• This blog was published as an invited blog post in PLOS SciComm. Click here to read the published version.
  • Visual learner? Here is a Twitter thread I made based on this same blog but presented as a Power Point presentation.

Hashtag SciComm: How Social Media Platforms Are Shaping the Future of Science

Early in school, we are introduced to the scientific method as a stepwise process of experimentation used to answer questions that have not been previously answered. Beyond the self-evident goal of acquiring knowledge through empirical investigation, a key step that we sometimes take for granted is the reporting and dissemination of the results obtained. For scientists, we are often primed to believe that this is comfortably sufficed through traditional publication in research journals. This structured method of sharing knowledge and discoveries has been the gold standard for decades for almost every field that uses the scientific method and, despite all of its flaws worthy of a separate blog post, has proven to serve as a concrete mechanism for recording and disseminating results within the scientific community.

Then what is the problem? The keyword in my previous statement is ‘within’. The outcomes of scientific research impact all of us and, as such, should involve the participation of all citizens. Additionally, science and all its advances require money… lots of money. For most of us scientists in academia, this materializes in the form of government-funded grants that emerge from allocations that originate from the contributions of citizens through taxes every year. Consequently, our profession, along with the advancement of science and society, relies on all of us—not just on scientists. Despite this interdependence, extensive evidence has shown that most Americans cannot name a single living scientist. The average citizen perceives scientists as either surreal entities with limited access (or interest) to society or as celebrities who appear on the news when an important issue summons them. Either way, scientists are portrayed as robot-like unrelatable beings on the verge of extinction.

What factors contribute to this non-existent connection? I grew up with limited resources in a family that still struggles with defining biology, the discipline that their son has dedicated his entire life towards understanding. Even in college, my exposure to scientific research as a profession was limited. Science textbooks, the main method of instruction in the classroom, are based almost entirely on facts and theories from centuries ago with almost zero exposure to the scientific contributions made by current scientists across the globe. As such, the average college student is only introduced and imprinted with images of archaic figures of unreachable wisdom. Historic men like Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Charles Darwin, and Gregor Mendel are the science heroes most of us will always remember. Yet, what student can self-identify with any of these scientists? I certainly did not. The only biology-based profession I knew about was medicine, based solely on interactions with medical doctors every time my immune system would prove to be imperfect. Even then, the use of highly technical vocabulary and paywalls that limit access to research articles coupled to the physical limitations of researchers to interact with the public, restricted these interactions. I had never met a ‘real living scientist’ before, let alone one that looked like me. Humans are a social species and we seek a sense of belonging and self-identification. If there is a lack of identity towards certain groups, chances are we will not be interested in participating in those groups. Thankfully, the introduction of the internet as a global system of communication is facilitating the closure of this gap. More and more scientists of all stages and disciplines are sharing their journey, passion, and research with the world everyday through social media platforms. These platforms are shaping the future of science and it is imperative for us to exploit these avenues as outreach tools to introduce, showcase, and defend science to the world.

Established in 2006, Twitter is currently one of the most powerful social networking platforms for scientists across the world. In a 2014 survey by Nature, about 13% of scientists reported that they regularly use Twitter mainly to follow discussion on research-related issues [1]. I recently asked my Twitter followers to tell me the things they enjoy about ‘Science Twitter’ and/or the scientists they followed. After over a hundred responses primarily from scientists, the top two responses (> 35%) related to how scientists showcase their human side – their passion and struggles – and the sense of community established as a result. A recent study found that most followers of scientists on Twitter are scientists themselves [2], which is reflected in the responses I obtained. While this is great for certain aspects of science communication, it limits the power of outreaching to a wider community. However, the same study showed that the types of followers became more diverse as the number of followers increased beyond a certain threshold. While not every scientist has the interest or resources to achieve thousands of followers, there are certain ways in which scientists can improve their presence and experience in social media. Here are my top five tips on how to do this:

Tip #1 – Have a goal. As for every meeting, experiment, or grant – the outcome will depend on the execution of a well-established goal. Whether you want to engage with other scientists, keep up with the literature, provide a service, or communicate science to the public, your goal needs to be well-defined and serve as a basis for how you approach communication strategies and profile crafting (i.e. branding). If your goal is outreach, define a specific need and what public engagement means to you and your future relationship with your audience.

Tip #2 – Follow and engage with lots of people. Starting a ‘Science Twitter’ account can be intimating. You are immediately surrounded by scientists of diverse disciplines with different communication styles and expertise. Follow journals, societies, institutions, and other scientists, and try searching Twitter using hashtags. Do not be afraid to ‘sit and observe’ before launching yourself into the sea of tweets. Communication goes both ways – always remember your target audience and make your tweets relatable. Do not overwhelm the reader. Your tweets must have a purpose – think about your goal.

Tip #3 – Be original, be you. You are a successful scientist because of certain traits that make youwho you are. Throw away the cookie cutter and the constant retweets and be your own voice. Readers will be able feel your passion and engagement through your tweets if you provide them with the right cues. Always remember that your tweets will determine the type of followers you will get. If you tweet about cars, you will be followed by car enthusiasts. If your goal is to introduce scientific research to the public, then tweet accordingly using your own style. Establishing and maintaining a consistent focus is key. Lastly, invite them to join conversations and discussions – communication is all about the audience.

Tip #4 – Find your niche. Each of us has something unique to share with the world. Something you are passionate and sufficiently skilled about. Find that distinctive feature within you and use it to convey your message. It is unlikely that your followers will remember your name, but they will remember something specific about you if you let them. I use the beauty of microscopy as a form of art to teach cell biology on Twitter. It is visually appealing, establishes a relevant context for discussion, and provides my followers something unique to remind them of my passion.

Tip #5 – Have fun. Chances are you are not going to get (directly) paid for your outreach efforts. Be confident in your area of expertise and in your approach. Learn as you go and modify your strategy as necessary, but always remember your initial goal and have fun while doing so. Twitter is a platform of network and connections – show some of your human side, too.

You may have doubts: “I don’t know, Twitter does not sound like a place for me.” That is fine! The act of tweeting is not a requirement to be on Twitter. Give it a try as a spectator first, make a few connections, and get a sense of how the system works. Always remember that we are all different with different strengths. If #SciComm is one of yourgoals, there are many other venues beyond Twitter – blogs, YouTube, podcasts, community events – with a need for passionate scientists. The world is changing. The world needs our voices and social media is giving us a stage and a microphone – invite your audience to the science that surrounds them.

References:
[1] Van Noorden, R. (2014) Online collaboration: Scientists and the social network. Nature. 512(7513): 126-129, doi:10.1038/512126a
[2] Côté I.M. and Darling E.S. (2018) Scientists on Twitter: Preaching to the choir or singing from the rooftops? FACETS 3: 682–694. doi:10.1139/facets-2018-0002