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Blog

Should cameras be banned at conference presentations?

By Jon Cartwright

Physicists used to be able to show preliminary results at conference presentations, safe in the knowledge that no-one would steal their data. Now, with the advent of the “physics paparazzi”, things have changed.

It started a few weeks back when, at a high-energy physics conference in Philadelphia, a member of the PAMELA team flashed a slide that depicted an excess of high-energy positrons in the ionosphere. Although several conference attendees suggested the positron excess could be evidence for dark matter — the elusive substance thought to make up some five-sixths of all matter in the universe — the team did not make the slide available to journalists or other scientists.

That, however, didn’t stop Marco Cirelli of CNRS in France and Alessandro Strumia of INFN in Italy. Those attendees managed to take a snapshot of the slide during its momentary disclosure and use the picture as the basis for an analysis which they published on the arXiv preprint server.

Piergiorgio Picozza, the principal investigator for PAMELA, is reluctant to pass judgement on Cirelli and Strumia. “It happened. We learnt. This is life!” he told me earlier today.

Others find it less easy to accept. Here’s what Andrew Jaffe wrote on the Leaves on the Line blog yesterday:

bq. [It] makes me very uncomfortable. It would be one thing to write a paper saying that recent presentations from the PAMELA team have hinted at an excess — that’s public knowledge. But a photograph of the slides sounds more like amateur spycraft than legitimate scientific data-sharing.

So, what do you think? Should cameras be banned at conference presentations?

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6 comments

  1. David Gaba

    While ubiquitous cameras may have made things easier, the real change is one of scientific culture. In the “old days” someone with an eidetic memory could have reconstructed the data plot from memory and done exactly the same thing. Ergo, frankly, I believe that if the team doesn’t want others to see the data early, just do not present it. If you are not willing to wait until the paper is published to disclose your data and claim some (fleeting?) glory for it, then you can expect others to write about what you have disclosed publicly. If that bothers you, just keep it quiet.

  2. Banning cameras is a totally impractical suggestion. Most mobile phones now have a camera built in. So this means banning mobile phones. But scientists will always want to be updated on everything, so they wont want to part with their phones. Even if they did, most mobile phones store a lot of data, who is going to look after the phones while they are in the conference room? Who is going to guarantee that no one is going to crack the phones and look at the received calls log to find out whether a colleague has secretly been relaying data to a competitors lab….etc.
    Peter Symmons

  3. Banning cameras is a totally impractical suggestion. Most mobile phones now have a camera built in. So this means banning mobile phones. But scientists will always want to be updated on everything, so they wont want to part with their phones. Even if they did, most mobile phones store a lot of data, who is going to look after the phones while they are in the conference room? Who is going to guarantee that no one is going to crack the phones and look at the received calls log to find out whether a colleague has secretly been relaying data to a competitors lab….etc.
    Peter Symmons

  4. Malcolm Fairbairn

    I think if PAMELA didn’t want their results to show up in a paper, they shouldn’t have put them up in the conference. We are talking here about the possible discovery of dark matter, the stakes could not be higher and it was simply inevitable that this was going to happen. PAMELA seem to worry too much about where they present their results and which journal they end up in to the point where they make strange decisions about canceling seminars which make people who do not know the ability of people withing the group question the accuracy of their results. (as I have witnessed)

  5. Johan Bergquist

    We had this discussion in the organising committee of a conference in Japan and I suggested that the speakers simply share the slides together with the proceedings manuscripts on the CDROM, hence eliminating the need to bring a camera. Some other committee members, however, thought that it’d then be more difficult to solicit or invite papers. Anyway, many speakers fine-tune the slides until the very last minute so the CDROM version won’t be the last version.

  6. Trackback: For Your Viewing Pleasure | Not Even Wrong

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