Friday, December 11, 2009

Is there an app for that?

I have been known to express rather strong feelings regarding seminar etiquette and the lack thereof. In recent years, a growing focus of my ire in this regard has been mobile devices. Initially we (speakers and audiences alike) had to deal with folks failing to turn their phones to vibrate. Of course, a vibrating phone can still be a distraction when the entire row can feel it vibrating every ten minutes, and the owner of said phone (who decided to sit in the center of the room) keeps leaving to take the call and then returns to the same center seat. But I digress.

With the emergence and affordability of "smart" phones, we must now contend with people texting and emailing in, what they believe, is a discrete manner. There is little discretion in your buzzing pocket and blindingly bright screen, which can be rather distracting to your neighbors during a seminar.

However, this week I witnessed a new seminar 'sin' made possible by the iPhone.

Sitting toward the back of a large, dark, toasty auditorium, about halfway into the seminar, I was trying very hard to follow what was going on and jotting down notes in my book. As I started to return my gaze to the screen, I was distracted by someone a few rows in front of me, fiddling with her iPhone, showing something to her friend. The usual aggravation began creeping in.

After a moment, I realized she wasn't just fiddling with her iPhone, but she was taking pictures of data slides. I found this unfathomable and completely inappropriate.

Perhaps, though, I was overreacting. So when I returned to the lab, I inquired of my science tweeps: Is it appropriate to covertly photograph data slides during a seminar?

From a limited sample set (n=4), the answer was a resounding "no". I think Zen put it best: "When you have to ask if it's okay to do something 'covertly', the answer is almost certainly, 'No.'" (Note added in proof: Zen has more to say with the additional context not allowed by Twitter. So do others.)

Looks like I have another rule to add to my "Guide to Seminar Etiquette". Now the question is how do we deal with things like this?


Anonymous said...

We have one faculty member who used to sit in the front for all the seminars. He now sits in the back and plays on his iphone the whole time. It's so rude! Just don't come.

Zen said...

With more context than a tweet, it becomes apparent that there are several issues here. I’m not sure which one you’re upset about.

1. Distracting the audience or speaker. I’m not sure that taking a picture is more or less distracting than a vibrating phone, or, for that matter, someone with the sniffles.

2. Recording information. I’m not sure that taking a picture of a data slide is more or less problematic that writing notes in a moleskine, – except insofar that it is more distracting, making it really about point #1 (above). Perhaps one difference is in the ease of...

3. Distributing information. But there was no suggestion in the post that the pictures were doing anything besides sitting on the phone.

What’s the problem?

Dr Becca, PhD said...

I say not OK. If you're taking a covert photo because you think the seminar speaker wouldn't give you the slides if you asked for them, you're obviously doing something wrong.

biochem belle said...

There is the issue of distraction, mostly to those around you if you're in a large auditorium, which is, as you point out, no more distracting than other common infractions.

My main issue is more along the lines of what Dr Becca highlighted. I have thought about the question of whether it is more or less an issue than taking notes. The general perception would seem to be that it has the potential of being more problematic. I say this on the basis that photos are generally prohibited at conferences (though it still happens). Maybe it is just more polite to ask for slides. The issue here is perhaps solely one of perception-and the one that I have had indelibly engrained during my training that obtaining data slides by less than open means (i.e. directly from a speaker) is bad form.

biochem belle said...

And sorry for the lack of context earlier this week. it's difficult to achieve in 140 characters or less.

Comrade Physioprof said...

If I realized that someone in the audience of my seminar was taking photos of my slides, I would stop and say, "Excuse me. Are you taking pictures of my slides? If so, please stop immediately."

This is not at all like taking notes, in the same way that publishing a movie review is not at all like posting a copy of the movie on bittorrent.

Zen said...

I think the picture-taking isn’t the issue as much as the threat of what someone might do with the picture that raises people’s concerns. That’s why the word “covert” swings things towards questions of intent and raises red flags...

Comrade PhysioProf’s movie analogy is valuable, but breaks down in some ways. Movies are not open to the public, but are shown to paying patrons who agree to certain conditions. Some presentations are open to the public. The example of putting something on a torrent stream is point #3 in my earlier post. I do not see a difference between taking notes and a picture if I’m the only one using the information (big qualifier).

Audience members should respect a presenter’s requests. Presenters, conference organizers, and the like should do more to make those requests clear.

Presenters have to realize that giving a talk means giving up control. If the data are that sensitive, maybe the presenter shouldn’t be giving the talk in the first place.

People scooping data happened way before the invention of mobile phone cameras (cf. The Double Helix).

biochem belle said...

