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On Naïveté Among Scientists Who Wish to Communicate

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My co-networker at Science Sushi, Christie Wilcox, wrote a heartfelt post about why she believes scientists need to jump away the lab bench and proclaim unto the world, SCIENCE! Naturally, I concur with her assessment, but her reply - that scientists must take to social media - is naïve on several levels and misses at least one key point that is often overlooked. To be clear, I am not singling her out, these ideas are have been around for a long time and come naturally to scientist communicators who have been paying attention for a while. Yet, her post is timely as I am thinking and writing about these things elsewhere at the moment with other colleagues, which I can't discuss yet. (See also her second Part 2: You Do Have the Time before reading on.)

This naïveté is fundamental, yet driven by a general lack of understanding how to measure social media influence and true reach. In another critique of Christie's post, Steven Hamblin notes on an example of shoddy journalism by a media professional,

"Brian Anderson writes for msnbc.com, which gets millions of hits a month.  When Brian Anderson writes a crap piece, a lot of people see it.  When I write a crap piece on this tiny little blog – according to my site stats - 3 people see it."

And this leads to biggest overlooked point science communications evangelism. Its the reach, not the medium, which matters. There is much to agree with in Christie's (and Steven's) article and I am looking forward to Part 3 because this is a dialogue we need to have in science. While Christie does a great job describing social media as a set of tools to aide scientists' communication reach, she makes a common, but unfounded, assumption that equates online presence with access.

57% of Americans say they talk to people more online than they do in real life. Scientists need to be on social media because everyone else is already, talking about their thoughts and feelings, having discussions about things they care about, and generally, well, being social.

I deeply care about the public's view and support of science, and am not being critical of Christie individually as this is a most common error among many people who are excited about the possibilities of social media to reach large chunks of the population. Let's break this into several points, of which I am certain there are more that I am overlooking.

For the sake of illustration, let's take Dr. X who just read Christie's post and perhaps several others' over the last few months and felt so inspired he is now going to jump the bench and dive full-speed-ahead into science communication. To begin, Dr. X will start a blog on the lab's research interest. After writing an intro post introducing Dr. X and the lab's exciting research interest, a few new posts are written about new papers in their field and Dr. X's opinion on a perplexing problem for the field. Naturally, Dr. X proudly creates his first insider LOLcat that pokes fun at a vanquishing paradigm that colleagues often snicker at.

Dr. X is ready for the world to read the new blog and decides to create a Facebook page and twitter account to share the content with the world, hoping for intelligent dialogue  with other scientists and questions from interested laity. Let's follow Dr. X on this journey that many, including my colleague Christie, many other Sci-Am bloggers and myself have undertaken.

  1. Time - Christie wrote an entire on post on the subject, go read it if you haven't yet. Often the first barrier to scientists' communicating is justifying the time to do so. This should be obvious. Dr. X must balance his desire to do their part for science outreach with teaching, research, grant-writing, university committee obligations, outside hobbies, family life and who knows what else. Time is at premium for most folks.
  2. Shared sacrifice? - In Christie's Part 2 post she had a very good suggestion that perhaps social media, blogging and outreach efforts could be a shared activity among a lab. Dr. X need not go lone wolf, there is a pack at the ready. This is a great idea - the lab that outreaches together, learns together - it teaches students the value of communicating (which likely improves their writing skills), gives the group a non-research focused bonding activity and fulfills university and grant missions. But there are good reasons for going it alone too. One the biggest drawbacks of scientists from participating in group initiatives, such as editing academic Wikipedia pages, is how to credit the work. Group activities get sticky and it can be unclear where and how much credit is due to each participant. Heck, we have this problem with determining co-authorship on papers. Additionally, while Dr. X wants to instill a sense of values to his students and postdocs, which include communicating their work to the public, there is a fine line to walk between encouragement and distraction. Students are curiosity-driven by their nature (until it gets beat out of them, that is) and tend to be a bit overenthusiastic about the "funner" side of science than the nitty gritty dirt work. But, perhaps I'm speaking from personal experience (as a former student).
  3. Technology - Starting new things requires initial investment in a wide variety of resources, some which you may not foresee. Choosing blogging platforms, deciding which social media services to use, etc. This initial hill can be much too high to climb for many, especially the older crowd - which, I would argue, are the ones who need to support this idea of social media science outreach the most. The truth of the matter is that it has never been easier to stand on your internet soapbox and proclaim SCIENCE unto the world! Many great, useful platforms like Blogger and Wordpress exist that are free and flexible and provide built-in tools to share your work easily over the social web. The real problem is actually...
  4. Getting heard - Nothing makes outreach more rewarding than actually reaching out. The initial excitement of starting a new blog, twitter account, etc. can be eclipsed by the deafening noise of chirping crickets. Going back to the first point, building an audience and a network takes time, and not just overnight, or even over a week. It takes many months of relationship building over the internet. This can be very discouraging, like yelling into a void. Its like in a zombie apocalypse movie, you wake up and realize its a ghost town, cars crashed into light posts and not a single soul around to hear you - a defeated feeling. This is where most of the promising science bloggers give up. In my many years of doing this thing, I've met, read and encouraged dozens of really talented writers who just felt after several months it was not worth the effort. They just felt they couldn't reach out to people and to do so on a scale that would make the effort worthwhile was something they felt they could not justify to themselves, employers or advisors.
  5. Finding followers - Social media really only has one requirement: to be social. To take part of this system, Dr. X needs to engage his audience and peers. This requires dealing with a wide variety or personalities and agendas. It also requires nurturing your network, which can range from commenting on other people's blogs to retweeting followers links and much more. Scientists who successfully engage in social media are those who develop friendships online, interact with readers and other random people, and show in interest in supporting the online activities of other scientists. Frankly, many scientists just don't have it in them to do this kind of work. Furthermore, we shouldn't expect every scientist to want to do this and many should, in fact, NOT engage with the public!

