Monday, 24 November 2014

SVP Reflections

Well two weeks has already passed and that is SVP over another year and, on the face of it, it seems to have been yet another very well received meeting. From a personal standpoint I can honestly say that I enjoyed it again and, despite the amount of amazing and totally inspiring research that is going on throughout the world, it is the people at SVP that make the difference and make it such a wonderful event.
There have been several discussions regarding certain issues raised at the meeting this year, many of which are still going on even now. Essentially they focus on the fact that this meeting gets bigger and bigger every year and it is hard to manage so many people efficiently – especially when it comes to the poster sessions and the provision of both food and liquid refreshments.
I am actually not too fussed about being in such a crowded situation during, for example, the poster sessions since you are mixing with essentially likeminded people who are all doing the same thing – we are all keen to learn from each other and discuss the research presented as well as making new friends and thus taking part in a real social event.
However, as I had alluded to in my previous post, the format of the poster layout was certainly problematic. The vertical layout of the poster boards themselves in tandem with the fact that they were situated on a 90° degree angle to each other, made the sessions manic. I noted that the more popular posters sometimes swamped the posters that were opposite to them so that one author was particularly busy whilst the other was boxed in and often looked uncomfortable with the situation.
And not only authors suffered as the amassed ranks of palaeontologists attempted to look through each other and across each other to even glimpse some of the detail presented. The format was also problematic and some posters began at the very top of the board and travelled all the way to the floor – I suspect neck ache became an issue for some and those people who were not as tall as others would have struggled to see anything at all.
This was unfortunate but, as I have already pointed out, there were no issues that I am aware of and most people made the best of it. Indeed we, and many others, cottoned on quite early, to check out the posters throughout the day so that you could spend time reading them properly – especially those that you were really interested in. Certainly my habit of marking out both oral and poster presentations well in advance in a hard copy of the abstracts book pays dividends time and time again.
The oral presentations were par for the course although, on a personal level, I thought that the mix of topics and/or symposia could have been better spread throughout the four days as I found myself being really busy for two days and fairly quiet on the others. But this is very much a personal view and, indeed, there was only one marine reptile talk and only one tyrannosaur-related talk as well (which was about teeth) – so not an abundance of talks concerning my favourite beasties .
For some reason I thought there was an entire session of talks missing as well but I was assured there was only ever three concurrent sessions at SVP – goodness knows why I thought that then. Interestingly, however, that too has been raised in the aftermath of this meeting – that perhaps there should indeed be a fourth session although it was pointed out that it is hard enough chopping and changing during the current three sessions, let alone four. The fifteen minute time slots and no slack gives you little room to manoeuvre.
Strangely I felt that the biggest criticisms during the meeting concerned the lack of coffee supplied during the afternoon. Sure there is the morning break but nothing in the afternoon makes it a long session without a coffee fix. One would imagine that it would not cost that much to provide a secondary supply of coffee in the afternoon and it does not have to necessitate a break such as there is in the morning. I suspect most people would prefer to have coffee as and when during the afternoon anyway. The lunchtime food supply did not appeal either at first as vast cues built up on the first day but it soon settled down and I think the catering staff managed that quiet well.
The biggest criticisms were levelled during the reception at the Museum für Naturkunde on the first evening of the conference. I don’t believe that there is anyone or anything to blame for the situation but the cues for both the food and the drink were a nightmare. The sheer amount of people made the situation impossible for all concerned and, I suspect, is the primary driver for the current debate about the size of the conference these days.
It was quite funny to see people eating a dessert prior to eating something warm at the currywurst kiosk because the cue for that kiosk happened to pass the dessert stand and they were waiting so long that they had to eat something to keep them going! It did not help that most people were milling about in the main dinosaur hall and many did not know that there were other kiosks further along in another wing – a bit of signage or ushering would have helped. 
The biggest debate proliferating the boards on Twitter and the DML concerns the ethics of live tweeting during the conference and the use of electronic devices to surreptitiously record or photograph someone’s poster or oral presentation. Perhaps surreptitiously is a misnomer since most of it is actually quite blatant.
I do not intend to go into great detail on this matter since, as I mentioned, this is an ongoing discussion on the DML and I advise you to check out Jon Tennant’s excellent blogpost here and take the time to wade through the comments as well which will give you an idea of the extent and various opinions on the issue.
I believe this to be a difficult issue and nearly everyone agrees that the society will need to clarify its rules regarding live tweeting and social media – in fact all forms of electronic communication. But presently we are notified that information can indeed be disseminated once the presentation is underway so people cannot realistically be criticised now – not as the rule currently stands.
Secondly, I believe the society has also made a rod for its own back by releasing the abstracts to the public. When I first joined the society, the abstracts volume/PDF was only available to members only but last year I was amazed when the abstracts were available on an open link. Now I am a proponent of open access as much as anyone but when the society did this then every man and his dog was able to read the abstracts and any hope of maintaining a reasonable embargo was gone.
I know that I actually made a couple of appeals on specific sites to ask people to refrain from discussing the abstracts to help protect the authors work but I knew it was to no avail and that the cat was out of the bag. In light of this then, how realistic can it be to expect delegates of the conference not to “live tweet” when the abstracts and the overall points of the research have been in the public domain for weeks?
The concern over photography and/or video footage of presentations/posters is yet another point of contention. And yet it shouldn’t be since the society states “Still photography, video and/or audio taping or any other electronic recording at the SVP Annual Meeting is strictly prohibited.” And yet this rule has been quite openly and blatantly flouted by a minority which has also encouraged others to break the rule. Of course the biggest concern here is that research could possibly be stolen, utilised and maybe even published before the original author(s) has hardly had time to finish and proof read his own work.
Probably the biggest single factor here is that there is no official (or unofficial for that matter) form of policing at the conference. I accept that as members we should all be considered Police but nobody challenges anybody about use of mobile phones, ipads and cameras – not once have I seen it. I have seen the blatant use of tablet–like devices or ipads being held aloft to take video footage of presentations as well as photographs. I have never said anything to be honest but then nobody else has either.
And, I have to confess, that I have actually photographed a couple of posters for my own benefit as well since I was getting frustrated at watching others continually flouting the rule. In retrospect, this was a stupid thing to do and is something I would not do again but demonstrates my earlier point that unless rules are enforced then others are likely to jump on the bandwagon.
I must emphasise that the images I took were for my benefit only and are not, nor will they ever be, in the public domain but unless we do something, then I am sure there is a chance that somebody’s intellectual property may very well duplicated or plagiarised although I believe that possibility is absolutely minimal. In general we are a pretty decent lot.
So we simply need a clarification from the society regarding what is permissible and what is not and then we have to enforce it. Whether it is about social media or photography there must be some form of structure that is crystal clear and made apparent to all and maybe even a form of sanction for a serial offender. But I genuinely hope that this never needs to happen.
So next up comes a review of some talks and posters that caught my eye and made my ears prick up. One animal I will not be discussing, based on my observation at SVP, is Spinosaurus and I will reveal why next time.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

