Unpublished Data, No Pictures Please

This article originally appeared on Next Generation Science (NGS) on June 23rd, 2009. It has been re-posted here to maintain an active copy on the Web. A group blog, NGS was set up to follow emerging technologies and discuss tomorrow’s science, and was active from January 18th, 2009 to May 16th, 2010.

I am an ardent supporter of Open Access (OA) and believe that scientific research articles published in scholarly journals should be accessible online for everyone to read, redistribute and reuse without cost. However, leveraging digital technologies to make research transmittable, distributable and accessible to the world is contingent on the research being formally published in a peer-reviewed academic journal, not simply presented on a slide or poster.


I was at a conference last week and noted that several participants were taking pictures of data being presented. In fact, someone had the audacity to take pictures of slides during the keynote presentation. The keynote speaker had to pause during his presentation and ask the individual to stop taking pictures. I observed another attendee brazenly taking a picture of a poster during a poster session right in front of the woman presenting the poster. The individual presenting the poster asked the photographer to stop taking pictures.

Now, I’d like to think that these scientific shutterbugs are simply making an accurate record of things they see and are not trying to steal data. I don’t have a problem with someone taking notes or memorizing the data that’s being presented. However, making a digital record of unpublished intellectual property is different because the information being recorded is an exact copy that is easy to transmit and distribute.

Presenting unpublished data at a meeting is not the same as publishing it.

Much of the work presented at conferences and documented on posters is unpublished. In fact, the whole idea of a conference/poster is to share with other researchers current projects and data before it’s published. The intention isn’t to enable widespread distribution of the information, but rather controlled circulation and localized discussion. If the trend to photograph and digitize unpublished data from scientific research conferences continues unabated, researchers are simply going to stop sharing unpublished data. Scientists already worry about showing too much unpublished data in a presentation or on a poster – if they stop discussing unpublished work altogether, it will clearly have a negative impact on scientific communication and progress.

No recording

My advice? Add a copyright symbol to each of your slides or on your poster, or use this symbol to indicate that you don’t allow recording of any kind. State at the beginning of you talk that you’re presenting unpublished data and would appreciate the audience refrain from taking pictures. If you see someone taking pictures without asking the presenter, tell them they should ask permission first.

Cameras are great for recording events in life that you want to remember. However, they have no place at scientific conferences or poster sessions where unpublished data is being presented.

UPDATE: June 26th, 2009

Cameron Neylon posted some nice images that can be used to display Presentation rights.


  1. I have two opposing opinions about this. On the one hand, I completely agree that making a digital recording of something against the wishes of the presenter is lame and in many cases egregious behavior.

    However, I think you are wrong in the statement “Cameras are great for recording events in life that you want to remember. However, they have no place at scientific conferences or poster sessions where unpublished data is being presented.” I think this can be determined by the meeting and/or the presented. At many conferences I have been at recently, the talks are presented live on the web and also recorded and available for later viewing and downloading. And I personally am trying to post my slides on places like slideshare or the web somewhere and include plenty of unpublished material there. I think that sharing work before publishing is critical to the scientific enterprise and there are many journals that do not exclude the possibility of publishing in that journal even if work is presented previously “published” on the web or in a meeting.

    In the end, how one should handle the distribution of posters, talks, etc (and for that matter, papers) varies enormously depending on the situation. I agree that violation of the copyright and intent of the presenter is wrong, but there are many people who are comfortable with broad CC license type distribution of ALL their presentations/publications and I for one enjoy going to these types of meetings enormously.

  2. Oops, I guess I’m doing it wrong. At conferences I print copies of my posters for people to take home with them, and I make my posters and talks available on my website as PDFs. I always thought the purpose of a conference was to expose your ideas to a lot of people, get feedback from them, or initiate a collaboration, not to steal ideas (or data??) for the next grant proposal. I’m sure it happens but if they’re bent on doing it, it won’t matter whether they have an exact replica or not. Most people probably take photos because they appreciate the work and want to take more time to think about it later. Or maybe they just like the color scheme and want to replicate it for their next talk.

  3. This is a really fascinating discussion. The issue of cell phone camera use comes up in the patient care environment, too. Sometimes family members of patients are camera-crazy.

  4. @Jonathan The more I use the Internet for scientific communication, the more I would like to share unpublished data on the web. However, I’ve done research in some pretty competitive areas and worked with people who had unpublished data they presented taken and published before they were able to publish it. Indeed, most of my training has been in labs where the position has been one of guarding unpublished data, not sharing it. I think this is the pervading attitude in science, not the exception. If we’re ever going to have greater communication between researchers and increased sharing of unpublished data, this issue needs to be discussed.

    Although you make a good point that the distribution of posters, talks, etc varies on the situation, I think that people shouldn’t assume that unpublished data can be freely recorded. I’d also like to point out that just because talks are presented live on the web and recorded doesn’t mean the presenter is showing you all the unpublished data they would have shown you had they been presenting it in a more private venue where their data wasn’t being digitized and distributed.

    The other thing I’d like to point out is that the attitude on this likely differs between disciplines. For example, I’ve noticed that many scientists blogging and using social media tools today tend to be dry-bench scientists than wet-bench researchers. My impression is that sharing unpublished data is much more acceptable to computational scientists than it is to wet-bench researchers.

    @Eric I don’t think you’re doing it wrong at all. I don’t have any issue with someone distributing unpublished data. As I said above, the problem is that people to whom you’re presenting shouldn’t assume that your data can be freely recorded without your permission. If you’re handing out copies of your poster, you’re clearly granting permission.