Should You Tweet Posters from a Conference?

Pat raised an interesting point while he was at the International Botanical Congress in Shenzhen. Should you tweet whole posters from a conference? I think I also saw a passive-aggressive complaint about people photographing slides.

My view is that if you ever see a poster of mine at a conference, then I’d be delighted if you tweeted it in as much detail as you like – but I’d be very wary of tweeting someone else’s poster.

I know of two objections to tweeting posters, and while I don’t agree with them I can see why people object.

1. The Inglefinger rule

The Inglefinger rule is a rule from the New England Journal of Medicine that they would not publish something that had already been published elsewhere. It’s adopted by more or less any journal now. The reason it matters is that some editors might consider a tweeted poster as prior publication.

I don’t think this should be an objection. Posters are much less prior publication on something like bioRxiv. I also have a feeling that if your poster is pretty much the same as the paper that was going to be published then there’s something seriously wrong with the paper and the journal it was going to appear in. BUT this is just my opinion and I don’t run the Obstreperous Botanical Journal, and if that’s where you want to publish it’s their opinion that counts, not mine.

Pat Heslop-Harrison adds: I did have a challenge from a poster author, to a paper we published in Annals c. 4 years ago where the author was not associated with a poster they saw at a meeting, and then published a paper in Annals where they cited the poster. I looked carefully at the poster and paper and decided the paper publication was perfectly acceptable: the paper author had done something novel based on what they had learnt from the poster presented at a public meeting, and properly acknowledged/referenced that work. It was unfortunate that the poster presenter had not published their work in the couple of years from the poster. The paper author couldn’t unsee what they had seen in the poster which made sense for their work, and was honest in saying the source. (I’ve only once had the real challenge of ‘unseeing’ somebodies grant application with a very obvious concept once you’d read it, but there the idea was published very quickly.)

2. Scooping

I am sympathetic to this. For some people widely publicising their work does mean there’s a risk they’ll be scooped. I also know some people who’ve used illustrations they don’t have permissions for on their posters. How would you explain to someone who has put sensitive material on their poster that they should think what a public meeting is, without sounding snarky?

In the case of IBC 2017, there were around 7000 botanists there. If they see your poster, and presumably you’ve put a poster up because you want people to see it, then they all could take information from the poster. In addition, the app has electronic versions of the posters. I was able to see copies of the posters from over six thousand miles away. Anyone immoral who wanted to browse the posters at Shenzhen could. So what’s the defence against misuse?

I don’t think there’s a lot, but one help would be if you could establish you were working on the same problem first. Tweets of your work from a conference become a quick reference to a date terminus ante quem you were working on the issue.

Despite that, I still wouldn’t say that flatly justifies tweeting posters because people do make mistakes. They forget to check copyright permissions or if they made sure nothing was on the poster that shouldn’t be. If I like someone’s work then I don’t want to accidentally make their life more difficult.

Pat Heslop-Harrison adds: With respect to reporting posters and talks, I think the acknowledgement / anti-plagiarism / referencing rules and sanctions, as well as discovery / finding methods, are notably stronger than a decade ago. As at IBC, posters, abstracts and very often slides from conferences, are available globally (the same goes for theses, now on most University websites), so can actually be referenced as publications, even if not refereed and, often but not always, without a DOI.

What to do?

One solution is to make clear, briefly, at the start of a talk or somewhere on a poster, that you’re very happy for people to photograph your slides or posters. It might even prompt people into getting their phones out and helping publicise you and your work.

Otherwise, I can’t see any problem with tweeting text – it’s insanity to demand people don’t talk about your poster or presentation, but I’m not convinced that tweeting images is quite a norm enough yet without permissions. I think it often makes coverage of a conference better, but some scientists still need reminding that people are paying attention to them when they give a presentation. If you’re really not happy about something becoming publicly known, then you might want to reconsider presenting it to a room full of strangers.

If/when I do I tweet with unpermitted images from talks / posters from any of the conferences I’m going to later this year, then feel free to call me out on it.