Democratizing the Conversation for Greater Good: Social Media Usage at Academic Conferences

By Chris Morley, PhD, Ben Miller, PsyD,  and Mark Ryan, MD

Recently, there has been some discussion about whether the sharing of information presented during academic conferences via social media is appropriate, taking form in both peer-reviewed literature1–4 and in online blogs5 and social media, with a particular focus on Twitter.

Predictably, there are arguments presented against the sharing of material via social media that frequently center on the protection of copyrights, patents, intellectual property, or simply ideas-in-formation. Other arguments tend to fret over whether the sharing of a table, figure, or text, presented in a conference, may somehow represent prior publication that might interfere with the ability to later incorporate the same text into a formal journal publication. The crux of either argument tends to be that the presenter has shared information in one form, but that any sharing of that information beyond that context without the presenter’s express permission infringes upon intellectual property rights and/or future publication possibilities.

This antiquated view of information sharing is in need of disruption. Academia, of all, should learn a thing or two about the need to stay relevant in a day and age where people learn of their news from Twitter. It really puts things in perspective when one considers that most academicians wait 8–12 months (or longer!) for a peer-review process to be complete to allow them to share their findings. Conferences have long been one of the best ways to allow for academicians to share their findings with a broader audience while waiting on the laborious and lengthy peer-review process to complete.

However, should we take it as far as to tell people to not tweet what they hear or see at a conference?

Certainly, there are times and places where conference organizers may want to explicitly forbid tweeting. For example, one might conceptualize meetings where actual intellectual property or patented material is discussed, or perhaps small conferences, with small numbers of attendees, who expect to be able to speak openly among the group in attendance but not outside. Under these circumstances, it is not unreasonable that a conference may explicitly adopt a policy that protects both the intellectual property and the people from undue disclosure.

However, these circumstances generally do not apply to large conferences that have hashtags associated with them. In fact, a hashtag at a conference ought to be a clear signal that indicates the hosting organization encourages conference attendees to share as much as they can about what is heard, seen, or experienced while attending.

Furthermore, the good effects of sharing via social media often outweighs concerns about intellectual property protection and the old school mentality about information in general. These effects can include making new professional connections or sharing and discussing other resources that relate to the current discussion.

At a primary level, the typical tweet or other social media posting from a conference presentation is really only an extension of what already happens. For example:

  • Many conferences already publish abstracts and do so online. STFM and the broader “family” of family medicine organizations (NAPCRG, AFMRD, ADFM, AAFP, ABFM) all do so, to a great extent.
  • Many conferences make slides and handouts also available. In fact, STFM actively encourages such sharing, through the STFM Resource Library.
  • Conference attendees do all sorts of things when hearing a talk or visiting a poster—jot notes, take pictures, record audio, etc. Logically, are those activities disallowed as well, from the point of view of restricting social media sharing?
  • Indeed, social media may be conceptualized as merely an extension of activities such as note-taking and discussion.

Tweeting, or other social media sharing, is really just an extension of what we as academic conference presenters and attendees already do—we disseminate and receive knowledge.

To us, as practicing scholars and educators, if there is something we wish to protect, we typically do not display it to the world on a poster, talk about it to large public groups, submit it as a publically accessible abstract repository, or take other actions that encourage sharing beyond an intimate conversation. On the other hand, if we do engage any of those activities, it is precisely because we want to enact and encourage conversation about our ideas, methods, or findings with a larger audience.

Additionally, it is exceedingly rare that a journal might pause on publishing a paper because of a prior presentation at a conference. As others have noted,4 this is typically an excluded activity from the definition of prior publication. There are other acts of scholarly dissemination that also typically do not cause concern—for example, doctoral dissertations and some master’s theses are published by a dissertation publisher (like Proquest), but that is rarely regarded as prior publication by peer-reviewed journals. The concept that a poor-quality .jpg image of a slide, or a 140-character summation of a speaker’s point, would constitute prior publication or copyright infringement, where a publically visible abstract or a published dissertation does not, is logically absurd.

More importantly, thousands more people may benefit from the information shared on social media than just through traditional dissemination routes.

There is also the issue of democratization and scientific discourse. People go to conferences for all sorts of reasons, but if one goes in order to steal another’s idea or “scoop” their work, they will probably have a hard time being truly successful. Scholars go to conferences to hear about trends in the discipline, to have their own work receive feedback, to build buzz about projects in which they are involved, and to meet potential collaborators.

Social media enhances these goals. Outlets like Twitter serve to extend the conversation within the conference. It also allows those who are not at the conference to get a sense of what happens there, and those are people who often do not have funding or flexibility to go. In short, participating in a conference via social media allows those who are, often, less privileged within the academic context to be a part of the conversation, or at least to witness it.

There are theoretical concerns that allowing such sharing via social media might cause people not to come, not to pay the registration fee, etc. This is also absurd to us—nobody who can come to a conference and who wants to be there will say, “Ah, the heck with it, I can just stare at Twitter instead.” On the other hand, social media activity can make people hear about and want to attend a conference they may not have considered attending previously, and it may open the conversation to those who are not empowered or financially able to attend.

Finally, allowing social media at STFM (and by extension, most other academic conferences) is exactly in line with every policy, intention, and action that our family of family medicine organizations implement: abstracts are searchable and accessible to the world, handout and slide sharing are encouraged through an organizationally supported resource that anyone in the world can get into, we like democratization and inclusiveness (generally), and we like to promote the conferences, organizations, and messages associated with family medicine and primary care.

If sharing conference insights via social media ever becomes a real concern, then enacting policies that ensure attendees (and especially presenters) know that the conferences they attend are “open” to social media (Twitter or otherwise)—and make this an explicit message—seems the logical course. For example, ensuring that conference presenters know that something not intended to be shared publically beyond the conference, should not be included it in presentations, would be a wise course of action. Alternatively or in addition, the presenter could indicate on the disclosure slide whether or not it is OK to share the presentation on social media.

Regardless of how social media access or disclosure is handled, we have submitted this blog post to state a position—firmly, and ahead of any potential future discussion—that allowing attendees to post information from STFM conferences is not only acceptable but actually beneficial in many ways.

Isn’t it time we got over the fear of sharing information? Isn’t it time we try and share our learnings with as many people as possible? #Tweeton.

  1. Mishori R, Levy B, Donvan B. Twitter use at a family medicine conference: analyzing #STFM13. Fam Med 2014;46(8):608-14.
  2. McHeyzer-Williams LJ, McHeyzer-Williams MG. Our year on Twitter: Science in #SocialMedia. Trends Immunol 2016;37(4):260-5. doi:10.1016/
  3. Avery-Gomm S, Hammer S, Humphries G. The age of the Twitter conference. Science 2016;352(6292):1404-5.
  4. Groves T. Tweeting and rule breaking at conferences. BMJ 2016;353(14):i3556. doi:10.1136/bmj.i3556.
  5. Tennant J. Let’s have a discussion about live-tweeting academic conferences. EGU Blogs. Published 2014. Accessed July 14, 2016.

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