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Fisheries science meets scicomm: to tweet or not to tweet?

plos ecologyBy Jens Hegg

Originally posted on the PLOS Ecology Field Reports on August 26, 2015.

The last hours of a professional meeting always give me the chance to reflect on what I’ve learned, who I’ve met, and the scientific possibilities various talks have set percolating in my subconscious. Today is no different as the coffee carts are being wheeled away from the 145th national meeting of the American Fisheries Society (AFS) held this week in Portland, Oregon.

For me this meeting was special; the flood of friends larger, the talks more numerous, and the ideas generated by these scientific interactions seemingly more concrete and impactful. While I don’t know the final attendance numbers this must be one of the largest AFS meetings on record with a reported 3,000 attendees from a wide range of disciplines across the fisheries sciences.

Symposium topics ran the gamut, from the highly integrative and cross-disciplinary “Ecosystem Models in the Real World” to the species specific“Ecology and Reproductive Biology of Hagfish.” There was plenty of meaty discussion of ecological issues for those of us interested in fish ecology, with numerous sessions dedicated to ecology of specific species from Red Snapper to Sturgeon and, this being the Pacific Northwest, numerous discussions of salmonid life-history and ecology. For those interested in life history, phenotypic plasticity and population ecology the symposium “The Plastic Portfolio Effect: Managing the Life History Composition of Populations”was standing room only for much of its run. Several symposia dealt with broad ecological questions, including the thought provoking symposia“Multispecies Modeling (Including Humans!) for Fisheries Management: Where Are We Now and Where Can We Go?”

National meetings rarely attract international followings, yet AFS 2015 included several symposia on fisheries in other countries that attracted many researchers from those countries, including a full day of talks in each session “Rehabilitating Native Fish Populations in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin: Integrating Research, Management and Community Advocacy” and“Sustaining Diverse Fisheries in the Mekong Basin.”

Emergence of Fisheries scicomm

In the context of this broad array of talks I hesitate to identify any single thread running through the meeting. Still, one that constantly re-appeared for me was the increasing prominence of science communication and its creative integration at all levels of fisheries science.

It was formally highlighted at an excellent symposium, “Science Communication: Lessons Learned, Best Practices and the Future” and a well stocked 1st annual Fish Film Festival, containing over 60 entries spanning the practical to the hilarious. There was even an appearance of the YouTube sensation “salmon cannon”from Whoosh! Innovations that was as popular with attendees as it has been with the general public.

Within the Communicating Science symposium I was particularly struck by the work of Natalie Sopinka, writer and poet behind the endlessly fascinating Phish Doc blog. Natalie mixes poetry with arresting images and concise but excellent information about species and ecological communities that catch her fancy . Her haiku on the nuptial tubercles of Creek Chub is a great example. Each post begins with a poem, photo and inspiration, followed by an entertainingly written Facts section.

Natalie Sopinka Phish Doc

his granular crown

powers present, yet eclipsed

fades with summer

Inspiration Chub (Family Cyprinidae)

Facts It’s a Friday morning and your 16 year-old self has awoken with a beaming grin — tonight is your first date. With a sprightly skip in your step you start your day. En route to the kitchen you pass the hallway mirror. You abruptly halt all motion. Out of the corner of your eye a shadow rises from your face. You cautiously turn your head toward the mirror. Your stomach instantly begins to writhe — there is a large, angry, pimple on your forehead. Naturally, at 16 this meant disaster.

For some species of fish, bumps on your face are all the rage for first dates. Take for example, freshwater chub of North America.

During the spawning season, male chub guarding nests are known to develop prickly bumps, or nuptial tubercles, on their heads. The structures are made of keratin, the same material your finger and toe nails are made of. Different species can be identified depending on the number, size and pattern of tubercles on their head…

Excerpt from the Phish Doc BLOG by Natalie Sopinka

Ellen Hamann, international field researcher and the writer behindEllen at Large (and, full disclosure, a former labmate) gave an entertaining talk on her fisheries outreach work at local aquariums. Her conclusion; “People will put their heads in anything!”