SVP 2014 - Berlin

 Well it is that time of year again and, despite not being able to blog as much as I would have liked to have done, I am still delighted to be able to attend this year’s Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s conference. This year it is a fairly local event for me being held, as it is, in Berlin in Germany and continues the society’s’ recent commitment to hold the event outside of the USA every fifth year. On the first occasion (2009) it was held in Bristol in the UK and I understand that the society was looking outside of Europe initially for this meeting but events transpired that required it being held in Berlin.
As usual I have been going through the abstract volume marking out what I want to see and there are far more posters of interest this year although there are still many oral presentations that I am keen to see. It will be interesting to see how the vertical presentation of the posters will affect the ability of people to see them clearly and I know that this is causing some concern amongst a few of my colleagues but until we see how it goes it is probably best not to be too alarmist.
Again, what stands out for me, is the degree of research that features further progressive, and I have to say, impressive futuristic technology that is enabling palaeontologists to be able to reveal information that even five years ago would have been impossible to ascertain. This is an exciting and dynamic branch of our science that shows no signs of abating and simply by comparing research presented at last year’s conference, with what is being presented in Berlin, highlights the relentless pace of technological progression and enhancement that is wonderfully inevitable within this field. I cannot wait to see what wonders will be revealed over the next ten years and beyond.
The trip also enables me to visit the wonderful   Museum für Naturkunde – something I have always wanted to do but never quite got round to doing. Although the welcome reception for the meeting will be held at the museum on the Wednesday evening, we do intend to go to the museum on the Tuesday for a much more laid back look at the collection and I can hardly wait to see the fabled material from Tendaguru – one of the truly great dinosaur bone collections in the world.

Of course one of the best things about SVP is the chance to catch up with so many friends and colleagues from around the world and it looks like many of them are going to be there so I am really looking forward to a great event. This enables you to be able to network with colleagues and discuss future research and field work and is a great opportunity for our group to continue to register its presence in the palaeoworld.
This will be my last SVP meeting for two years so I will not be in Dallas next year but I hope to be back in Salt Lake City in 2016. However, the fact that I have managed to attend the last three, including Berlin, represents a nice run and I am constantly aware of how lucky I have been to attend these wonderful meetings – I never take these things for granted.
And the reason for not going to Dallas in 2015? Well next year will represent a great opportunity for me and I am hopeful that I will be spending three weeks doing field work in the USA which is, of course, subject to changes that can occur when these things are first planned. But the outlook is positive and I am excited by the prospect.
So it is my intention to report on this year’s meeting and some of the research that will be presented and hopefully to blog about it on my return but for now – onward to Berlin!