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Social Media for Scientists Part 1: It’s Our Job

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

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Scientists. We’re an enigmatic group of people. On the one hand, we are trailblazers. We’re the innovators and inventors whose job it is, quite literally, to expand the world’s technology through knowledge. We’re quick to see the merit in new methods like fluorescent proteins and hit the ground running with them.

Yet when it comes to social adaptation and technology, we’re more than behind the curve. Although 72% of internet-using Americans are on Facebook, less than 2/3 of college faculty are. Similarly, in one survey, more than half of lab managers said they have never used Facebook.

It may seem of little consequence whether scientists are using social media. That certainly seems to be the attitude of many scientists – social media platforms like Facebook are seen as little more than ways to tell everyone how good the omlette you just made was or convince yourself that your ex’s new girlfriend isn’t prettier than you.

But social media platforms aren’t just digital water coolers. They are the way the world is networking and communicating. They are how and where we share information – with friends, colleagues, acquaintances and any and everyone else.

Last Friday, I gave a talk titled “Science and the Public: Why Every Lab Should Tweet.” My slides can be downloaded here (keynote for now – will get ppt ones soon!), but I want to go over the argument I presented. I have broken this into two parts: this first post covers why, from a global perspective, it is important for scientists to engage in social media. My second post will cover what scientists can gain – personally and professionally – from doing so.

So who cares if scientists are slow to adopt social media? For one, I do. I care because especially here in the US, science is poorly understood. Only 28% of our population can pass a basic science literacy test with questions like “Does the Earth revolve around the sun?” or “Did modern humans live alongside dinosaurs?” Such results might be funny if science weren’t so central to current politics. How can our nation make good decisions on climate change, medical practices or research funding if so little of our population understands even basic science?

Yes, part of the solution to this problem is to invest in better education. But even assuming we do that, we are ignoring the millions of Americans who are no longer in school. We can make the next generation more scientifically literate, but we have to consider the current generations, too. Adults over age of 35 never learned about stem cells, nanotechnology or climate change in school, so they depend on the media to learn what they need to know. These are the people who vote. They are the ones whose taxes pay for scientific funding. We need to reach out to them, and to do that we need their trust.

Contrary to how it might seem, scientists as a group are highly trusted by Americans. We rank second only to military personnel. But this trust is only in a broad sense – as a recent survey by Scientific American and Nature showed, the minute you start asking about specific topics, especially complicated scientific topics like the causes of autism or climate change, that trust fizzles.

How to we build and maintain that trust? We have to communicate better. As Rick E. Borchelt and colleagues wrote in an essay for AAAS, “The scientific community needs to understand what ethical practitioners of public relations have long known: trust is not about information; it’s about dialogue and transparency.”

Right now, science is almost entirely a one-way conversation. Scientists, as a group, pride themslves on doing cutting-edge research and publishing it in the top-tier journals of their field – then most feel that their part in the conversation is over. The problem is, these publications aren’t really communicating science to anyone but other scientists. Articles are kept locked behind expensive paywalls, and even those that are published in open access journals are still inaccessible, as they lie behind what I like to call jargon walls.

It’s not that non-scientists are too stupid to get science. Far from it. The average person simply doesn’t have the specific vocabulary to understand a scientific paper. I’m not stupid, yet when I take my car in to the mechanic, I don’t have the specific vocabulary to understand exactly what is making my check engine light keep turning on.

This jargon wall breeds distrust. Do I overall trust mechanics to know how to fix my car? Sure. But when one starts going on and on about how my timing belt needs adjustment, my fuel injectors need to be replaced, and there’s an oil leak in my engine that needs fixing, do I fully trust that he’s not just making up problems to get me to pay more for repairs? Not for a second.

Even worse, scientists pass the buck when it comes to communicating science. We write the papers, but then hand them off to journalists and say “here, explain this to everyone else.” We hand what we’ve committed years of our life to over to a writer that may have little to no science training and even less passion for the discipline as a whole. Then, we gripe and moan when the science is shottily explained or, worse, completely misinterpreted.

Guess what? As scientists, that is our fault. Sure, some science writers are worse than others. Some are perfectly content to publish hype-driven stories that neglect scientific integrity. Others are amazing – I would trust Ed Yong or Carl Zimmer with even my most precious scientific baby. But it is first and foremost the scientist’s job to share his or her research with the broader community. That means it is the scientist who is ultimately to blame when their research isn’t communicated well.