What is the solution? At the most basic, philosophical level, everyone actively participating in social media outreach, or who is broadly interested in it (perhaps even as only a consumer), need to encourage a university community that values science outreach. The online and social aspect of this is merely a tool to reach out and maximize the number of individuals or audiences. Faculty, especially tenured faculty, should create an environment that encourages and rewards activities that reach out to local communities. The  support of tenured faculty, in particular, is vital to success of untenured faculties' outreach programs. Many researchers get their grants funded by NSF and NIH; and at least NSF includes a mandate for broader impacts that they do take seriously.  In fact, many universities have mission statements which enshrine a belief to improve the local community that supports the university. For many researchers, your online outreach activities become justifiable after spending a considerable effort selling the idea.

Providing incentives for outreach activities, online or not, will go a long ways towards increasing participation of scientists and bridging the scientist-public divide. Perhaps too much incentivizing might result in poorly done efforts undertaken in order to game the system for the tenure package, but I doubt it. As either John Hawks or Greg Gbur said at Science Online 2011 in a panel about blogging as academics, online outreach is icing on the cake if you already have a good tenure/promotion package. If you are lacking in teaching or research, your online activities could be a detriment. Incentives, though, legitimatize the efforts and online outreach has the advantage of being able to be quantified in some respect by various metrics. With web statistics, many often available for free, one can now pinpoint many details about how their blog and website are used. For instance, if Dr. X uses StatCounter (only 1 among several free webstats applications), they will be able to

  • see the number of page views, number of unique IP addresses, number of returning IP addresses (all of which on hourly, daily, monthly, yearly scales) and how long each visitor stayed on his pages - all of which let Dr. X know how many people are being reached.
  • get a rudimentary understanding of how many audiences are being reached by viewing the keywords that brought readers, what websites link to Dr. X's content and how many readers came from there, and what links they leave Dr. X's website for. Additionally, Dr. X can see on the individual level where each reader went while on the site. Did they click around or just read a post and then leave?
  • get to know the readers very well: what operating system, web browser, and internet service provider do they use? What city, county, state, country are they from? The latter information can be tied to location based statistics from other sources, like government pages, about the population in those areas. What is the poverty rate, how many minorities are there, proportion of students that finish high school, go to college, etc. to understand at a fairly coarse level, at least, how your online outreach efforts affect various groups of interest to the universities mission.

So, I agree with the general consensus that more scientists online talking science is a good thing, but lets not expect it of them. Some are better and more motivated to communicate than others. I have seen way too many talented communicators enter the fray naïvely with a "build it and they will come" attitude, which sounds a bit like what Christie's post was suggesting. To be fair, when scientists like myself and Christie were starting out blogging, the stage was much less crowded and it was far easier to get noticed. These days, many scientists are filling in a wide variety of niches on the internet and communicating to audiences small and large for a variety of reasons. For many scientists, it can be uphill battle trying to sell your outreach activities to your employers and mentors. Going about it smartly though there are a variety tools and arguments to make on how your efforts affect people, even in your university's, government lab's, company's community.

Having been in the game for a long time, it is sad watching talented new communicators succumb to naïveté. Anything worth doing isn't going to be easy, likely never to pay you and might surround you with controversy. Yet, these are worth doing. Many scientists tell me they feel personally rewarded doing outreach and engaging in social media. The majority of these individuals do it in the "spare time" and it affects their research and teaching productivity very little. The key, in my opinion, is creating a culture of outreach encouragement at institutions. This can only be done by those who have any power in the institution and if you ever believed that we needed to engage the public more, now is the time to support those faculty, students and staff who want to make a difference.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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