Opinion: An Ethical Code for Conferences

This fundamental form of scientific communication is threatened by modern recording technology and researchers who refuse to adhere to an age-old ethical code. 

By Wolf B. Frommer | December 2, 2016


I recently attended several conferences and saw rampant recording of lectures and posters. Because my talk contained a lot of unpublished work, I asked the audience to refrain from taking pictures. But just five minutes into my talk, I saw multiple cell phones up recording my lecture. I repeated my request, and the people put their phones down. Ten minutes later, however, the very same people did it again. I asked once more, yet one person continued to record my slides.

Scientific conferences are meant to inform the attending audience about the newest results. No one wants to hear only published work; we attend meetings to get the absolute latest information that is coming out of labs. To be able to do that, an honor code exists that conference-goers cannot make use of data presented to advance their own work. While some have broken this code in the past, by and large it has been respected by the scientific community—until now. These days, with the use of new information technologies and social networks, this ethical principle is in serious jeopardy.

We must enforce this old honor code to encour­age the sharing of unpublished data and ensure that science can prog­ress effectively.

Modern digital camera technology produces such high-quality images that some people decide to take pictures of slides and posters, or even film entire lectures. This is much easier than scribbling notes, and the resulting files are simpler to show to friends or colleagues. Moreover, some tweeters have started to post pictures of speakers together with their unpublished data. This means that these data are published in the widest possible sense before they are published by the authors themselves. All of these activities can have a detrimental influence on scientific progress, as researchers will begin to refrain from showing their newest data at meetings. Eventually, scientists may choose not to go to conferences at all because they can expect to see talks only on research that is already published or in press.

I thus firmly believe that photographing posters, recording parts of talks, and posting other people’s data should be officially banned, and that people who break these ethical standards should be expelled. We must enforce this old honor code to encourage the sharing of unpublished data and ensure that science can progress effectively. Ideally, the scientific community would adopt a generally acceptable and enforceable ethical code for all conferences, make it part of every program, and announce these regulations at the beginning of every meeting, following the examples of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory symposia and Gordon Research Conferences.

Above all, this code should include the obvious rule that the knowledge you gain from unpublished work ought not be used to compete with the authors. Without adherence to such rules, scientific conferences—and the research they inspire—are at risk of being lost forever. 

Wolf B. Frommer is a staff member of the department of plant biology at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California.

Add a Comment

Avatar of: You



Sign In with your LabX Media Group Passport to leave a comment

Not a member? Register Now!

LabX Media Group Passport Logo


Avatar of: JonRichfield


Posts: 139

December 6, 2016

I have very rigid views on plagiarism and on unattributed mention of work, whether published or not, but to object to people recording what they legitimately hear and see, strikes me as both unrealistic and unreasonable. How does that differ from taking notes?

Why after all, is the author presenting material that he does not wish to have publicised? How does he expect to police or enforce or even justify refusal to the audience, forbidding them to record material which is the precise point of their presence?

I do deprecate most strongly any breach of prior commitment to confidentiality, whether within or outside scientific communities, whether of private or published work, whether of copyrighted or informally disclosed material, but it seems to me illogical to present material that the audience is not free to record in any hard-copy form, such as by taking notes or pictures. It would be equally logical to demand that they refrain from memorising what they see, hear, and think during the presentation. But in that case, what was the presentation for? Just an exercise in egotism?  One could achieve the desired confidentiality by refusal to mention anything till after publication.

I suggest that if this is a general complaint among presenters, then it should be, or they should make it, a requirement that every presentation be documented by at least a satisfactory abstract of the material that would be published at or before the conference, and that would be acceptable for citation for dated priority of precisely the published material (not of unpublished promises etc). But that is all. After all, what right would anyone have to object to someone else's publication of work that scoops his own output, on the grounds that he had made the same discoveries but not yet published? For  the audience to duplicate text or visuals would be subject to the same constraints of copyright as any other published material, and that is nothing new, and not subject any undertaking by the audience.

Sorry, but my sympathy is attenuated and contingent.

Avatar of: naturalist


Posts: 8

December 6, 2016

It disturbs me when scientists (of all people) complain about the impacts of modern technology.

Rather than objecting that the audience is using the best technology available to preserve one's pearls of wisdom, look for solutions to the copyright issue. 

And, since 'twas ever thus, here's a lighthearted echo from the past on plagairism of a more prosaic sort:





Avatar of: MichaelGreen


Posts: 1

December 7, 2016

Your salary and your grants are paid to advance science, not your career.  If you don't want others to know about your work, don't present it (but I think you are a bad scientist).  Why are you presenting information, if you don't want others to use it?  The whole point of a conference is to enable participants to go back to their labs and do better work.

Long-retired Grumpy Old Scientist

PS But always bend over backwards to attribute!

Avatar of: FDAMap.com


Posts: 1

December 9, 2016

Attendees should be allowed to record the talks in anyway they like. At any given conference, people attend several talks and it is impossible to remember all you heard. Many conferences already records the talks and make them available to the attendees after the conference as reference material for this reason. The authors complaint is not only unreasonable, it is impossible to enforce at a conference. What are the organizers expected to do, ask people to leave their phones, tablets, and other recording devices outside the room? As suggested by other commenters, the speakers choose what they can disclose publicly at their own discretion and shoud not expect unreasonable confidentiality once the information is made public at the conference. 

Popular Now

  1. RNA Moves a Memory From One Snail to Another
  2. Could a Dose of Sunshine Make You Smarter?
  3. Sweden Cancels Agreement With Elsevier Over Open Access
  4. Researchers Develop a Drug Against the Common Cold