National Cancer Institute NCI Cancer Bulletin: A Trusted Source for Cancer Research News
May 31, 2011 • Volume 8 / Number 11

Community Update

Scientific Meetings through the Lens of Twitter

Poster presentations at a scientific conference At conferences, Twitter can help drive traffic to poster presentations. (Image courtesy of AACR)

When cancer doctors and researchers gather in Chicago this weekend to discuss the latest advances against the disease, people at the meeting and around the world will join a conversation that started on Twitter 2 weeks ago.

The discussion began in earnest on May 18, when the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) released 4,000 scientific abstracts online ahead of its annual meeting this weekend. People on Twitter began to post short messages, or tweets, about abstracts they found interesting. This sparked more chatter, including, just for fun, a flurry of tweets in Haiku.

On Saturday, after much anticipation, the conversation will turn to research results. During the plenary, members of the audience will share findings from the talks on Twitter in real time; these messages, in turn, will prompt people following online to share their views.

“One of the most useful things about Twitter at meetings is the real-time feedback from colleagues who come at the talks from different angles,” said Dr. David Kroll of North Carolina Central University. “The additional perspectives can really help you to interpret a talk.”

Less Solitary, More Enjoyable

Before social media, these kinds of conversations took place between sessions or over drinks afterward. One’s perception of a presentation can change, however, with the passage of time and additional talks, Dr. Kroll noted. In contrast, Twitter captures information and first impressions in real time.

A common criticism of Twitter is that it’s a distraction, and for some users this may be true. Yet, for Dr. Kroll and other researchers, tweeting can enhance the conference experience by making it less solitary and more enjoyable.

“Twitter immediately adds value to the information you’re getting from a talk,” he said. “Someone may tweet in the middle of a presentation: ‘The new finding is interesting, but did you know about this other study?’” The tweet would likely include a link to the study.

The premise of Twitter is that you “follow” (receive updates from) people whose interests you share. At the Chicago meeting, with more than 30,000 attendees and many concurrent sessions, tweets from people whose opinions you respect could be useful information.

“Twitter is particularly effective for large meetings,” said Dr. Brent Stockwell of Columbia University. “There is no way to make every presentation. But you can gain insights into the talks you miss by hearing what other people are saying about those sessions on Twitter.”  

He added, “It’s sort of like having a few of your friends go to the talk and report back to you.” 

One of the most useful things about Twitter at meetings is the real-time feedback from colleagues who come at the talks from different angles.

—Dr. David Kroll

Building Community

ASCO will be tracking the Twitter traffic during the event and plans to analyze the data, said Dr. Robert Miller of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, who serves on several ASCO committees associated with new media and technology.

To make this easier, the society designated an official keyword (or hashtag) that people can attach to conference-related tweets. Messages that include “#ASCO11” can be viewed together on the Web.

“We’re interested in seeing how the attendees use the hashtag and whether there are conversations about clinical discussions using Twitter,” said Dr. Miller, who was speaking as an individual and not on behalf of ASCO. “My expectation is that attendees will use Twitter to have a dialogue with one another in real time about the implications of what’s being presented.”

Dr. Miller, who will be tweeting from Chicago, added: “I don’t view Twitter as a distraction; I view it as a way to build community.”

In recent years, Twitter traffic has increased at another big cancer conference—the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), according to Ron Vitale, the group’s associate director of Web site communications. “Twitter is a great resource before, during, and after the meeting,” he wrote in an e-mail. “There is a thirst for knowledge out there.”

While there does not appear to be much published research on Twitter at scientific meetings, a recent study assessed the activity of 260 self-identified physicians on Twitter during a month last year. On the whole, physicians were sharing medical information that could have a positive effect on public health, the researchers found.

The authors noted, however, that some of the self-identified physicians seemed to be promoting specific products using unproven health claims. For the public, this finding underscores the importance of knowing which physicians are providing reliable health information on Twitter, said lead author Dr. Katherine Chretien of the Washington, DC, Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Challenges and Concerns

Twitter is still relatively new, and tweeting from meetings is a work in progress.

