Volume 87 Issue 9 | p. 41
Issue Date: March 2, 2009

Camera Shy

ACS cracks down on unauthorized photography at meetings
Department: Science & Technology
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Credit: Shutterstock

IT USED TO BE that only celebrities had to worry about guerilla photographers catching them on film at an unexpected moment. Increasingly, unsuspecting speakers at scientific meetings have been besieged by a new breed of presentation paparazzi. If you've attended a conference recently, chances are good you've seen these folks snapping photos of slides while you furiously scribble at least some of the same information in a notebook.

Recording conference proceedings has never been easier now that nearly every cellular phone is equipped with a digital camera and high-quality digital photography and video equipment have become relatively inexpensive and small enough to slip into a pocket. But shutterbugs should take note: Photographing slides and posters at the upcoming American Chemical Society national meeting in Salt Lake City could get their cameras confiscated.

ACS has a long-standing policy prohibiting recording devices at its meetings: "Recording meeting events through audiovisual or photographic methods is prohibited at all official ACS events without the written consent of ACS. The use of cameras is not permitted during technical sessions. Attendees or exhibitors may photograph their own activity, but permission must be obtained from all involved parties before photographs can be taken of other people or displays at the meeting or in the exposition."

Whether meeting attendees are unaware of the rule or simply choose to disregard it, the paparazzi problem seems to have worsened in recent years, according to Willem R. Leenstra, chair of ACS's Meetings & Expositions Committee and a chemistry professor at the University of Vermont. Complaints about unauthorized snapshots of slides were on the rise at the last two national meetings in New Orleans and Philadelphia, he says. In Philadelphia, one session chair had to stop a presentation to ask an audience member to stop taking pictures. The Meetings & Exposition Committee plans to crack down on these unauthorized photo ops in Salt Lake City next month.

Outside every session room, a sign will be posted stating, "No picture-taking is allowed. Failure to comply could result in the confiscation of camera or picture phone." Furthermore, Leenstra says, "in their informational packet, session chairs will be asked to make an announcement to that effect at the start of each session. They also will be provided with the phone number of the ACS Operations Office at the location where their particular session is being conducted in case the chair needs assistance in making offenders comply."

Conference photography policies vary widely depending upon the hosting organization. Some have no restrictions whatsoever, whereas others, such as the Gordon Research Conferences, insist that all attendees treat any information presented as private. Leenstra notes that ACS's policy falls somewhere between these extremes. He says it's not unheard of for scientists to reference their colleagues' presentations at ACS meetings, but it's usually derived from information that's available in the abstracts. "I think that the scientific community would like the original authors to have the privilege of reporting their results first," he explains.

THE DIFFERENCE between taking notes and taking photographs, Leenstra believes, is in the details. "Once you start getting into a lot of the data, it really belongs to the primary authors, and it is their right to be the first ones to put it into print," he says.

Because online publication has given scientists the ability to publish quickly, there's little to prevent scientists from photographing their colleagues' preliminary data at a scientific meeting and then referencing the work in a publication before the primary author has published it. Just ask Piergiorgio Picozza, a physics professor at the University of Rome, Tor Vergata.

Picozza, who is the principal investigator of the European satellite mission Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration (Pamela), was surprised to see data his group presented last August at the Identification of Dark Matter meeting, in Stockholm, appear in colleagues' publications just weeks after the meeting. The scientists who published the data told Nature (DOI: 10.1038/455007a) that they had their digital cameras ready for the presentation.

"In general, if you present your data at some conference and you do not release them on the conference website, these data must be considered confidential for several reasons," Picozza tells C&EN. "The data are not final. You may wish to have some suggestions or criticisms from the audience before officially releasing or publishing the data. However, I admit that this is only an unofficial gentleman's agreement. Unreleased data are very, very preliminary, and their interpretation could not have a solid base and could spread wrong results," he adds.

Joakim Edsjö, a physics professor at Sweden's Stockholm University and the head of the organizing committee of the dark matter meeting, said there was no prohibition of photography at the conference. Results from the Pamela talk had been highly anticipated, he adds. "It was thus expected that people would bring cameras to that presentation." Edsjö also notes, "In this particular case, the interesting slide was shown for so long, so even if cameras would not have been allowed, anyone in the audience could actually have made an accurate sketch of it instead of taking a picture."

Although Picozza was initially very upset about having his data incorporated in another publication, ultimately the situation smoothed out. His work has been accepted by a high-impact journal, and the paparazzi who snapped and published his data even spoke at Picozza's university recently. "However," Picozza adds, "we learned that it is better to present only data that can be released."

Of course, as Leenstra points out, the beauty of giving a talk at a meeting is that it's possible to present something that's brand new. One wonders whether data-hungry presentation paparazzi will prevent scientists from showing off their latest results. As far as ACS is concerned, Leenstra says, "we're going to be doing all we can to prevent all this from happening."

 
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