A colleague pointed out that many universities now record and post seminars on the web or even through iTunes. Clearly this is done with the presenter's knowledge-and hopefully before he/she shows up to give the seminar.

I can see Zen's point about the intent of notes/pictures, but of course, no one has any way of judging that. A speaker has to then take into consideration how much to reveal-which is a calculation most make even in much private formats.

I am still debating the appropriateness of picture taking in seminars-but I do continue to object to the general use of mobile devices during seminar, solely because I consider it distracting and disrespectful.

Comrade Physioprof said...

I do continue to object to the general use of mobile devices during seminar, solely because I consider it distracting and disrespectful.

I disagree. If you don't want people dicking around with their blackberries while you're giving a seminar, then don't be a fucking boring douche.

biochem belle said...

If you don't want people dicking around with their blackberries while you're giving a seminar, then don't be a fucking boring douche.

"Fucking boring douche" is in the eye of the beholder. And some people are so habitual about this that either (a) nothing in science interests them anymore other than their own work or (b) they simply cannot give up their crackberry for more than 3 minutes at a time. Either way, if you can't be bothered to try to pay attention, why are you wasting your time sitting in seminar?

DrDoyenne said...

It's a matter of courtesy to pay attention to the speaker and also not do things that annoy the people around you.

I don't think taking photos is appropriate because it distracts the audience members and possibly the speaker. Note-taking is more discrete and traditionally accepted. Also, a photo basically "takes" the information in its original format, as opposed to notes, which paraphrase.

I do not give my presentations out to random people asking for them. Why would anyone need a copy of your entire presentation? If someone is interested in a particular photo or graph, then they might ask for a copy after first explaining why they need it.

I have agreed to be videotaped giving a seminar and to have the presentation posted somewhere. This approach protects you as the originator of the data as well as the presentation.

While we are on the topic of seminar etiquette, here are distractions that bother me:

-someone unwrapping a piece of candy or cough drop in a cellophane wrapper, excruciatingly slowly in the mistaken belief that this is less bothersome. People: unwrap that stuff beforehand or do it quickly.

-people who are clearly sick and cough and sneeze throughout the talk. Just stay home and spare the rest of us.

-people who bring their children to seminars and similar events. Parents: do you really think your child is going to sit still and be quiet for upwards of an hour?

-ringing, buzzing, vibrating phones. In my experience, it's always the same people whose phones go off in seminars and meetings.

-wrist alarms that the wearer cannot (apparently) hear, but everyone else can. Everyone (except the culprit) checks to make sure it's not their watch. The culprit never thinks it's their watch. So it goes on and on, ending in a rapid, staccato beep-beep-beep.

-side-talking. These people simply cannot stand to have attention focused on anyone except themselves and they try to engage the person next to them in conversation. This is more common in meetings. In seminars, it's more often whispered comments about the speaker or the speaker's information. The latter can be very disconcerting for a speaker to see: The speaker thinks, "what am I saying that warrants a discussion between audience members?" Quite scary for a novice.

OK. I feel better now.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I don't get why professors and seminar speakers get all pissy about whether people are listening to them or not. Do your fucking best to not be a boring pedantic douchebag, and if people listen they listen, and if they don't they don't.

I also don't get why professors get all pissy about students showing up for class or not. You wanna show up for my lecture, I'll do my best for you; if you don't, it's your fucking loss.

And if there is a chronic attendance problem at your lectures, look at yourself. It almost certianly means that your lectures suck ass and the students have realized that they are wasting their time attending.

biochem belle said...

I don't get why professors and seminar speakers get all pissy about whether people are listening to them or not.

I cannot really speak your point directly, PhysioProf, as I have little experience in delivering seminars.

I can speak to my own reactions as a member of the audience. Although I think it is polite to at least try to pay attention, whether or not you do has no bearing on the talk or on me-whatever. I get pissy when other people's inability to pay attention becomes disruptive or distracting to me and said behavior continues for several minutes and/or is habitual. On the few occasions that I am totally disengaged during a talk, I try to find discrete and unobtrusive ways of keeping myself entertained.

Silver Fox said...

Here are my two cents. If it's a college seminar, surely it could be appropriate to bring this issue up within the department and find out if there is a policy about photos, and if there isn't one, to encourage one (whether for or against). Some scientific meetings don't allow photos; some do - maybe the same would be true for seminars.

I have occasionally taken notes by "writing" with a stylus on my "smart" (or not-so-smart) phone in professional meetings. I've tweeted in meetings on occasion, and one session of a recent meeting encouraged tweeting, though the entire meeting discouraged it. I can set the light to low, but distraction could still be a problem.