What does open communication mean to you?

I’m struggling with an issue. I can’t decide, or maybe I’m afraid to admit, if I’m being naive. Or perhaps so inexperienced, I’m blinded by imposter syndrome, the feeling that you really don’t belong in the group of experts you find yourself in. I’m hoping that by the time I get to the end of this post, I’ll at least have a better understanding of my confusion.

In a few months, there will be a Gordon Research Conference (GRC)  that I’d like to go to. It’s called Astronomy’s Discoveries and Physics Education. The theme is finding ways to use the latest discoveries in astronomy (and astronomy education, knowing the invited speakers) to motivate and enhance undergraduate physics education.

I haven’t been to that many conferences – maybe a dozen over my academic career, often by the same organizations. With my limited experience, there are 2 aspects of the GRC that are new to me.

1. Attendance by application and selection

You have to apply and then be accepted to attend. Not the usual,  accepted to present a paper or hang a poster, but accepted to be there. Kind of like TED talks, I hear. I guess that ensures that the people attending are motivated to be there and, more importantly, are sufficiently knowledgeable about the subject that they can make meaningful contributions to the conference.

2. All communication is treated as private.

This is the one that’s got me confused. By accepting the invitation to attend the GRC, you agree to their “Disclaiming Statements” which, because you can’t link directly to them, I’ll reproduce here:

To encourage open communication, each member of a Conference agrees that any information presented at a Gordon Research Conference or Gordon Research Seminar, whether in a formal talk, poster session, or discussion, is a private communication from the individual making the contribution and is presented with the restriction that such information is not for public use. Prior to quoting or publishing any such information presented at a Conference in any publication, written or electronic, written approval of the contributing member must first be obtained. The audio or video recording of lectures by any means, the photography of slide or poster material, and printed or electronic quotes from papers, presentations and discussion at a Conference without written consent of the contributing member is prohibited. Scientific publications are not to be prepared as emanating from the Conferences. Authors are requested to omit references to the Conferences in any publication, written or electronic. These restrictions apply to each member of a Conference and are intended to cover social networks, blogs, tweets or any other publication, distribution, communication or sharing of information presented or discussed at the Conference. Guests are not permitted to attend the Conference lectures and discussion sessions. Each member of a Conference acknowledges and agrees to these restrictions when registration is accepted and as a condition of being permitted to attend a Conference. Although Gordon Research Conference staff will take reasonable steps to enforce the restrictions against recording and photographing Conference presentations, each member of a Conference assumes sole responsibility for the protection and preservation of any intellectual property rights in such member’s contributions to a Conference.

(Source: follow the Disclaiming Statements link on the right-side menu here.)

Buried in the middle of this statement is a restriction on communicating any information from the conference via “social networks, blogs, tweets or any other publication, distribution, communication or sharing of information.”

In other words, I will not be able to tweet from this conference. And that’s got me, well, disturbed.

It’s not that I’ll have to disconnect my iPhone from my hand and won’t be able to follow what @RealSomeFamousPerson had for #theirmeal. Fine, whatever. I can catch up with my followers and those I follow on Twitter each morning at breakfast or evening at the pub.

Rather, it’s that as I’ve attend more conference and benefited from people I follow who share their conference experiences, I’ve learned of 2 remarkable ways that Twitter enhances my conference experience and my professional development:

  1. Twitter creates a forum for people at the conference to share ideas and reactions to the speakers. This “back channel” connects people around the room and in different parallel sessions.
  2. Twitter invites the outside community, the people not at the conference, to be a part of what’s happening there. In fact, and this is the heart of my confusion with the GRC policy, I benefit so much from following colleagues who tweet and blog their conference experiences, I feel an obligation to share the inspiration, ideas and resources that I am privileged to gather in person.

I posed this dilemma on Twitter and received replies from John Burk (@occam98), Chris Goedde (@chrisgoedde), Brian Utter (@quantumtweep), Phillip Cook (@cookp) and Joss Ives (@jossives) that helped me begin to understand the policy. Both Chris and Joss suggested that policy allows people to speak more freely and more easily share their latest ideas and results, without the fear of being scooped. I think that’s what the opening line of the Disclaiming Statement is all about: “To encourage open communication…” I get that, especially if the GRC about breaking research, which many GRC’s are. If you’ve on the verge of discovering a better way to assay your samples or process your data or distill your protein, and want feedback from your peers, then you want to keep that communication private. Phillip suggests this is pretty common with pre-published research.

I’m having a hard time applying this model to education. I suppose I’ll come away from the conference a better science education practitioner, which should cascade to my colleagues and their students. But I don’t feel like I’m doing this for me. I don’t have that killer instinct that might be necessary for academics (see “imposter syndrome”.) In my heart, I do what I do for the students (see “naive”.) Obviously I’m benefiting from this job and salary and perks (like attending conferences) but I continually filter my activities through, “Who will benefit from this?” If the answer isn’t students or their instructors, I think twice. In my mind, I can think of no better way to pique the interest and boost the enthusiasm of science educators than to share the latest discoveries, approaches and practices from the experts in the field.

Hmm, all this writing has helped. I won’t not go to the GRC because of this policy. A colleague who has an important presentation at this GRC has offered to introduce me to the organizer, Charlie Holbrow, so we can talk about the origin of the policy and the breadth of the restrictions it imposes. In the end, perhaps I’ll just have to turn off my phone. But that doesn’t seem like “encouraging open communication” to me.

