Desk Guide for Covering Science, and academic conferences

By Grant Jacobs 21/11/2010

Introducing a booklet covering science journalism and academic conferences.

This week saw the release of the New Zealand Science Media Centre’s Desk Guide for Covering Science. Journalists and those interested in science writing should get to it!

It’s small, colourful booklet packed with tips. While targeted at New Zealand journalists, the general advice will apply to all.

Like all condensed presentations there is plenty that could be expanded upon if you had space.

I thought I’d use their publication as an excuse to write a little about academic conferences for those not familiar with scientific meetings, taking my cue from the seventh of the BBC’s Pallab Ghosh’s top ten tips for reporting on science stories quoted on page 27:

7. Unpublished is okay. Research doesn’t always have to be published for you to report on it. Research presented at scientific conferences won’t have gone through the rigorous checking processes it would have if it were published in a journal.

But, because the work is being presented in a public forum by reputable scientists, science journalists do report these stories. During national emergencies, leading scientists are called upon by government to carry out research to help tackle the problem. Because of the urgency of the situation, there’s no time to put the research through the normal checking process.

But we do report this research because it has been informally assessed by leading experts.

Scientific conferences are a fine place to learn of a story, but if it were me, I’d talk to the researcher before rushing off to distribute it to a wider audience. Most will be happy to help but a few might feel that their work isn’t ready for ‘prime time’, and that should be respected. But I’m sure that’s pretty obvious to most journalists.

So, what happens in a scientific conference anyway?

Ghosh’s tip presents three different settings actually: conventional scientific conferences primarily intended for other scientists and students; scientific conferences explicitly intended to address, say, an on-going public health event with a view to accelerating sharing what is known about the specific issues (which are more likely to have an explicit media component); and a media conference focused on a more immediate emergency such as an earthquake and intended explicitly to be direct-to-the-public.

Most scientists, and conference organisers view conventional scientific meetings as primarily aimed at their peers, rather than ’a public forum’ in the way that, say, a media conference is.

Scientific meetings are usually fairly informal sociable events. Those attending are mainly scientists or graduate students. Trade vendors are also invariably present![1] Scientists from other fields, or retired scientists, might ‘sit in’, to learn more on a topic that interests them. A few interested members of the public might do the same. (I’d be honest and say that most people would find the talks fairly hard going unless they had a fair bit of background on the general subject.)

They’re not cheap, either, especially if the fees come out of your own pocket.

Scientists attend to learn from each-other, discuss their work, and to catch up with colleagues. (For many, meetings are only opportunity they have to do so.) Some will be seeking employment and collaboration opportunities. There is also a social, community-building, element.

Usually there is some sort of opening mixer, typically associated with plenary lecture given by a prominent scientist. A Nobel laureate perhaps, perhaps someone whose recent work is particularly striking.

The main sessions are a series of lectures, organised into sessions following particular themes, selected by the organising committee.

Alongside these are poster sessions with work presented as a large poster, a short-form research paper of sorts, most often catering for student’s work or scientists who are not presenting their work as lectures.

Often the poster sessions are mixed with trade stalls from vendors selling instruments and kits. It’s common for these stalls to have various competitions and goodies. I’ve won damn-all from them over the years.

Some meetings distinguish a few public lectures–where the public (and media) are explicitly invited to attend–and the conference presentations, where the primary audience are anticipated to be other scientists and students.

Most conferences have some trips or social activities outside of the talks and posters, opportunities to mix and take in local sights. At the meetings I have attended you pay a separate fee to attend the conference dinner or wine tour or whatever is on offer.

Conferences can be a single-day or anything up to a week. The number of people attending varies hugely. I prefer smaller meetings, more closely focused on a particular area of interest. Conferences with a wider range of topics are great for letting you know what’s happening in fields outside your own, but I get as much out of finding people with close interests and talking with them. It’s harder to meet people in larger events. (As a student, I particularly like the EMBO meetings or Gordon conferences, for those familiar with them.)


[1] The people that sell the fancy instrumentation and kits that scientists buy for their research. They aren’t usually attending the lectures, however.

Other articles on Code for life:

How long does it take you to write a science blog post?

For those interested in science writing or journalism

What aspects of biology need to be explained better?

What is your relationship with your research notebook?

To link or not to link: mainstream media and no links at all

Media thought: Ask what is known, not the expert’s opinion

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