Photos During Talks

I occasionally spend my leisure time thinking about scientific ethics. Don’t you?

Before the Fall AGU Meeting, I received regular emails from the Union preparing me for attendance at the conference. Several of these notices included a link to the AGU Meetings Code of Conduct. The page has several bulleted lists. It starts off with one on expected behavior, and these are common-sense rules that I hope we can all agree to adhere to. This list is immediately followed by a list of unacceptable behavior, and again most of the points are general rules for getting along in modern society. What piqued my interest, and why I am writing about it here, is item #4:

  • Recording or taking photography of another individual’s presentation without the explicit permission of AGU is not allowed.

I have seen it many times at recent science meetings, in particular the Fall AGU Meeting, where someone holds up a tablet or phone in a darkened room and takes a picture of a slide during an oral presentation. They are clearly not doing it on behalf of the speaker, as there is often no attempt to include the speaker in the image frame. They are capturing the slide for their records and later use. Another time when I see this is someone perusing the poster hall at an off-peak time, stopping at a poster for a bit, and then clicking a snapshot of it with a mobile device. The presenter is almost never around at such times, and is unaware that a picture has been taken.

AGU’s policy is very clear: don’t do it. The only time it’s allowed by the code of conduct is when AGU has given permission. Here’s an image of Elon Musk giving a talk about the Sun:


He broadcast it on Twitter so I think it’s okay to resuse here.

My hope in the goodness of humanity is that most people that do this to remind themselves later of an interesting point that a particular speaker made so that they can contact that person later or give them credit for a great idea. My cynicism about an evil world makes me suspect these people of stealing the idea for their own research investigations.

How is this different from simply taking copious notes of the presentation? It’s far less obtrusive, for one thing. Taking a picture with a mobile device, especially at an oral presentation, is disruptive and inconsiderate to the audience behind you. Yes, we see you doing it! If noticed by the speaker, then it can be unnerving and make them think about you and your picture instead of the words they wanted to say about the material on the screen. But most importantly: hand-written notes are your thoughts, and the words that go on your note page are your distillation of the speaker’s words. Note taking is not copying, as least that’s not the way I was taught to take notes. You can still plagiarize the speaker’s idea, but you have, at least, put it in your own words.

I have no way of knowing if a manuscript submitted to JGR Space Physics was derived from a plagiarized idea taken from a presentation someone saw at a meeting (or took a photo of). I have to trust the authors that it was not. While I don’t know the exact numbers, I think that AGU has remarkably few ethical violations with its journals. I hope that the space physics community maintains this outstanding track record. I also hope that photos during presentations do not contribute to a rise in publication concerns.

If you really want to have a copy of a slide or even a whole talk, then I strongly recommend that you go ask the speaker for the presentation file. Usually, they will send it to you, because they are happy that someone is so interested in their work that they want a copy of the presentation. In addition, they then know that you are interested in the work and perhaps a collaboration can begin.


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