The Twitter feed of a large meeting can be “a mishmash of messages,” particularly if one is not familiar with the topic and doesn’t know the jargon, noted Jody Schoger, a Texas-based writer who blogs and tweets about cancer. Rather than follow a meeting’s hashtag, she prefers to read updates from a few people she regularly follows and trusts.

“Twitter updates can be helpful, but they will never replace the electricity of actually being at the meeting,” she added in an e-mail.

When it comes to communicating complex science, Twitter’s 140-character limit leaves little room for explanation. In April, as the AACR annual meeting was under way in Florida, Dr. Naoto T. Ueno of the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center singlehandedly tried to provide some context.

While traveling abroad, Dr. Ueno sent out a series of educational tweets with basic concepts in cancer biology (for example, here and here). The messages may have helped some readers interpret the research advances being reported over Twitter.

Dr. Ueno acknowledged, though, that many scientific tweets are flawed. Too often, he said, a message is not understandable or does not contain useful information. For instance, tweets from meetings routinely report that a presenter is now talking about a specific drug.

“This is not useful information,” Dr. Ueno wrote in an e-mail. “I would like to know what the [presenter] is saying about it, the take-home message, and where I can find more information.”

Some of this information, of course, may eventually emerge over time. For this reason, Dr. Sally Church, a pharmaceutical company consultant who blogs about cancer research, will capture the stream of ASCO tweets and make the compilation publicly available online.

Dr. Church will also tweet from presentations, relying, as she often does, on the help of medical oncologists. “Many of the oncologists I chat with on Twitter during meetings are responsive and helpful,” she said. Their tweets, she added, tend to be accurate and precise.

“An Honest Discussion about Blogging Policies”

When a barrage of tweets appears in real time, it can be difficult to assess the accuracy of individual messages. Yet, as several researchers noted, when many people are tweeting about the same findings at the same time, a consensus emerges and errors become evident.

 When many people are posting about the same findings at the same time, a consensus emerges and errors become evident.

Concerns about the accuracy of tweets may contribute to the reluctance of some presenters to have their work tweeted during meetings, particularly unpublished findings that have not been through peer review. (At some meetings, such as the Biology of Genomes conference at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, presenters must grant permission to have their talks tweeted.)

Presenters may also worry that coverage in a blog or “microblog,” such as Twitter, could limit where the work could be published later, noted a recent editorial in Nature Methods about blogging and microblogging at meetings. But this “seems unlikely because journals do not count talks as prepublication, and unsolicited coverage in blogs also falls under this category,” the authors wrote.

Nonetheless, the editorial called for “an honest discussion about blogging policies to ensure that the needs of the scientific community for information are met while addressing a presenter’s concern about premature exposure of sensitive work.”

AACR has posted guidelines for the use of social media at meetings, and ASCO has information about social networking opportunities in Chicago. In comparison, Twitter is rarely used at smaller meetings, and host organizations, such as universities, do not always have clear policies on the use of social media, according to Dr. Stockwell.

The Serendipity of Twitter

Among the many uses for Twitter at scientific meetings, driving traffic to poster presentations that may otherwise be missed seems to be a clever innovation. After reading an intriguing tweet from a cancer advocate at a recent meeting, Dr. Church investigated. “The poster turned out to be one of the coolest of the day, so I blogged about it,” she recalled.

Social media can enable these kinds of unexpected connections. In another example, Scott Hensley, who writes and edits NPR’s health blog Shots, learned a few weeks ago “through the miracle of Twitter” that a prostate cancer meeting was under way across the street from his office building in downtown Washington, DC.  

The miracle was actually a tweet about the meeting from Dr. Church, who was there. Hensley crossed the street to join her and ended up covering a major study reported that day

On Twitter, meanwhile, people have been talking about this weekend’s meeting in Chicago. The person who started the flurry of Haiku tweets even had one last poem. “Haiku trend slowing/Fun was had, but back to work/Chicago awaits,” tweeted Geoffrey Curtis.

Edward R. Winstead

Disclosure: The writer follows the people mentioned in the article on Twitter and has met several of them at scientific meetings.

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