Have you attended a GRC? Maybe these restrictions are relaxed or ignored. What about other professional events where communication with the outside world is restricted – what have you done before, during or after those? Drop a comment below if you have any thoughts, thanks.

Image: Communications Artwork by thomasfrank09 on flickr CC

About Peter Newbury

Find me on Twitter @polarisdotca

This entry was posted in astro 101, communicating science, physics, research, social media, teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to What does open communication mean to you?

  1. genegeek says:

    I went to a Gordon Conference but it years ago so social media wasn’t in my toolkit. I had a HUGE case of impostor syndrome because it was mainly established scientists and I was the token young investigator. However, everyone was great and I learned so much. It was also so busy and stimulating that I don’t know if I could have done any live tweeting or blogging. I found being cut off from the outside world helped us concentrate on the conference.
    If you want to write about the conference after, I guess you could ask permission of the individuals?

    • The communication policy does allow for writing about the meeting with prior, written consent. I’m pondering contacting each presenter in the panel discussion I think will be of most interest to the astronomy education community, and getting each of their written permissions.

  2. The few conferences I’ve attended in the past few years have encouraged blogging and tweeting, because the conferences were about disseminating results. Different fields have different cultures, though, with biomedical fields being the most secretive and unwilling to let others in on what is going on. I think that is the culture the Gordon conferences are coming from. It is not really suited for education, though, so I’m really surprised at a Gordon conference focusing on education.

    • I look forward to the tweeting and blogging component of conferences I attend. The annual AAAS meeting just came through Vancouver and, according to John Timmer (@j_timmer), there were 13,400 tweets tagged with #AAASMtg! Again, I understand the desire for keeping pre-published results out of the public sphere but as you say, that’s not really suited for education. Makes me wonder, is there something we’re not doing in education research that we don’t feel the need to keep things to ourselves?

  3. Ian says:

    This doesn’t sound like “open communication” at all to me. It sounds more like an old boy’s club that wants to hold the keys to a better education. In fact, everything about it sounds counter to how good science and education should be.

  4. Joss Ives says:

    Peter,

    I attended the same GRC conference in 2010 as you will be attending and have attended a couple of conferences based on the GRC conference. They are a lot different than other conferences I have attended in that they are quite intimate, have a lot of purposeful unstructured time (for chatting with your fellow conference goers), and you eat in a common area. I encourage you to go there with the plan to embrace the model your first time. And then after you have experienced it, you can reflect on what role social media could have in that type of conference.

    Heck, you could even start your own conference (with the intimacy mashed with social media). The Foundations and Frontiers in Physics Education Research conference organizers (national and Puget Sound flavors) took the ideas of from the GRC that they liked and built their conference around that.

    I will be FFPERPS this summer and will be chatting with people about the idea of excluding social media in these blogging and tweeting times. It’s a very interesting topic.

    • Thanks, Joss, for the description of the GRC and what you felt when you were there. I really appreciate your suggestion to treat this as a different kind of conference and take full advantage of the environment they’ve created. And, I’ll take a healthy dose of “don’t knock it til you try it.”

  5. Robin says:

    I went to a GRC as a PhD student. It was by far the best conference I’ve ever been to. What Joss says is true, they are not like other conferences. More like an intense workshop. No competing sessions. Everyone spends more or less all of their time together. I met some of the biggest names in my field and got to know them as people in addition to scientists. I made some really solid connections (and got more than one “contact me when you start looking for Postdocs”).

    And despite the policy, I never felt terribly restricted by it. I came away with so many new ways to look at my own research that it was well worth it.

  6. Sam McKagan says:

    As an organizer of a conference with a similar policy (FFPERPS), and a huge fan of Gordon conferences, I want to speak up in defense of the policy. My understanding is that the intent of the Gordon Conference policy (and certainly our intent in copying it), is not to allow you to present stuff that might be “scooped,” but to allow you to present stuff that is speculative, controversial, and maybe a little out there. Stuff you’d say over beer (or in my case, in my private research blog), but not in a publication that you’d want quoted as your “professional opinion.” I think this has enormous potential to push the field forward, and ultimately, to improve things for students and instructors, by allowing people to share and discuss preliminary and cutting-edge work, and to work ideas out together before they’re fully formed, contributing to later work in ways that are hard to describe. At the last FFPER conference in Maine I saw this process in action very vividly. Unfortunately I can’t share the details, but I expect some fantastic publications inspired by that conference to appear in the coming years. I wouldn’t want every conference to have a policy like this, but I think it’s important to have a few conferences like this to help cook half-baked ideas into well-formed results that can then be more widely disseminated in publications and at other conferences where you are allowed to blog and tweet.

    Also, this policy was invented long before blogs and social networking (that bit was a later add-on), when there weren’t a lot of mechanisms (other than going out for beer after the conference) for informal discussion of preliminary research results. I think blogs and tweeting are starting to fill a role very similar to this type of conference on a much larger scale, and I think that’s awesome. Maybe when everyone has a research blog, we won’t need Gordon conferences anymore. In the meantime, I think they provide fantastic opportunities for people to share their preliminary ideas, many of whom would not share those ideas in any other format.

    • Thanks Sam (and Joss and Ian) for your insightful “defense” of the GRC and FFPERPS policy. The more people I talk to and comments I read, the less I, er, object to the policy. I’m unlikely to follow it I ever organize a conference but I can see that it has some strengths. And history — this is the way the GRC are run. You don’t have to attend but if you do, embrace the policy for what it has to offer.

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