Social media is no longer a new thing. But to scientists it still might be. There are few who are starting to take advantage of social media for professional reasons. What can other scientists learn from such use? What are the benefits and limitations?
To investigate this, three colleagues and I looked at some concrete examples. Among the commonly used social media, the 140-character microblogging service Twitter has been popular. We decided to survey 116 marine scientists that actively tweet to understand the role Twitter plays in the lifetime of a scientific idea – from birth to dissemination.
From cradle to flight
Here is what we found: Twitter can move conversations from the university lounge to a much larger network of scientists on social media. For example, a scientist’s Twitter following can act as a virtual department to spark and share new ideas. As shown in the graphic below, 55% of the Twitter followers of those surveyed consisted of scientists. Tweeting new ideas to other scientists can push ahead “open science in real time”
Scientists can also use Twitter to communicate far beyond the ivory tower of academia. For example, the remaining 45% of the scientists’ followers included people from the media, non-governmental organisations and the general public. Tweeting links to new scientific papers can reach journalists who might cover the story. In fact, using social media to build a network of media followers may be a new public relations strategy for scientists.
Scientists can also tweet their research directly to decision makers. Most members of the US and Canadian governments have twitter accounts and are actively using them. Recently, Barack Obama tweeted a consensus statement about climate change to his 31 million followers.
Several studies have shown that tweeting and blogging about scientific findings can increase their impact. Major funding boards, research councils and some tenure, promotion and hiring committees are starting to value all research products, including their social media impact.
Finally, social media can also provide a platform for critiques of published findings. Studies of genes that can reverse ageing and life forms that use arsenic instead of phosphorus were correctly criticised by a rapid response on social media, in so-called “trials by Twitter”. While Twitter firing squads can deal catastrophic (but deserved) blows to scientific publications, they can also provide a positive filter to highlight important new papers to the community.
There are, of course, limitations of social media in the scientific workflow. Putting new ideas freely on Twitter can raise the spectre of intellectual property ownership. Tweets are also effectively “science sound bites” that can misrepresent complex ideas. These sound bites could then be hijacked by outside agendas, such as occurred in the infamous Climategate email scandal.
Importantly, Twitter is not inclusive of all scientists. Most scientists active on Twitter are academically younger, having received their PhD within the past five years. This means that social media and Twitter are only a complement to more traditional academic social networks built through departments, universities, conferences and the peer review process.
Even given these limitations, the value of social media to me has become ever more clear since our manuscript was published a few weeks ago as a preprint for open review online. It has been seen by more than 1,300 people, half of these are referrals from Twitter and Facebook. We have received several detailed comments on how to revise and improve our paper. The clever infographic that you saw above emerged from the the social media attention our manuscript received.
Social media can be a powerful tool to speed up how scientists create, publish and communicate their research. As climate change, globalisation and technology change our world faster than ever before, it’s time scientists learn to keep pace.