How can the public trust us when we’re not out there sharing what we do? When they can’t see our passion? When we say we ‘don’t have time’ to interact with them, to explain our research better or answer their questions?

Only 18% of Americans can name a living scientist. That statistic crushes my heart.

When I say scientists should be involved in social media, it is because we need to open that dialogue. If people don’t know who we are or what we do, they will never really care about or trust what we say. Once upon a time I would have said this meant walking down the street and talking to people, but we now live in a digital age. 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.

48% of young Americans check Facebook first thing in the morning. 28% do so before they even get out of bed (including me). There are now more than 200 million tweets posted every day. If you’re trying to communicate but you’re not on social media, you’re like a tree falling in an empty forest – yes, you’re making noise, but no one is listening. It’s not much of a dialogue if you’re the only one talking.

Scientists need to be searchable. We need to be available. We need to take the time to open a dialogue about our research. Yes, it’s going to take up time, which is a rare and precious commodity to the average scientist. Yes, it’s going to take extra effort and dedication. But it will be worth it.

Alan Alda said it perfectly when he asked,

“if scientists could communicate more in their own voices—in a familiar tone, with a less specialized vocabulary—would a wide range of people understand them better? Would their work be better understood by the general public, policy-makers, funders, and, even in some cases, other scientists?”

The answer is YES.

Update: my slideshow for the talk (though it’s much prettier in Keynote… just sayin’)

I’ve gotten some questions regarding stats references in the slideshow, so here they are: The Facebook stats are put out every year by Facebook; this is a nice info graphic post which sums up their most recent set. The 28% statistic came from this Science Daily account of Jon Miller’s AAAS Symposium, and the number who can name a living scientists came from this Research!America poll. There were also some stats at the end from a couple surveys, summarized in this blog post. All of the stats on use of different media for news are from Pew Research Center (here’s a nice summary post). Social media image credit: ThumbsUp

Posts In This Series:


Christie Wilcox About the Author: Christie Wilcox is a science writer and blogger who moonlights as a PhD student in Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Hawaii. Follow on Google+. Follow on Twitter @NerdyChristie.

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

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  1. 1. JeanneGarb 2:45 pm 09/27/2011

    I CONCUR!!!

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  2. 2. MorganJackson 2:48 pm 09/27/2011

    Awesome, awesome piece Christie! I’ll be giving a similar talk on the value of social media for entomologists and public outreach in a few weeks, and you’ve echoed every point I make! Fantastic piece of writing, and something which should be required reading for scientists of every level.

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  3. 3. ihearttheroad 3:01 pm 09/27/2011

    I love this. You’ve said everything I feel. I’ve taken to trying to lead by social media example in my own lab after running into the brick wall that is the resistance to all things online among scientists. I’m speaking to a group of science undergraduates in a few weeks about my research and research in general, I like the idea of including a bit on social media/networking…thanks for the idea! :)

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  4. 4. Mathaniel 3:09 pm 09/27/2011

    I agree. I believe one of the issues is that those in science are interacting with a lot of others in science. There are those who bridge the gaps out there though and they need to be tapped. I am in the process of developing a site to generate this more naturally. Right now we either get lost in the myriad people and subjects on twitter and facebook (and it will be the same for Google+) or the ones looking for science are the only ones finding it. The Theatre ZOO is specific but hopefully will be able to create cross talk.

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  5. 5. pknoepfler 3:29 pm 09/27/2011

    Hi Christie,
    Excellent piece. I couldn’t agree more.
    I am one of the few faculty blogging ( ) in the field of biological sciences and as far as I can remarkably the only one in the stem cell field.
    I did a piece on my experience as a stem cell blogger in Nature recently:
    I think most scientists are very reluctant to engage in social media, but this is slowly changing. Those who chose to not participate are going to put themselves at a major disadvantage. So far my experience blogging has been about 98% positive.
    Paul Knoepfler
    Associate Professor
    UC Davis School of Medicine

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  6. 6. Wowter 3:50 pm 09/27/2011

    Hi Christi, put you slides up on Slideshare as well, an excellent platform to share PPT’s in a social media manner. Should be done by more scientists.

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  7. 7. dwescott1 4:05 pm 09/27/2011

    This is great, and I’d also take it a step further. Simply joining social media sites doesn’t guarantee that scientists will be talking with people who aren’t scientists. QUICK – check out your Facebook friends or people in your Google+ circles. Notice anything? They are most likely people who readily share your interests.

