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Jun 27, 2013

Science Gone Social

From keeping up with the literature to sparking collaborations and finding funds, scientists are storming social media.

Science Gone Social

A growing group of scientists are using social media to move their work forward. [© arrow - Fotolia.com]

  • Not many scientists have produced manuscripts as a direct result of participating in discussions on social media. Fewer still support their research programs in full by funds obtained in the same way. But, respectively speaking, Emily Darling, Ph.D., and Karthik Ram, Ph.D., attribute these outcomes to their activities on Twitter.

    Drs. Darling and Ram, both postdocs, are among a growing group of scientists using social media to move their work forward. Among the many platforms, Twitter stands out for more than its character-limiting format. For reasons not altogether known, it is the social media platform of choice among many scientists who are active online.

    Twitter, says Aaron Darling, Ph.D., “is an exceptionally efficient way to communicate about science, whether it’s carefully vetted results or wild ideas.” Dr. Aaron Darling, who is not related to Dr. Emily Darling, is an associate professor at University of Technology Sydney’s ithree institute. He says the social media platform keeps him current on the literature, exposing him “to useful ideas that I would otherwise miss entirely.”

    For many, Twitter functions as a virtual table of contents. By following investigators working in their own or related fields, researchers can access a curated compilation of published papers and conference correspondence, which is constantly updated in real-time.

    Some researchers use Twitter to quickly source solutions for day-to-day issues, such as tracking down citations or finding a full-text article (#icanhazpdf). Others are using it as a means of networking, expanding their access to colleagues outside of their own departments.

    “For me, I just feel so much more connected to colleagues that are interested in the same things I am, even if I haven’t met them,” says Dr. Emily Darling, a coral reef ecologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “The thing about Twitter that’s really neat is you have access to a much larger community.”

    Much larger, indeed. According to a study Dr. Darling and her colleagues have submitted to Ideas in Ecology and Evolution (IEE), the average scientist on Twitter has seven times more followers there than departmental peers.

    The story behind the Twitter study is one borne of the site itself. The University of Massachusetts Boston’s Jarrett Byrnes, Ph.D., was soliciting a submission for a special section of IEE he edits: “Anyone interested in writing a paper on Twitter and the future of publication in EEB for a special section of IEE?” he asked.

    “I thought that was kind of cool, so I did end up direct messaging him,” Dr. Emily Darling says.

    Turns out, she wasn’t the only one. And so, over the course of two months, Dr. Emily Darling and her graduate supervisor from Simon Fraser University, Isabelle Côté, Ph.D., worked alongside the University of Miami’s David Shiffman, Ph.D., and Columbia University’s Joshua Drew, Ph.D., virtually—via Twitter, Google Hangouts, and email, among other things. Having never met altogether in person, the researchers put their paper together entirely online.

    “It was really a tweet that inspired us to start thinking about how Twitter can influence research and the research workflow,” Dr. Emily Darling says.

    “By sending these very small science soundbites, you’re never quite sure where an idea will go,” she adds. “Jarrett Byrnes tweeted this idea about a paper, and a couple of months later we actually have written the paper, which is pretty cool.”

    Another IEE editor reports having similar success. Dr. Ram, a quantitative ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, says he often finds peer reviewers online.

    “Usually, you tap into the same people you know, but by the time you figure out who they are, they’ve published something [on a given topic] two years ago, so it’s very hard to know who’s working on that now,” he says. By making use of his Twitter feed, “when I am looking to name reviewers I can automatically think of scientists who are really into this topic right now and could probably give a fantastic review,” Dr. Ram adds.

    Arguably, Dr. Ram has made the most profitable use of social media a scientist can, at least fiscally speaking—his research is currently funded by a two-year, $200,000 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant he landed through an introduction by way of Twitter. “I’ve been lucky,” he says.

    Dr. Ram contacted a researcher he was following but had never met to discuss her work. Over the course of a Skype conversation and subsequent email exchanges, he learned that this researcher’s program officer at the foundation had been interested in expanding the scope of funding to include his line of work—food web ecology. This researcher Dr. Ram reached out to “made the introduction last fall,” he says. “I just got funded last month.”

  • Reluctance Remains

    Of course, there is a certain amount of tweeting to the choir going on among scientists actively involved in social media. As seen with blogging, posting preprints, and participating in non-anonymous peer review, there are at least as many researchers who are strongly against the practice of sharing scientific ideas openly online as there are supporting it.

    “In my experience, many scientists from all fields are rather conservative, particularly those who already have long, well-established, successful careers,” says CSIRO bioinformatician Neil Saunders, Ph.D. “Their attitude seems to be: ‘I have done perfectly well without all those new tools and ideas, so I don’t need them, and neither do you.’”

    To be sure, most scientists are not on Twitter. A recent survey from UNC Chapel Hill’s Jason Priem et al., found that only about one in 40 researchers is active on the site, Dr. Emily Darling’s team notes. Of scientists who are active on Twitter, around 60% completed their Ph.D.s within the last five years, the group adds in its report.

    “One of the limitations right now is a nonrandom sample of scientists on Twitter,” Dr. Emily Darling says.

    “We are a self-selecting group,” adds Dr. Ram. “We are missing a lot of the discussion that could be happening, which is a shame. A whole segment of the scientific community is not online, so we are missing a lot more valuable interaction.”

    Part of the problem, as Dr. Saunders notes, is resistance to change. But such resistance is not reserved for tenured professors—it spans the entire scientific career spectrum.

    “The way the incentives are structured, people don’t see the value in doing these sorts of things,” Dr. Ram says.

    That’s compounded by the pressures of perception, he adds. “Anybody engaging in this sort of medium is sort of seen as not focused, not a traditional academic,” Dr. Ram says. “It keeps people away who are more conservative, but it also keeps younger academics away because they fear they might end up losing out on opportunities to advance because they don’t want to be seen as somebody engaging in a lot of alternate forms of scholarly communication.”

    And there are other issues. “Trying to conduct an actual conversation on Twitter is horrible,” says Mike Taylor, Ph.D., a computer programmer and paleontologist at the University of Bristol. “The length limit means that all nuance is lost, and any kind of disagreement tends to look much stronger than it really is.”

    Blogs, he says, are better suited for scientific discourse. “Blogs remain the social medium of choice for science, as they have space to expound complex arguments but retain an immediacy that invites fruitful discussion,” Dr. Taylor tells GEN.

    Dr. Emily Darling says she hopes that by extolling the virtues of social media, more scientists will enter the fray. “By highlighting the potential benefits of using social media for both community and curation of news and keeping up to date, more people [might] join to make it a more inclusive community,” she says.

    Dr. Ram sums it up succinctly. “I find funding online, I find new papers online, I can quickly get answers to a lot of quotes, I can actively find collaborators, I get pulled into collaborations, and I also end up finding reviewers,” he says. “To me, it’s almost mind-boggling how I got around without Twitter.”

    “The role of Twitter in the life cycle of a science publication” has been submitted to Ideas in Ecology and Evolution and was published to the preprint servers arXiv and PeerJ on May 2 and May 6, respectively.

    Have you ever used social media to solve a scientific challenge?


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