Scientists and science itself both profit from a social media presence, because digital science communication is far more than just self-marketing
Scientists who tweet, blog, use Instagram or produce podcasts are still a rare species – especially in Germany. According to a recent study1, only every second junior researcher in Germany is convinced that communicating science to the public can boost his or her own career. In contrast, three-quarters of researchers from Asia and the USA agree with this statement. But how does visibility on the Internet actually work, and which advantages do Twitter and other social media platforms offer for individual scientists and research in general?
Nowadays, whoever is looking for information about a person or a topic uses search engines. This also applies to academic selection committees that review applicants for postdoc or professorial positions, but also to graduates who search the web to find a suitable lab group for their continued careers in science. Even journalists use Google to find communicative experts for articles and interviews. Scientists who do not have online profiles miss out on opportunities to be found and greatly limit the visibility of both themselves as people and their research.
Blogs and other social media expand the possibilities of scientific discourse. Between publications, research designs and theses can be discussed with peers via Twitter or in blog comments, and sharing research and thought processes can lead to new ideas for publications. In addition, informal communication via online channels can easily lead to new connections with peers or entire research cooperations that might never have existed without an initial conversation on Twitter. At conferences, the microblogging service acts as a feedback channel and organisational aid, and when you already know each other via Twitter, the ice is broken faster and networking at a symposium becomes much easier. Spending some time reading Twitter each day means staying up to date on the latest developments in your field of research, job opportunities and upcoming scientific events. A study1 published in 2016 even confirmed that posting articles on Twitter has a positive effect on citation rates.
Melissa Terras, Professor at University College in London, reported in an article, titled “Is blogging and tweeting about research papers worth it? The Verdict”2, about how she promoted her articles via Twitter, with one exception. The articles she tweeted were downloaded between 142 and 297 times, whereas the article not tweeted was downloaded only twelve times, although it was available online at the same location.
Scientists can best showcase themselves and their dedication to their research with their own websites. A website is the foundation of an online presence; it displaces any unfavourable Google results and is often the top search result. As opposed to a simple profile on an institute or university page, a website offers you more scope for introducing yourself and your research, and if you change jobs, your online scientific profile is retained. A personal web presence also offers sufficient space to publish videos, photos, presentations or interim results of your research.
There is virtually no limit to the creative use of social media. Twitter can be used as a teaching tool3 or a way to retell events from history4. Sometimes, however, it is a way to reassure yourself that other scientists are also facing similar challenges. For example, researchers around the world share their everyday research life on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtags #phdchat, #phdlife and #showusyourscience.
Being successful on social media requires some clear goals. What do I want to achieve with my online activities? Establish a network of scientific colleagues? Or communicate scientific concepts to a non-scientific audience? Only once you have decided on this you can choose which platform is most suitable. Using your full name on social media means these profiles can also be found by search engines.
If you would rather stay anonymous during your initial forays online, you can register using a pseudonym or start off by just reading other peoples’ posts, rather than posting yourself. Every social network functions differently and it takes time to get to know the conventions of each platform. You can also use your offline contacts to help build your online network: simply enter the name of an institute colleague into Twitter and see who they are connected to.
A study completed in 20115 found that scientists retweet more often than other user groups. However, if you want to use social media effectively, you will need to interact with others. This means being confident in speaking up and participating in online discussions. Scientists with a large number of followers understand how to show their personality and their ability to engage in conversations; their posts focus on scientific topics, they curate content from other scientists or they enthusiastically provide help online. Jule Specht6, Professor of Psychology at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, is also outspoken about scientific policy and has over 1500 followers on Twitter.
Although writing a regular science blog takes a lot of time, good blog posts can be disseminated widely and linked via social media. Each blog post is another opportunity to be found online as an expert. An analysis of 126 science blogs7 showed that 72 per cent of bloggers also have a Twitter account, which is considered the most important social network in science. There is also a growing scientific community on Instagram; female scientists in particular, such as neuroscience student Stina Börchers8, use the platform to explain science visually or show what everyday life in the lab is like. Inspiration and motivation tend to be the focus here, whereas Twitter is used more for news and events. Facebook is the least-used professional network, but it is used by scientists to stay connected with colleagues and university friends. Deciding on which channel is most appropriate depends not only on your personal goal, but also just as much on where you feel most comfortable and where you can best communicate the benefits of your own field of science.
Author: Susanne Geu
1 Brandon K. Peoples et al.: Twitter Predicts Citation Rates of Ecological Research. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0166570
5 Katrin Weller et al.: Citation Analysis in Twitter. Approaches for defining and measuring information flows within tweets during scientific conferences. www.researchgate.net/publication/228405783
6 Twitter: @jule_specht (Jule Specht)
7 Hadas Shema et al.: Research Blogs and the Discussion of Scholarly Information. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0035869
8 Instagram: @stina.biologista (Stina Börchers)
Susanne Geu is a science coach and freelance writer. She helps scientists to become successful digital communicators. She shares tips and tricks for digital science communication on Twitter and Instagram.