Thursday, 22 August 2013

Conference etiquette - Don't mention the ----!

Conferences are all about communication. But what can and cannot be communicated at a conference, or rather what should and should not?

Probably top of the list of "should not" is to use inappropriate examples or images to liven up proceedings. Recently I attended the 6th Joint Sheffield Conference on Chemoinformatics (more here at NM) and saw red when a speaker talking about ways to rank docking programs decided to use contestants in Miss World as an illustrative example, complete with pictures, references to "lovely girls" and "let's just treat them as objects". I noticed someone got up and walked out at this point.

In other fields such as technology, some conferences have found it necessary to develop a Code of Conduct to spell out appropriate behaviour for people who need it spelled out; e.g. here's an excerpt from PyCon's:
All communication should be appropriate for a professional audience including people of many different backgrounds. Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks.

Be kind to others. Do not insult or put down other attendees. Behave professionally. Remember that harassment and sexist, racist, or exclusionary jokes are not appropriate for PyCon.

Attendees violating these rules may be asked to leave the conference without a refund at the sole discretion of the conference organizers.
Meanwhile over in Vermont, the Gordon Research Conference on CADD was talking place at the same time. This particular meeting had a focus on the use or abuse of statistics with a goal to improve the situation. The thing is, GRCs are subject to the Chatham House Rule. Before I checked the Wikipedia link I thought that this meant that everything discussed at such a meeting is confidential, and I think this is the common understanding (see for example Peter Kenny's reference to this over at his blog). However, apparently it simply means that the discussions must not be attributed to anyone. Either way, probably more people misunderstand the Rule (like me) than understand it.

I understand that this may be out of the control of the organisers, but it seems to me that this rule holds back the communication of the information to a wider audience: can you tweet the talks? can you post the slides? can write a blog post about the conference? can you even mention it to co-workers at coffee? Do people really present controversial work that needs protecting by the Rule?

I guess what I'm really asking is, could everyone just follow Craig Bruce and Peter Kenny's lead and post their slides on Lanyard already? (Just don't mention the Rule) :-)


Frank Oellien said...

Noel, your blog entry reminds me on my PhD time in Erlangen :-)
It was the time when our supervisor (I will not name names) introduced the "Molecules are like Humans" presentation area. I have only found 2 presentation links (one actually from a Gordon conference) that have to be understand as diffused versions of the original one:

The original presentation did not show the muscle man as metaphor for 3D shape but a centerfold girl from a Penthouse magazine.

In Europe this presentation was well received by the audience, but unfortunately he also went to an ACS meeting...You might suggest the shocked faces of US people seeing a naked women in a presentation?

Noel O'Boyle said...

I am aghast (sorry, couldn't resist!).

Craig Bruce said...

what rule? ;)

Andrew Dalke said...

I was very annoyed with that Sheffield conference speaker, and I complained to one of the organizers about it.

Not only were the multiple pages of beauty pageant pictures inappropriate, and the images existence added nothing to the presentation, but as it turns out, beauty pageants do not combine multiple order rankings to establish a winner.

Me being me, I researched the topic before sending my complaint.

In Miss Universe, "each judge ranks each of the final three/five candidates, with the contestant posting the lowest cumulative score (thus often, but not necessarily always, the contestant with the most number one votes) becoming the winner." [Wikipedia:Miss_Universe].

In Miss World, the criteria seems to change every year. [] The Miss World Singapore criteria, at bares no resemblance to the speaker's example sub-rankings.

I could not find judging information for the actual Miss International competition, but I could for Miss International US. It uses a weighting scheme of the different categories, and those categories are similar to Miss World Singapore.

Since the speaker's example appears artificial, it's easy to conclude that the example was made primarily to include pictures of beauty pageant competitors, and not to improve scientific communication.

However, my primary objection is that the choice of pictures and use of language were inappropriate, not that the implied real-world example wasn't valid. Had the speaker, for example, used a made-up scoring system for the decathlon, and asserted that the winner was based on a merger of rank orders rather than the point system it actually uses, then I would have been annoyed, and not 'very annoyed.'