    The real trick is to break outside those social circles and make the case for relevance. If you’re going to get serious about social media and you really want to have influence and credibility outside your own circle, you have to leave your comfort zone not simply with new technology, but with new community.

    this isn’t easy and it won’t overcome the challenge quickly. but as a PR flack I run into this problem all the time. A client thinks people will change the way they are perceived if they just start a blog. I tell that client that this is NOT Field of Dreams where you can just say “if you build it, they will come.”

    there’s a reason the most effective community organizing happens when you go out and knock on people’s doors. I’ve had that door slammed in my face a lot, but I’ve won some converts, too.

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  8. 8. antoniaissa 7:13 pm 09/27/2011

    Christie, Thanks for the article. You have verbalized my thoughts exactly! It’s interesting (from my perspective as the new Director of Communications for SCWIST – the Society for Canadian Women in Science and technology) to see that there exists a huge dichotomy between participating in sci/tech/eng trades and being “technologically” up-to-date. We would assume that these would be the entities that would be the most advanced, and maybe they are in hands-on disciplines. Perhaps it’s the “social” prefix to the “media” that scares many scientists and techies away. Be that as it may, it makes me realize how completely interconnected everything is. A technician cannot just be a technician these days, nor can a marketer be just a marketer. We all need to stay up to speed as technology is what facilitates our lives. If we don’t use technological advances to our benefit, and try to avoid them because a learning curve is involved, yes, like that tree in the forest: it will fall, but it won’t be heard. Thanks!

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  9. 9. JambeckResearchGroup 9:37 pm 09/27/2011

    Great post. I conduct research using culturally relevant technology in environmental engineering solutions – it is a powerful tool. As an environmental engineering Asst. Prof, I blog and FB, but my biggest surprise is how much I am getting out of Twitter and how much it is connecting me. It is where I found this post, and you!

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  10. 10. Dreamingspires 10:59 pm 09/27/2011

    GREAT post Christine. Thank you.

    We’ve been using social media in our Sydney Neuroscience lab for about 2 years now – we are a clinical research group investigating pain and we blog and invite others to blog about pain research. Our aim is to improve dissemination and skip the long journey that this stuff normally makes before it reaches people who really want to know, and it also provides an opportunity for people to see who the researchers are and what they are doing.

    BUT our challenge, and the question we currently struggling to answer is, how do we KNOW we actually making a difference?

    Is original research being read more as a result of our efforts? Is it making a difference in clinical practice? In other words how do we measure that? Can we measure that?

    At the moment we are having some great chats online via blog, facebook, twitter etc which is all well and good, but that’s in a ‘nice to have’ rather than ‘essential, furthering research’ basket.

    It would be great to hear if anyone has devised a way of measuring the impact a scientific social media site has on research.

    Research into the role of the brain in chronic pain

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  11. 11. the shmoo 4:26 pm 09/28/2011

    “you’re like a tree falling in an empty forest – yes, you’re making noise, but no one is listening.”

    this is true. it seems like a fight against windmills but i try my best to make people hear that noise :)

    greetings from germany!

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  12. 12. ibclass2012 4:35 pm 09/28/2011

    Brilliant ! I lived in Japan for many years, and science TV programs are so common and popular over there. And I don’t mean academic reports, I mean regular everyday programs, some short and others longer, a few are for fun, others are meant to educate. Young and old, thus, are exposed to the lingo and to scientific procedures and concepts. Because of this scientists, mathmatecians and engineers are not Martians, it could be just anybody. In America, I have recently found Facebook and Twitter to be a great resource on what is going on in the field of science and engineering. PS. I am an engineer by training, but not practicing my profession right now, I still find science fascinating and subscribe to Scientific American and Popular Science to keep up with what is going on out there.

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  13. 13. RC_Rooney 6:44 pm 09/28/2011

    I’m not against scientists blogging, in fact, I keep a blog myself, but I think we need to be careful not to take scientific research and debate too far beyond the peer review process. For example, after Felisa Wolfe-Simons et al’s Science article was published, bloggers immediately began critiquing their work and even her character. Many of the criticisms were later overturned, but the damage to her reputation was already done. Yes, scientists are trusted, but to maintain this it is paramount that we remain trustworthy – and this means being conscientious, rigorous, and open to peer review at all times. Leaping from the lab bench to tweet your latest results or carrying out hasty and inconsiderate debates outside of the solemn and sober peer review process is not helpful. Sure, promote science as a career by describing what you love about your job, promote your research AFTER its been published, or even weigh-in on political issues of pertinence to your field, but the kind of immediate and incessant updates that lend themselves to twitter and facebook are an inappropriate venue for scientific debate. I agree that our duty to communicate our findings extends to audiences beyond readers of peer reviewed journals, but I disagree that social media is a suitable arena. Work with the Research Services or Communications Office within your institution to promote your research to a more general audience or get involved with local papers or community radio. That’s what I do.

