Yours truly, a humble and stupid PhD student, recently committed an embarassing faux pas in a conference. While listening intently to a very interesting and relevant presentation in a packed plenary session, I was photographing the slides (thick with text and graphics, as usual) instead of trying to divide my attention between listening and making notes. However, one of the conference organizers noticed my efforts and politely asked whether I had asked the presenter the permission to record the presentation.
Apparently, the concept of “fair use” didn’t cover photographing every slide of the presentation, even though just about every slide was chock-full of very important information.
As far as I know, the organizer was in the right: because I hadn’t asked the permission beforehand, I committed a breach of etiquette. I shouldn’t have photographed the slides, even though I had planned to only use them to back up my own notes. But is this interpretation of “fair use” really in line with the spirit of science and the purpose of scientific conferences?
As a presenter, I’ve so far been more than happy if someone is sufficiently interested in my ideas to record whatever parts of the presentation he or she chooses. This is simply because as a researcher, I want to spread my ideas as far and wide as possible, and it’s certain that recordings AND notes go farther than notes alone. I find it difficult to even think of situations where I wouldn’t want someone to record what I’m saying or showing; if there is something I don’t want to spread around the globe in 80 hours, the rule #1 is do not present it to a global audience. Hence, I honestly hadn’t even thought that someone might object.
But reflecting on the matter, I do understand that some presenters might feel differently, although I still think that presenting something one doesn’t want to spread is somewhat counterproductive. It should also be obvious that recording with the intention of passing the material on as one’s own (aka plagiarism) is definitely wrong. I also know – now – that “fair use” doesn’t really cover recording entire presentations, even if for the sole purpose of note-taking. So the question is, should we avoid recording presentations or collectively reach a solution what “fair use” means in this context?
It is probably clear already that my position is one of maximum openness. In a world where even eyeglasses might come with cameras and every cellphone is capable of making perfectly adequate if not Hi-Fi quality audio records, I feel that restricting the note-taking to writing and typing is simply Ludditic.
It is also needlessly unappreciative of different learning strategies. I can’t speak for others, but I know that I have lots of trouble trying to understand and remember spoken lectures. This is especially difficult when the language used is bad English, as is quite commonly the case. I need notes and I need the slides, or I need the paper; otherwise I have very little hope for remembering the important points just some days later.
Finally, restricting recording by default is also counterproductive from the viewpoint of the presenter herself. Bad notes and bad memory conspire to make the audience forget the presentations faster than it takes them to leave the plenary room.
There are probably very good arguments against recording conference presentations, but being a stupid PhD student, so far I haven’t been able to think of any. Perhaps the most compelling counterarguments, that recordings help plagiarism or stealing of ideas, are problematic on at least two counts. First, in the era of increasingly efficient and automated search engines, copying unattributed ideas that have been presented to a broader audience is a career-limiting move, particularly if there’s a possibility the presentation been recorded by others; second, what prevents individuals with eidetic memory or hidden cameras from doing so already? Memory wipes and cavity searches?
Of course, the correct way to record presentations exists: one should simply ask in advance whether the presenter allows it. But as anyone familiar with conferences knows, it’s sometimes difficult to know in advance what the really interesting presentations are, and it’s also sometimes a bit difficult to ask the permission beforehand – particularly so in plenary sessions. I, for one, have never seen anyone actually do so, although I’ve seen even tape recorders employed!
Therefore, to clarify what is OK and to encourage people to use the modern note-taking tools to the fullest (i.e. to help folks spend their time doing sciencey stuff instead of deciphering scribbled notes), I offer two humble suggestions. First, to presenters: please state in advance whether you allow the presentations to be recorded, and with what limitations. Second, to conference organizers, who are in a position to determine in advance whether recordings should be allowed or disallowed by default. How about moving to the 21st Century by informing presenters and the audience that by default, recordings are allowed, and if a presenter wants to prevent (overt) recording, she needs to inform the audience before the presentation?
Meanwhile, smartened by the experience, I already added a statement in bold red type to my Keynote master slides:
RECORDING AND REDISTRIBUTION PERMITTED, EVEN ENCOURAGED!