Harnessing Social Media For Science: Part 2: Collaboration and Education

My more candid readers have pointed out that I promised to convince you that scientists should be on social networks and my first post in this series managed only to demonstrate that social networks are big. I didn’t want to belabor the point but hopefully I also partially convinced you that people are making big gains (in cash or publicity) from their social media presence. Now it’s time to elaborate a bit on why I think scientists should join these networks.

First, and most obviously, social networks are a great way for scientists to… network. We all know that networking is important, that’s part of the reason we go to conferences. Twitter connects scientists from all over the world instantly. If you want to find people with similar interests, brainstorm with someone in a totally different field or just get a sense of what others are talking about, spend a day on twitter following some of the scientists in your field. Real, valuable, scientific conversations are happening daily online. Twitter has a reputation for inanity, after all how much can we say of worth in 140 characters? The answer is a lot, and distilling conversations and points to just a couple of short sentences is itself a valuable skill. Twitter is intimidating to the uninitiated (I’m thinking about ways around that) but I’d strongly encourage scientists at any level in their career to create an account and give it a try.

There are quite a few other social networks springing up specifically for scientists to network, collaborate and brainstorm. If you’re interested here are a few that I’ve looked into from time to time: mendeley.com, f1000.com, academia.edu. These social web portals are a great way for scientists to meet, discuss and share ideas but I think they miss the great potential of social networks: reaching outside the scientific bubble.

There is an epidemic of science illiteracy plaguing the United States. 72% of Americans can’t pass a basic science literacy test (1). This test covers basic information assumed in order to understand the NYTimes Science section or a NOVA program on TV. The test questions include “Did modern humans live alongside dinosaurs?” and “Does the Earth revolve around the sun?” Participants only need to answer 20 of the 30 questions in order to be considered science literate and almost three quarters of Americans can’t cross that threshold! Furthermore, two thirds of Americans can’t name a living scientist (2). These two findings, in my mind, are a tragedy.

I think that science illiteracy takes two critical forms. The first is a lack of knowledge about the facts scientists do agree upon (I’m thinking evolution and climate change here). The second is a basic lack of understanding about science itself as a discipline, as a process. Scientists on social networks have a chance to change this.

According to the most recent survey I can find, put out by the Pew Center, some forty million Americans rely on the internet as their primary source of news and information about science (3). Now this survey was conducted in 2006. As a sense of scale, Facebook was 5 orders of magnitude smaller back then. I’m sure this number has increased in the intervening years. If tens of millions of Americans (lets ignore the rest of the world for now) are looking online for science information but very few scientists have a significant online presence, where are they getting that science information?

Well, this begs the question, who do scientists rely on to publicize their findings? The answer, largely, is journalists. This is a problem because for every conscientious, well-informed journalist there are many more who don’t fully understand the research they’re reporting on or who intentionally highlight (dare I say misrepresent?) components of research in order to grab headlines. (See here for a diagrammatic representation of the science news cycle) And these are just the journalists. The story gets much scarier when you realize that many people think they’re getting science information when in fact they’re being fed information from interest groups with an agenda capitalizing on the title “science” to gain credibility.

So what’s to be done? In my opinion, the best way to make sure your research is being presented accurately to the world is to communicate it yourself, online, in ways that are searchable and easily approachable. The ideal format for this is a blog. Of course you’re reading a blog now, and while mine by no means represents the gold standard of science communication, this post itself illustrates some of the strengths that I think make blogs a valuable tool for scientists.

First, it’s littered with links, so if something I write strikes your interest you have an opportunity to immediately follow up and continue learning. This is an exciting idea making blogs a powerful tool for education; following link after link around the world wide web can quickly and engagingly give someone a deeper understanding of a topic. Second, it’s permanent. This blog post will be archived both on this site but also on the web at large so if someone wants to revisit it in a year or in ten, they’ll be able to. That leads to a third strength: it’s searchable. The content of a blog is easily searched for on the web which means that people who are interested can get directed to your site quickly and easily. Fourth, it’s international. Remember I said that more than 40 million Americans are online looking for science information? Expand that number to the rest of the world which is increasingly being connected to the web. While there are significant language barriers to contend with, the potential reach of a single blog post is outstanding (For example, my blog has been read by people in 58 countries).  Finally, blogs lend themselves to less formal writing, meaning that, as Christie Wilcox, a blogger for Scientific American said, “jargon-walls” (4) can come down and non-scientists can begin approaching cutting-edge science research.

So what’s in it for you, the scientists? Well, networking has myriad obvious payoffs and Twitter is arguably an even better way of networking than exchanging business cards over cocktail hour at a conference. Blogging is a bigger time commitment though and the returns are a bit less obvious. For myself, I am passionate about science education, and so I am motivated by my desire to get people excited about science. Enlightened self-interest should also sway some to want to communicate more with the public: elected officials affect science directly through NSF budgets or legislated research restrictions and our daily lives through, for example, environmental policy. I want the electorate to know as much as possible about the issues and I think we have valuable information to share. If that’s not enough, there’s some cool evidence that published papers that are blogged about are cited more frequently (5) – see if you can’t boost your impact factor.

If you’re still not convinced, stay tuned for my next post where I’ll talk about using social networks to facilitate research projects that otherwise couldn’t happen.

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