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  14. 14. Christie Wilcox in reply to Christie Wilcox 8:29 pm 09/28/2011


    I think you misunderstand my sentiment in this post. I’m not advocating that research results should be tweeted or blogged about before they are peer-reviewed, or that all scientific critique should appear on blogs. My point is that scientists need to be more social online, in exactly the ways you mention; talking about papers that are published, explaining their research in their own words, sharing what they do and why they love it, and if nothing else, just being social. Scientists need to let the world know who we are as well as what we do – that we watch football games or talk about our cats as well as the cool results we just published. And social media is the perfect venue to do all of that, alongside working with press offices and the official channels of sharing research results. Yes, the Internet will criticize – our papers and our results will be scrutinized on blogs whether we like it or not, but as least if we’re out there, we can present our part of the story, too.

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  15. 15. mannepowell 10:53 pm 09/28/2011

    I completely agree! And it doesn’t stop with the natural sciences. Many holders of PhD, and other doctoral degrees in social sciences and related fields have the same weaknesses and needs. An example is the thoughtful series of articles SA made note of in Lancet on child development. Unless a subscriber to online versions of the medical journals, this invaluable work is not likely to be picked up in the broader media in a constructive way — in part because of the tenor of the articles written in Lancet and the SA article as well.

    And then there is the question of how this body of work is then interpreted for public consumption — or is it really ready for prime time? SA has its rather limited, generally well educated target audience. The cumulative articles could inform foreign aid policy were the work built upon by those directly involved in that area. But as is often the case, the scientists frequently see their job done upon publication in the peer-reviewed literature. As Dr. Wilcox notes, learning to write for the social network world will require scientists to strengthen their communication skills. But I also hope it will go further in helping the scientist to become more grounded in understanding what non-scientists need to hear in order to become interested in and supportive of what they are doing. This also may call on them to develop research agenda that are more directly connected to day-to-day issues (while not taking away from essential basic research upon which development in applied research depends)

    Health and social science researchers are also often guilty of these same weaknesses — and likely for similar reasons: wanting to ensure the integrity of the work and conclusions drawn from it. We each adopt a precise language to describe the technicalities and nuances of our work; using general vocabulary could seem anathema to many scientists.

    Scientists in all disciplines not only need to become more savvy about how to share their information using social media, they also need to learn how to translate their work for consumption by the regular person on the street. And there is a large body of work that exists to educate scientists and others on the rules of how to do this — like the wheel, it need not be re-invented for this new application.

    Scientists tend to also fall into the trap of wanting to maintain the purity of their work — particularly when such work takes place within the highly academic environment, such as in laboratories and medical schools. Even in the best of circumstances, such as when university press staff attempt to translate the work for promotion, the results is frequently greatly wanting.

    Dr. Wilcox’ case for scientists’ need to expand their communication horizons vis’a'vis social media is absolutely essential in today’s political world as well. As a policy researcher, I call on medical scientists to inform my work on medical and related issues — because am familiar with this world from having once worked in a university teaching center, not because they make themselves accessible to me.

    So the task before us also includes updating the scientist community about how to get the most out of social networks, using new communication skills that enable them to frame their work to answer important questions, and address the “SO WHAT?” question along with a take home message that explains their work. They also need to resist the tendency to reach for the all-too-frequent answer, the findings are preliminary and more investigation is needed. This response while certainly true on a technical level for most research, may also suggest the scientist carefully reflect on if it’s about the scientist’s unfamiliarity with the electronic medium and use of non-scientific language, or the integrity of the work itself.

    NEXT, we need to “teach” or expose social media tools to those who currently don’t use social media — in particular policymakers — who are missing critical information not otherwise easily accessible to them. This places greater dependence for information on TV sources.

    Finally, scientists and their proxies need to be more vigilant, and factually respond to, misstatements and mischaracterizations of scientific work. We need to recreate an environment in which important science can be trusted by the public, as well as the private and public institutions recognized for teaching and promoting solid, unbiased scientific work.

