Online Science Communication – A Comparison

After making a comment on twitter yesterday during science online London 2009:

interesting in general to note differences between #solo09 and North Carolina back in January

I was asked to expand on this and perhaps explain the differences that I noticed.  Firstly a disclaimer, it is quite difficult to compare a one day conference (as I experienced solo09) with a multiple day conference (as I experienced scio09).  There is more thinking time and a greater variety of events and interactions over a few days than can possible happen in one day, particularly when you travel there and back in the same day.

Obvious initial differences – how the conferences were constructed.  Scio09 followed the unconference format to a point – no sessions were set up at the start of the conference, rather arranged in advance through the wiki.  Every session at scio09 was a parallel session with 4 options per timeslot.   Also, speakers/moderators/panels were encouraged mainly to introduce their topic then guide discussion.  Solo09 was a fixed program, people did contribute suggestions, but speakers were selected by the organizers and there were only 2 parallel sessions.  Also the speakers generally used up all of the session time to present which limited possible discussion time.

I felt that the solo09 program was too fixed and rigid, and placed more emphasis on getting ‘prestigious’ people to come and talk, rather than sourcing ideas, discussion and debate from the audience.  While I agree that I missed out on many things at scio09 because of the parallel session structure, I never sat through any sessions that I felt were not extremely interesting and relevant to me.  There were a couple of sessions yesterday that were too specialised and relating to topics that I have no real interest in (for example the whole journal metrics thing – I’m sure it is very interesting to those that care for and understand such things, but to me as a potential author, I’m going to publish in the place that my peers and seniors will recognize as the most prestigious place.  Yes, my work will be judged initially by the merits of the journal, but that is the system we’ve got for now and I have to play the system, not speculate in futures).

I think there are cultural issues at work as well.  Are Europeans more reluctant to get into heated debate, either in person or through the back channels of twitter or friendfeed?  Or was the structure of solo09 just too restrictive to inspire really good debate.  I came away from solo09, grateful that I’d attended, but without any real buzz in my head of ideas and possibilities and potential posts to write.  To me these conferences are about ideas and opinions, not the prestige and authority of the speakers. The one way transmission of information style of presenting really doesn’t generate ideas or inspiration.  It certainly didn’t inspire much debate.

That being said, there were a couple of exceptional sessions at solo09, ones that couldn’t have been done in the less formal discussion style of scio09.  The legal and ethical aspects of blogging was one such session which was simply brilliant.  It was a topic where one way transmission of information was entirely appropriate.  I think scio09 shouldn’t be afraid of scheduling a few sessions like that, where facts and legal technicalities (and the like) are permitted over opinion and debate.  I also found the GoogleWave session very interesting, again not a topic that could easily have been done as just discussion, but also one of the sessions with the most participation from the audience.

Both styles of conference have their advantages and disadvantages, and I can appreciate that the organisers find a more fixed, controlled program with presentations less stressful.  On the other hand, a prearranged unconference style seems like an ideal compromise, as long as you are willing to trust the presenters to show up.  As I’ve now been to three conferences (the two mentioned here and London last year), I expect more discussion and debate, more ideas.  Solo09 seemed to be attended by a peculiar mix of people, some of whom I suspect were there because work needed a representative, rather than because they were really passionate about the topics under discussion.   I have enjoyed all three conferences, and look forward to attending more in the future.

Update: More information on the organization of scio09 available here at BoraZ’s place, Martin Fenner has a good take on the organization of solo09 available here.

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