I’ve said a lot of inappropriate things at conferences. At one, I dropped the f-bomb. At another, I even threw a chair. Most of these events–thankfully–took place a long time ago, before video recording speaker presentations was considered normal and routine. Personally, I cringe just thinking about these gaffes, but I take some solace knowing that they are not archived somewhere on the web for posterity’s sake. Most likely, they have been long forgotten by those in attendance, with the exception of the chair-throwing, of which I still get reminded on a regular basis. No one quite remembers why I did it, and the versions I hear are typically so embellished, they sound more like the Geraldo Rivera brawl than a scholarly conference.
Videos from the 2014 STM-Spring Conference were posted recently allowing me to revisit a very memorable talk by Science journalist, John Bohannon. Perhaps “memorable” is not the correct word, because, after several months, I couldn’t recall exactly what John said that upset the audience, only that many attendees were quite offended by his tone and tact.
His talk begins with with an opening line that sets himself off from his audience:
I expected to be sued by some or all of you, and it’s quite a surprise to be invited to speak to you.
The next seventeen or so minutes of the talk outlined his infamous sting of fraudulent open access publishers, in which he documents widespread deception among scientific journals promising rigorous peer review and publication services. None of this goes beyond his paper or the strident reaction he received.
The part of Bohannon’s presentation that caused the most commotion came from the last two-minutes of the talk when he began editorializing extemporaneously about the publishing industry. As someone who isn’t even a publisher, these few words put me on the edge of my chair, and I clearly remember wishing that he’d simply sit down and save himself. Beginning at 17:40:
I think you know that your industry, in the eyes of scientists, is absolutely corrupted. It seems to now hold science itself in contempt often–not just do a poor job but actually hold your stated mission of being in the service of knowledge and stewardship of science in contempt–openly in contempt! Those who pay attention, that is, most are dimly aware and don’t care. But the people who do care—and you’ve heard their voices—are just furious.
He continues by lambasting the audience for being part of the problem:
My sting is nothing. That reputation [of sham publishers] had been established solidly before I got into this. And it’s not just, you know, these guys in India and Nigeria trying to make a buck. It’s the big dogs. You guys know exactly who you are. You know what’s going on.
And then implying that publishers have willfully disregarded their ethical responsibilities over profits:
And my theory is that academic publishing has drifted so far from its original idealistic roots with scientists taking care of the whole last step in the scientific process, from experiment to sharing the news about it, [that] in this world of the Internet and expensive publishing processes, basically a cottage industry grew up that has now grown into a massive multi-billion dollar industry that has become estranged from the ideals, that were probably naïve to begin with. But you can be idealistic and do a good job and make a profit. That is not mutually exclusive.
Bohannon concludes the talk by presenting himself (and Ivan Oransky from Retraction Watch) as ethically-bound journalists, willing to go to jail to protect the names of industry whisle-blowers.
In the question session, John received a rebuke from Fred Dylla (AIP) who was clearly offended. Chatter at the reception returned again and again to Bohannon, recounting the session and its aftermath: “I can’t believe he said that!” “Did he say that?” “No, I don’t believe he said that, exactly.” “I really don’t remember.”
Just hours after the talk, few of us could remember exactly what John said, only that he said some offensive things. In the retelling of the event, the narratives began to evolve and multiply, and in that cloud of ambiguity and missing pieces, our minds filled in the blanks.
I was able to return to Bohannon’s talk because it was recorded. I didn’t have to rely on my faulty memory. In reviewing his talk; however, I’m less offended than I thought I was. John is poised, fearless, well-spoken. Yes, he goes over the edge, but you want some of that in a speaker, and no, he didn’t throw a chair. In this case, a fixed recording of his talk was a benefit–for me, at least; Bohannon may feel otherwise–as I could return to the Version of Record rather than relying on secondary sources (colleagues) or my own recollection of events.
Conference organizers like to think that they are doing non-participants a favor when they record and post their talks. However, as a speaker, I find myself reading my talks these days rather than delivering them extemporaneously. I’m prone to veering off-topic and making snide remarks. On occasion, I can be downright offensive. So, when I see that camera pointed at me, my head goes down and I start reading, which is my defensive posture–a safe mode designed to minimize risks.
But why travel to a conference, pay registration and lodging expenses, if you’re going to watch someone read? Why spend several days of your week, away from work and family, if you can watch the video or follow tweets from audience members, some of whom are not even present in the room? As a presenter, why put up slides when you know people are taking pictures and posting them? For all the wonderful things that social media has offered us in the last few years, we have to acknowledge that they are really interfering with the in-person meeting.
Perhaps we should keep recording technologies out of the conference hall, and retain this space as the last bastion where people can speak openly, where novel claims can be made without fear that they will be tweeted, retweeted, and blogged in real-time, and where people have the freedom to take a little risk.
The Internet is insinuated into so many of our daily routines. It’s time to defend some communal space.