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  16. 16. MedicalMileLive 12:21 pm 09/29/2011

    Very nice article. There is no question that social media will become more and more a part of our future. Embracing it will bring transparency to the forefront creating trust and I believe will tap the minds of unsuspecting talent.

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  17. 17. rgrumbine 10:02 am 10/1/2011

    I’m of two minds here. In one, is my actions — I am on facebook, twitter (rgrumbine), google+ (robert grumbine), and blog at about my science and whatever else strikes my fancy. Outside the e-world, I speak at a science cafe (coming up on the 4th time at the Annapolis science cafe, being the only person to make multiple visits), talk to school classes, and so on. If you’re interested in oceanography/glaciology/climate and occasional excursions to running, consider that an ad. But the main thing is that I’m active enough in this realm to have been on facebook before my late teens-early 20s children were.

    The other mind is the results of those experiences. The circles on facebook, twitter, google+ and people who comment at my blog overlap heavily. To the extent they don’t, it’s mostly a matter of some people who are already in the 18% who can name a living scientist preferring one platform over the other. The only place with much attendance by the 82% is my blog — not the social media.

    Since the 18% represent a far larger population than the 0.01% who are working more or less near my area, it’s still progress in terms of interacting outside my field and getting more and better information out from my professional journals to people.

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  18. 18. Strangetruther 1:06 pm 10/9/2011

    Came via John Hawks’ blog. Sorry I’m late…

    “I would trust Ed Yong or Carl Zimmer with even my most precious scientific baby.”

    I wouldn’t trust Carl Zimmer; when he tells the truth he’s fine of course but occasionally – like every time he talks on some areas I’m interested in – he perpetuates block-headed drivel, as I detail here:

    Much worse than a good scientist communicating poorly is a non-scientist spreading pseudo-science plausibly. And when, in the absence of their own sound scientific judgement, they choose theories and theorists to heed and, more importantly, to block out decade after decade, on criteria a six-year-old would use, they and all the others like them negate decades of hard work from the true scientists.

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  19. 19. Luc-Alain 5:30 pm 10/16/2011

    Well this is a nice piece, I like it. However, it is rather rosy about what a scientist’s job is and makes 3 incorrect assumptions about scientists. 1. It assumes we have time to do this social media stuff. Most scientists are university professors and I hope you don’t think like most of my non-university friends that means were on vacation when there are no courses in the summer! So these scientists are professors, they teach courses they have to prepare, most of us have a lot of courses to teach and also supervise graduate students. We are also supposed to do some administrative work, I happen to be a vice-dean of research, but most of my colleagues have to sit on things like promotion committees, tenure committees, grant advisory boards, curriculum committees and so on. Then, there is research: writing for grants, analyzing data, reading numerous papers, understading them, going to seminars, managing the lab, balancing the budget etc etc. So, this is professor thing is quite a full time job. 2. You assume that all scientist have something interesting to say. Well, if someone in a party actually asks me what I do research on, even though I’m a great lecturer and story teller, their eyes invariably indicate acute boredom. I’m so used to it it doesn’t even offend me, after all, why should people be interested in something like how animals decide to exploit others? This has no application, no cure for cancer, no help for global warming, nothing for healthier old age… 3. You assume a scientist actually knows something. What we know in science is what has been scrutinized by peer criticism and hence can be published in a peer-revuewed journal. Even then it may likely be wrong and then criticized by some other scientists. Truth is science is a delicate tentative thing. I wouldn’t leave it up to a single scientists to tell me about it.
    So in the end, the best thing is to have good critical and informed journalist go about telling the lay public what seems to be emerging as the current truth in some area they would likely be interest in. What do you think NerdyChristie?

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  20. 20. dgerson 12:32 pm 10/24/2011

    Great commentary. I have been working with private research organizations (research within corporations) on the adoption of social software and have discovered a deep conflict; research wants to be an early adopter and the business does not want them to be. The business management is very uncomfortable with the concepts of peer review, open investigation and, in general, sharing knowledge. The business management wants strict compartmentalization of information where as the research management is very comfortable with a more open approach. When pressed, the response typically is “how do we know they can be trusted”. When social software use can be “confined” to within the enterprise, these fears can be addressed through rules of conduct. I would say that similar rules of conduct apply to the use of social software or social media between communities (enterprise to academia, both to general public).

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