional environment, but get people who can't go excited and interested too.

    As for your other paragraph, you state the embargo agreement is the meangingful difference between an SVP abstract and a published paper being discussed, but my argument is that the embargo is pointless so should be dropped. So if we removed the embargo, there wouldn't be a difference, and authors retain research priority by writing the published abstract in the first place.

  9. There is an issue here with high profile journals. If lucky enough to have your paper accepted for such a journal there are embargos on these papers that are strictly adhered to. Although such journals allow dissemination of these results at professional meetings, they would not permit this via other routes in the public domain (e.g. a blog, or a pre-embargo leak to the media). Hence, if any of the abstracts represent papers currently in press with such journals, blogging about them now would break the journal embargo, with potentially serious consequences for the authors (e.g. a ban on future publication with the journals, issues over priority, even, potentially, having the paper withdrawn). Also, the timing is an issue - by speaking at SVP the author is agreeing to present the work at the time of the meeting, not beforehand - its a matter of professional courtesy not to discuss a colleagues works before they have presented on it (especially as their results might actually differ slightly from the published abstract).

  10. You bring up an important issue in regard to the policies some journals have that demand the subject material not be discussed publically to a certain extent. Of course I think those policies are some of the many flawed aspects of our current system, along with the pressure to publish in the 'tabloids' which generally have annoying space restrictions, and the pressure to divide/copy research in as many articles as possible. But that's the system we have at the moment, so I would hardly expect the SVP to work against it.

    Thus my response would be that this would only affect those abstracts that reflect papers published in the two months between when the abstracts are made available and when SVP occurs. This is because public discussion, citation in papers, etc. is allowed after SVP once the embargo lifts. From what I've seen, it's extremely rare for an abstract's contents to be published as a paper the same year as that SVP, let alone in the months prior to that SVP. So while I agree with your point in theory, in practice the embargoed two months don't affect the presence of pre-publication discussion in almost every case.

    As for the courtesy issue, that's merely a reflection of the current setup. If there was no embargo, people would probably view the release of their abstract as their initial presentation. As for those times ideas change between abstract submission and publication (like Parsons and Parsons, 2002 for Deinonychus), it doesn't seem any worse than when they change between SVP presentation and final publication.

    But thanks for the input. Yours is the best rebuttal I've heard so far.

  11. I'd like to take a moment here to commend the anonymous commenter who left a snarky and insulting (though detailed) comment here two hours ago, then apparently deleted it since I see no record of it on the website. Thus the only record is in my inbox. As if commenting anonymously wasn't cowardly enough. I must say I'm disappointed by the responses, with the notable exception of Paul Barrett's. Perhaps my criticisms are naive or misguided, but at least I'm willing to stand behind them with my real identity and not try to denigrate the other side. At least it makes the reference to "Grown Up Media" more ironic...

  12. More than one poster prefers anonymity, I'm sure. As the anonymous poster who referred to the Grown Up Media and insinuated that you should focus less on SVP and spend more time on other pursuits if your interest in dinosaurs is predominately fanboyish, I can tell you I did not post anything insulting in detail with subsequent removal.