Hubbian, SfN and the Infamous Cease & Desist

AKA: How we pissed off the most important neuroscience conference in the world

The annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) is amazing: fresh content, amazing speakers, a galaxy of satellite meetings, social events and neuro-twitter VIPs social gatherings (sfn banter). However, the program is HUGE and finding the right stuff (abstracts, events, people …) is a daunting task that may take weeks of careful planning … and frustration.

Finding stuff: the frustration

SfN's Neuroscience Meeting Planner (Oasis) may use an UX overhaul

SfN’s Neuroscience Meeting Planner (Oasis) may use an UX overhaul

-On average the SfN meeting features >17,000 presentations spread across 5 full days of conference. Navigating the conference program (topics, techniques, affiliations, authors …) requires a functional – I would say smart – tool!

Unfortunately, the search tool offered by SfN  – Oasis’ Neuroscience Meeting planner (NMP) – is nowhere near the standards we are used to: we’ve all been spoiled by Google!

The NMP just feels weird. Don’t get me wrong: the website does what it is supposed to do but to make it work YOU have to adapt to ITS OWN “philosophy”.

Long story short: it feels old and it does not incorporate many of the UX principles that make browsing the web in these days such a pleasurable (and fruitful) experience.

Improving the Search experience

Hubbian interface

The interface of the Hubbian’s web app. We went through many iterations but this is the one I prefer

It was early 2012 and I had in mind a clear vision to enhance the search/discovery experience

1 – To harness the content

I wanted to exploit the semantic relations between the abstracts to build a network of fully-connected and browsable abstracts.

2 – To keep track of users’ interactions with the content

This “live data” would enable the users to filter/sort the query results by popularity (i.e. the number of views/likes or number of times the abstract has been saved in itineraries).

3 – Just one damn search bar and one damn page!

The NMP requires to go through different pages, using checkboxes and multiple search bars to search for authors, abstracts or presentation time. I wanted something simple and intuitive (a fresh UX perspective)

I believed that the combination of these features would provide a “saltatory” and intelligent navigation therefore enhancing the discovery of relevant abstracts.

I then teamed up with 4 fellow neuroscientists (not sure if they want to be named at this stage of their career 😀 ) all with complementary skills and we managed to have a functional web-app. We just needed two more things: the content (i.e. SfN’s abstracts) and a name for our web app.

The origin of the name: HackSfN

One single, clear, laser-focused idea

We’re improving (Hacking) the conference (SfN) with our service: HackSfN

I felt strongly connected with the growing movement of the Hackatons: to get people together to improve the status quo for the benefit of the citizens/fellow scientists. So, HackSfN felt just about right!

Let’s get the content (i.e. abstracts)!


We went full-speed and scraped the content from the NMP.

Ouch! that was not nice. Going back, I would do things differently.

We tried not to overload their servers – we performed a ‘gentle’ scraping.

However, that was not the way to go. But we got the content, loaded it up on our web-app at and we were live!

We promoted the app through twitter, emails … and we went viral!

… well, not really, but people liked the idea and the app spread among some tech-enthusiast (we were popular among the ‘pre-chasm’ crowd of  innovators and early adopters – see “Crossing the Chasm” by Geoffry Moore).

The Cease and Desist from SfN

Not long after we went live, we received this document from SfN’s lawyers.

It has recently come to our attention that you and a team at have launched an app named HackSFN that is being promoted in relationship to SfN’s annual meeting, Neuroscience 2012, to be held in New Orleans October 13-17, 2012.

I somehow felt optimist after reading this first sentence: <<Wow! SfN has their eye on us, that’s great!>> but then the letter reads:

Your app currently violates restrictions on the use of SfN’s trademarked acronym and violates our copyright of the annual meeting abstracts without our written permission.

Ooops! But not all was lost…

SfN appreciates the innovative and potentially valuable service you are working to provide, and would like to suggest an alternative solution that would advance the interests of Neuroscience 2012 attendees, which is our shared goal.

SfN’s abstract data cannot be used without a limited license agreement and we would only consider licensing the abstract data.

Awesome! They came forward with a really good solution – that we we were absolutely not aware of: a license agreement for abstract data use.

At that point I felt I owed them an apology for overstepping SfN’s policy and grab the data. That was wrong.

Actually, we had no idea we were doing anything wrong … we were just being very naive scientists chasing after the data!

Thou shalt not take the name…

The acronym “SfN” and “Neuroscience 2012” are trademarks of the Society for Neuroscience and cannot not be used at all in the app name, or at any time in descriptions of the service without our review and permission.

This is weird: I cannot develop an app/service that has the name Neuroscience and the date in its name/url. It felt like they owned the Neuroscience word/world -… sadly, this may be true on so many conceptual, social and scientific levels … but this is another story 🙂 – But hey! This is the ‘law’, we will change the name!

But then they dropped the bomb…

Please don’t Hack it!

We object to an app that associates our abstracts and/or our meeting with a perceived confrontational term – in this case “hack” — as part of the app name or description.


BOOOM! Hack is perceived as confrontational. This never crossed my mind. Ever! I was more on the Hackathon-thing side…

This the only part of the cease and desist that I found difficult to accept. I think it really reflected a stagnant, and “preserving-the status-quo” mentality that is – paradoxically-  found very often in the academic world.  I still have some ‘anger’ lingering in the veins  (more than 4 years later!) when I read this part …

Even during some followup meetings we had with the SfN management and people from Oasis (NMP’s developers), I wasn’t able to persuade them that “Hack” had a positive conception. Too bad!

I remember one of our twitter followers (sorry, I forgot her name) who, after hearing about the Cease and Desist,  proposed to change the name to HUGsfn. That was Awesome 🙂

So long HackSFN: welcome Hubbian!

Hubbian logo

Long story short, we changed the web-app’s name to Hubbian.

Hubbian is the contraction of two meaningful words in the field of neuroscience: Hebbian and Hub.

The app was designed to promote the discovery of structural (semantic) and functional (live data/popularity) links between the abstract so it made sense: connecting the unconnected.

Since then (2012), Hubbian has become a company and produced web applications for science conferences across Canada and US serving more than 20,000 online users.

As of 2016, we’re retiring the app because we never managed to turn it into a lucrative business. BTW – the web app for SfN has always been provided for free to both users and SfN.

Hope for the future

My hope for the future is for the word hack to be perceived less and less confrontational and a true hackathon will be organized at SFN.

I imagine a place were enthusiastic fellow scientists, computers and data sit together to find better ways to enhance the usability and the discovery of the amazing program offered by the Society for Neuroscience.




Leonardo Restivo

Behavioral Neuroscientist, M.Sc., Ph.D. - Passionate about Behavior, Data Visualization & Psychology. Read my CV+résumé. Follow me on twitter @scipleneuro