Adapting to Scientific Meeting Climate Change

Presenting scientific research at a major – or even medium-sized – scientific meeting in 2015 is vastly different than it was even 10 years ago. As science and scientific discovery have evolved, so have the communication and connectivity within the scientific world and with the public.

With smartphones, YouTube, Twitter, virtual meetings, texting, media presence, and even easy access to cameras, the environment of scientific meetings and presenting in these forums has changed dramatically.

“We switched from having to prepare hard-disk slides and pack them into a suitcase to carry to the meeting, to a generation where many presenters probably put their slides together the night before – or even the morning of – their talk,” said Charles Mullighan, MBBS, MSc, MD, co-leader of the hematologic malignancies program at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

“In the last 10 years, people have had to adjust to knowing that they can step off the podium and have dozens of emails, texts, or Tweets discussing the results they just finished presenting,” said Ulyana Desiderio, PhD, director of scientific affairs at the American Society of Hematology (ASH).

In 2015, information presented at major medical meetings is often instantly public, and that immediacy has far-reaching implications for how presenters choose to share their information. ASH Clinical News recently spoke with several physicians active in the scientific meeting arena about this rapidly changing environment and how researchers, clinicians, and meeting organizers are working to adapt.

Preparing to Present

So, what has changed about presenting at a scientific meeting since 2005? Practically everything, according to Dr. Mullighan, who is also chair of the ASH Committee of Scientific Affairs – starting with how researchers prepare for a meeting.

Although this may sound like a step backward for shrewd and deliberate science, the increased use of technology has actually made presentations much richer, according to Dr. Mullighan. Now, researchers can include animation or videos in their slides to better illustrate concepts. Presentations have become contemporaneous, as well, with presenters able to update their data up to the last minute.

“In the past, what you presented at the meeting was very faithful to what was initially submitted in the abstract months before,” Dr. Mullighan said. “Now, presentations maintain the spirit of that abstract but, to keep up with the quick pace of science, the details of the data being presented may change.”

Michael J. Fisch, MD, medical director of the Medical Oncology Programs at AIM Specialty Health in Deerfield, Illinois, agreed that his methods of preparation have changed in the last decade. Ten or even five years ago, he would work with a statistician to prepare slides and rehearse his presentation in a team meeting to get feedback from his colleagues.

“Now I have a much broader network of people I can contact about specific points or float ideas by; I can Tweet a question to crowd-source information for my presentation,” said Dr. Fisch, who has been on Twitter since 2011 under the handle @fischmd. With more than 10,000 Tweets and more than 13,000 followers, he has a large presence and a large audience to consult with. “The people I know and my network of connections are vastly bigger than they used to be in 2005.”

On-Site Adjustments

A few years back, science was more of a slow wave, rather than a flash flood, Dr. Fisch explained. When attending large scientific meetings, he would have conflicted feelings about his obligations while there, like making time to prepare and present his own research posters and attending sessions that he thought might contain interesting new research. After the meeting, the most ground-breaking research would filter out over a period of months. If he missed an important presentation or paper, he might be able to catch up when it was published in a peer-reviewed journal or when a summary was published in a trade publication.

“Now, social media take good ideas and good content and allow them to be disseminated quickly,” Dr. Fisch said, noting technology as one of the major difference between the scientific meetings of 2005 and 2015.

In 2005, YouTube had only just launched, texting existed but was barely used, there was no Twitter, and the iPhone was still two years away. In 2015, it’s difficult to ignore the blue glow that smartphones and tablets cast over the audience’s faces during presentations, according to Dr. Fisch.

“When I have presented in recent years, I’ve noticed a certain number of people are looking at you, but others are checking their smartphones or typing on their devices, whether it’s taking notes or Tweeting,” Dr. Fisch said. “I’ve even heard some colleagues say, ‘The sound of the keyboard is the new applause.’”