From the Fisheries blog: by Patrick Cooney

The folks behind the Fisheries Blog, creators of the titillating story “Finding Nemo Lied to Your Kids” that exploded in the popular media in 2013, shared their knowledge and experience of getting and maintaining readership online.

Digital dilemmas: Confusions over live-tweeting ethics and etiquette carry over from #ESA100

Technology has caught up with Fisheries in that there were no paper programs (unless you were willing to pay). Instead, AFS 2015 invested in creating one of the more useable mobile apps I’ve seen. Meeting apps aren’t new, but in my experience they have been largely unusable at past meetings. It wasn’t perfect, but I was able to use the app to create a basic schedule of my day and to interact with colleagues in pictures and a scrolling social media feed that was popular with attendees.

This feed was well integrated with Twitter, allowing hash tags such as #AFS2015 and #AFS145 to spread the word about good talks and new insights to other attendees or the world. The app included a leaderboard that compiled the top posters, creating a bit of friendly competition to keep posting. Yours truly ended up at #11 behind such fisheries social media luminaries as Jeremiah Osborne-Gowey (@JeremiahOsGo on Twitter), the writer of “Developing Communication Policies That Work” in the AFS journal Fisheries, and the entertaining and frenetic Dr. Solomon David (@SolomonRDavid).

This immersion in scicomm and social media included an extremely interesting ethical discussion surrounding live-tweeting of scientific talks at last week’s ESA 100 meeting as laid out in Wednesday’s Nature|Research Highlights article. Science communication is blazing forward, nowhere more visibly than at national meetings such as ESA and AFS, but the field is still grappling with some of the questions it creates.

For many at the meeting in Portland, including myself, the idea that live-tweeting was an ethical dilemma had never crossed out minds. The Nature|Research Highlights article didn’t come to our attention until Thursday, and AFS doesn’t have a live-tweeting policy, but there was a fair amount of head shaking and questions from attendees as the conference was wrapping up, and afterwards on Twitter.

The conference organizers seemed content to further the discussion generated by the ESA policy and the article, but AFS doesn’t have any policy on live tweeting during conference presentations.

As someone who has had others attempt to “scoop” my work based on preliminary data and ideas presented at conferences I can understand the fear behind policies that limit live tweeting of talks. Still, I am an advocate of openness in science and I think the risks outweigh the rewards when it comes to restricting live-tweeting, photos or blogging of talks. The vast majority of talks are not presenting sensitive data, or preliminary data, and often are interesting enough that the wider world should be able to read the most fascinating 140 character snippets the talk can generate. But, I think any scientist would understand if the presenter asked ahead of time for the talk to remain within the room, especially if they explained the reasoning behind their decision.

This paper in PLOS Computational Biology by Ekins and Perlstien highlights ten great rules for live tweeting at conferences. Their suggestion to keep it positive (no skarkiness, grandstanding or harassment) and to differentiate your own opinion from that of the speaker are great ethical tips. I think it would be worthwhile to add that live-tweeting should be the default, but to always respect the wishes of the presenter.

Sitting here with my cup of Portland roasted Stumptown coffee I have to say that this yearly migration of fish biologists was well worth the trip. AFS 2015 had everything that a great meeting should have; great networking, an inviting location, and especially a deep and thorough program on current scientific topics that can spur the creativity of scientists like you and me. I’ll strongly consider making the same migration to AFS 2016 in Kansas City.

Jens Hegg is a PhD candidate in the Water Resources program at the University of Idaho, focusing on the ecology of migration. His research spans multiple fields including the role of phenotypic plasticity and environment in juvenile salmon migration decisions, migratory ecology of tropical catfish, geologic prediction of strontium isotopes as an aquatic tracer, and interdisciplinary work in data sonification and virtual reality as a tool for data analysis and scientific communication. More about him can be found on his blog A Fish In School. Twitter @AFishInSchool

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Fisheries science meets scicomm: to tweet or not to tweet? by Jens Hegg

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