Is all this on the record?

Let's not allow recording requests to stifle free exchange, says Tim Birkhead

October 1, 2009

Iconoclastic rock band Grateful Dead prided themselves on allowing audiences to record their concerts. They did this knowing full well that their performances would be widely disseminated, and they believed that doing so was unlikely to damage their record (and, in the later years of their career, CD) sales. But academics are not (usually) rock stars and research talks are not (usually) like music, which is meant to be enjoyed time and again.

Increasingly I am asked whether the talk I am going to give can be videoed and made available via the web. Sometimes the request is made before I turn up at the venue, which at least gives me time to think about it.

On other occasions the request (or more accurately, the expectation) has been sprung on me while I'm checking to ensure that my PowerPoint presentation works, just before starting to speak. Worst of all, I once noticed an unannounced video camera pointing at me as I was speaking.

There are some important issues here, so I decided to take a poll of ten colleagues to see what they thought. Interestingly, only one was enthusiastic about the idea. The other nine were not. One replied: "A big fat 'no' on this one."

There were a number of reasons cited. First, several people pointed out that they might give a rather different performance if they knew it was being recorded. An important function of scientific meetings is that they act as testing grounds. They allow researchers to present ideas or work in progress to see how an audience responds: such feedback is a vital part of the scientific process. Traditionally, the scientific talk is a transient affair, and if a presentation is not deemed exciting, little damage is done. But knowing that a talk is being recorded, one may give a different kind of talk - a talk in which there is no risk-taking, relying instead on work already tried, tested and published. That would make scientific presentations rather dull, to say the least. My positive panel member thought that the reluctance to present risky or novel ideas online was the result of paranoia, particularly among what he called "the older, I-don't-use-Facebook generation".

Making audiovisual recordings of talks may be problematic for another reason. As the effects of the recession cut deeper, finding funding for research and attending conferences will become - indeed, is becoming - increasingly difficult. Conference organisers may be tempted to record talks and put them on the web, thinking they are providing a service for those who are unable to attend. But this could easily run out of control, with others saving themselves the cost and effort of travelling and thinking, "I'll just watch it on the web." The end result may be a farcical situation in which speakers perform alone in front of their video camera and then post the video on the web - the ultimate in videoconferencing.

A third cause for concern expressed by my panel of experts was the loss of control. Several of them pointed out that once you agree to be videoed, without a legally binding contract your material could end up anywhere, including all those "Wacko ways your tax dollars are spent" websites. Or, worse still for many scientists, as ammunition on creationist websites.

And the advantages of videoed talks? The lone panel member who spoke up in favour suggested several, to which I have added my own. Recording research talks could: (i) reduce the carbon footprint of conferences; (ii) reduce the time and cash costs for those not presenting and not able or wanting to attend; (iii) increase the "size" of the conference; (iv) allow people to "attend" many more conferences than they would normally have time and funds for; (v) increase the revenue for the society organising the conference by charging a nominal fee for access; and last but not least, (vi) increase access for graduate and undergraduate students who may otherwise be excluded on cost grounds. Videos of conference presentations could also be useful as undergraduate teaching aids. Moreover, they could also be used to teach teachers (and graduate students) by providing examples of how to present information, and also how not to.

My guess is that requests to record research talks, at departmental seminars and at conferences, will increase. We therefore need to be prepared. In principle, the presenter holds the most important card - we can agree or not agree to have our talks recorded and posted on the web. On being invited to give a talk, we should ask whether there are plans for it to be recorded. Forewarned, one can start to negotiate. One can also prepare the presentation accordingly. We need to know whether subsequent use of the footage will be open access or restricted, and whether users will be charged. We also need to see a contract, and we need to be assured that the material cannot be abused in any way, and if it is, that action can be taken. Performers also need to be able to review and have the opportunity to edit the footage before it goes public.

It all sounds unnecessarily bureaucratic, but we're used to that.

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