“Twenty years ago, you would have to wait until the end of the meeting to discuss something that sparked your interest with your colleagues, and if you wanted to learn more about the topic or the speaker you would head to the library,” Dr. Desiderio said. “Now, while you’re sitting in the session, you can search for the presenter’s other published papers on your smartphone to get more information or context for the science being presented.”

Of course, all of this available technology also means that members of the audience have distractions at the tips of their fingers; presenters may have to work harder to keep the audience’s attention. “A good presenter and his or her mentor will spend time making their slides attractive,” Dr. Mullighan said. “Presenters have to keep things concise, punchy, and visually and intellectually attractive.” (For some tips on delivering a successful scientific presentation, read “The Do’s and Don’ts of Research Presentations” by Morie A. Gertz, MD, from our April issue.)

However, Dr. Mullighan added that inattentive audience members is not a new phenomenon; smartphones or not, presenters have always had to compete with people chatting, scarfing down their lunches, or even catching up on their sleep.

Dr. Desiderio agreed that attention-grabbing information is always the objective. “Clear, easy-to-read slides and an engaging speaker are always effective, but at the end of the day it has to be a well-thought-out scientific story that gets to a question that people want to hear an answer to,” she said. “When the ASH Program Committee develops the Scientific Program, the decisions always come down to having spectacular cutting-edge science that brings people in the room – and keeps them there.”

Adapting to Change

In addition to adapting to on-site changes at the meeting, today’s presenters have to adapt to the science they present being available for public consumption practically the second they step away from the podium. Years ago, many scientific meetings were viewed as closed scientific forums, Dr. Mullighan said, and the results presented there were considered confidential. Now, thanks in large part to social media, the science is out from behind those closed doors.

“Presenting research at a meeting is not a one-way road like it used to be,” said Irene Ghobrial, MD, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “When you give a presentation to convey findings or a message in 2015, it’s a two-way conversation.”

Many medical societies, including ASH, have worked diligently to adapt to this changing environment.

“Meetings used to prohibit photography; if organizers saw people taking pictures they would throw [those people] out,” Dr. Mullighan said. “Now, organizations recognize that it is impossible to regulate that behavior and, instead, are introducing new policies to make this practice less disruptive – such as asking people to not obstruct views or use flashes.”

To keep ahead of the changing times, ASH employs a Twitter hashtag each year and encourages both reporters and attendees to use it when discussing news coming out of the annual meeting (#ASH15), and the meeting badges now include a field to display attendees’ Twitter handles in addition to their names and institutions. This year’s annual meeting even features a Special-Interest Session on “Social Media for the Hematologist,” sponsored by the ASH Committee on Communications, in which panelists will discuss how to use Twitter as a tool for advancing science and improving patient outcomes.

The social media storm shows no signs of stopping, either. “For the most part, I think speakers generally understand that everything they put out can be shared immediately and they have adjusted to this climate,” Dr. Desiderio said. “There are very few meetings left where that is not the case.”

However, the accessibility of the data is a drawback for certain presenters. “Some people will be reluctant to present data at such meetings,” Dr. Mullighan said. “Whether real or not, the fear that their findings are going to be taken by other people makes them hesitant to present their best work that is not already in press with a journal.”

“Investigators may fear that their information will be disseminated and then become unpublishable,” Dr. Fisch agreed. “They present a slide, people take pictures and Tweet it, and then a journal claims that the information is already in the public domain and, therefore, they are not going to publish it.”

The Pros and Cons of Social Media

Although views about social media differ within the scientific community, Dr. Mullighan said that scientists and researchers should view engaging in social media as a win-win situation. Rather than being relegated to audience members’ notepads, their groundbreaking findings are immediately publicized on a large and international stage.

“Social media is here with us, and we have to work with it,” Dr. Mullighan said.

Presenters should try to embrace social media and use it to their advantage, agreed Dr. Fisch. For example, before he presents, Dr. Fisch said he often tries to create his own awareness or “buzz” about his presentation by giving his colleagues and followers a head’s-up about where and when he is presenting. “If the data are under embargo, I can’t tell them the exact contents, but I can get them primed to keep an eye out,” he said.

Keeping social media in mind can also help presenters to ensure that the point of the presentation is concise and obvious. Dr. Fisch said he often uses Twitter as a note-taking tool – the platform’s 140-character limit forces him to boil down the presentation to the key findings. “If I listen to someone for 10 minutes and can’t formulate one Tweet, it means that I don’t understand enough of the presentation, or the main point is already so obvious that there is no new information being presented,” Dr. Fisch said.

The platform and exposure that social media provide are invaluable and unprecedented, he added. This is especially true for the younger generation of research scientists. “Bright, young investigators who are full of good ideas can become widely known through social media,” he said. “Some people have quickly outpaced their similarly talented colleagues because social media increased their connections, allowing them to be noticed in a big way very quickly.”

Social media is not without its downsides though, Dr. Fisch admitted.

“The negative aspects of social media are similar to the positive aspects, in that people select quick soundbites to publicize. They can end up spreading only a small piece of what a presenter is saying,” he said. “This is not unique to social media, though. In general media, there is always the risk that facts and statements are being taken out of context or being misunderstood.”

At scientific meetings, Dr. Desiderio has heard speakers specifically ask an audience not to Tweet pictures of their slides, but she has also heard presenters say exactly the opposite.

“Speakers make a personal choice based on how ‘ready-for-prime-time’ their research findings are – whether for presentation or publication,” Dr. Desiderio said. “However, at ASH, we encourage all speakers to present unpublished data, so that the ASH annual meeting continues to be a forum where scientists bring their best and newest science.”

According to Dr. Ghobrial, ASH and other scientific organizations are urging people to be open and accepting of this changing climate. “Organizers tell people that, if their research is interesting and exciting, they should use social media for the benefit of the research – and not for all the drawbacks,” she said.

Polishing the Crystal Ball

What will change about scientific meetings in the next 10 years? Making predictions about the future is practically impossible, Dr. Mullighan said. The most likely change he foresees is an adjustment in how meetings are structured.

“We have a generation of people with shorter attention spans, so do talks become briefer?” he asked.

“Instead of meeting attendees sitting through six talks spanning two-and-a-half hours, perhaps they would prefer 30 talks that are each one minute long.” This would provide attendees with high-level sound bites on each piece of research and encourage them to follow up by viewing a researcher’s poster or talking to him or her in person.

“In addition, at many meetings the science in the oral presentations is just the tip of the iceberg and most of what is still ‘under water’ is the posters, where there is plenty of good science,” Dr. Mullighan said. “Right now people spend a lot of time making these posters, printing them, and carrying them around, and I could see that all disappearing one day.”

He envisioned, in its place, a digital interface where presenters may only have to plug a USB drive into a viewing screen.

In a similar vein, ASH is gearing up for the battle of the second screen in future annual meetings – embracing the fact that attendees are often looking down on their devices rather than up at the podium. ASH is exploring technology that can broadcast the slides being shared on the big screen directly to audience members’ smartphones or tablets.

Putting the presentation in the palms of the audience members also opens up the lines of communication among listeners. ASH is also considering how the technology might enable listeners to start the discussion with each other about the findings while the presentation is happening.

Dr. Fisch said that in the coming years, he thinks the influence of social media will also continue to evolve.

“The proportion of professionals who use social media is still relatively small, and it is certainly not the majority of hematologists who Tweet, consume, or participate through social media in any meaningful way,” Dr. Fisch said. “Moving forward, more people will be taught to use social media earlier to include it into their research efforts at the onset.”

Finally, from the meeting–planning perspective, Dr. Desiderio imagines that scientific meeting organizers will continue to think of better ways of sharing important scientific information with more and more people in efficient ways. “At the end of the day we have to make sure that this information gets out in a way that people can see it, digest it, and learn from it,” she said.

No matter what the future may hold, one thing seems to be clear: Quality scientific content will always be king.—By Leah Lawrence