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Social Media For Scientists Part 3: Win-Win

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


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I confidently believe that increasing the use of social media for outreach by scientists will positively affect how the public views and understands science. I stand by my statement that part of our job is to improve science communication, and as the world turns to the internet, social media is vital to that cause.

So let’s get selfish for a moment here: I’m telling you that you should take the extra time to add social media to your schedule (see my post on having time, too). But we all know that it’s hard to convince people to do something unless it directly benefits them (which is why we have tax write-offs for charitable donations, for example). So what do you, as a scientist, have to gain from engaging in social media?

A lot, actually. Here are five big ways that social media benefits you directly.

1. If It Was Worth Doing, It’s Worth Telling Someone About
Science is a labor of love. You do what you do because you think it matters, and you publish your research because you think it’s worth talking about. What better way to make sure your research is talked about than to start the conversation?

Just ask Peter Janiszewski, of Obesity Panacea. Last year, he and his colleague published a fascinating paper in the prestigious journal Diabetes Care. The problem was, it went unnoticed. For three months, his study wasn’t blogged about. It wasn’t picked up by the press. No one seemed to care.

But Peter cared. He decided that the paper fit well into his blog’s theme, and wrote a 5-part series on the topic of metabolically-healthy obesity, the final post of which was a discussion of his recently published paper.

The series was a hit. Peter’s blog posts received over 12,000 pageviews and more than 70 comments from readers during the week of the series. As Peter recounts, “Put another way, the same research which I published in a prestigious medical journal and made basically no impact, was then viewed by over 12,000 sets of eyes because I decided to discuss it online.” A few days later, an article about his study was published on MSNBC.com.

Sure, Peter’s tale might be exceptional, but the point is there is a lot of potential to expand the reach of your research over social media. This kind of exposure isn’t just for the sake of communication. As Daniel McArthur noted, “A fairly hefty proportion of the readership of most science blogs consists of other scientists, so having your work disseminated in these forums both increases your profile within the scientific community, promotes thoughtful discussion of your work and can lead to opportunities for collaboration.”.

It should be mentioned that multiple studies have shown media attention can positively influence how often a paper is cited1,2. Sure, blogging, tweeting or facebooking about your paper won’t guarantee it’ll be cited more, but it certainly won’t hurt.

Even if you’re paper is already being talked about, it’s important that you are a part of that conversation. As Paul Knoepfler wrote in a comment for NatureNews, “Savvy scientists must increasingly engage with blogs and social media… Even if you choose not to blog, you can certainly expect your papers and ideas will increasingly be blogged about. So there it is – blog or be blogged.”

Social media allows you to respond to and correct attacks or errors made by other bloggers, scientists, members of the press or politicians. As GrrlScientist explains in a post about scientists blogging, “a blog can be used to rapidly correct errors in mainstream media reporting, and to highlight the value of one’s findings while doing so. But perhaps most important, a blog provides scientists with a public platform where they can defend their research from misuse or misrepresentation by politicians and corporations that seek to abuse scientific data to bolster their agendas.”

In a nutshell, if you want your research to be out there and done right, there’s a strong benefit to you being the involved in the online conversation.

2. Networking x 1000
Part of social media is inherent in the name: you have to be social. Being social has this funny side effect of introducing you to new people and allowing you to create new contacts, both in the academic realm and outside it.

I don’t have to stress the importance of this kind of networking in a career. Scientists already go to meetings with the express purpose of networking. We know networking matters. Think of social networks as conference mingling on steroids: instead of rubbing elbows with a handful of scientists, you’re chatting with thousands of people from all walks of life, any of whom might become an important contact later on.

Yes, this might seem like choosing quantity over quality, but these networks aren’t just superficial – even those loose acquaintanceships can be beneficial. For example,social media can increase fundraising efforts by 40%. The more casual followers you have, the more the things you say will be disseminated through the ripple effect.

But even more importantly, a percentage of those online interactions will blossom into more. I know firsthand that this can occur – one of my collaborators on my PhD first met me through blogging. Others have shared similar stories. Bertalan Mesko of Scienceroll.com feels that “blogging and Twitter don’t just help me in my research but totally changed the way I interact with other researchers and collaborators.” Similarly, for John Fossella, who blogs at Genes to Brains to Mind to Me, social networking has expanded his scientific network. “Instead of getting feedback from the same handful of folks I regularly see in the lab, I’m getting comments and new ideas from folks who I used to work with 5, 10 and even 20 years ago, not to mention new folks who I’ve struck up online interactions with.”

When I asked my twitter followers what they gained from social media, they echoed these sentiments. Kiyomi Deards (@KiyomiD) said that social media has opened “publication, collaboration and speaking opportunities that would have been otherwise closed”. MarieClaire Shanahan (@mcshanahan), too, noted that she has made great connections to colleagues through twitter, and even gotten speaking invites. And for Sara C (@SciencingSara), tweeting is her “favorite way to keep up with current research and what technology scientists are currently utilizing.”

3. You Want Broader Impacts? I Got Yer Broader Impacts Right Here
You don’t have to make blogging or tweeting your primary form of outreach. Whatever outreach you might engage in, social media will amplify, allowing you to expand your efforts. I’ve had blog posts translated into Chinese, Romanian, and French, for example – my small effort broadcast out far beyond any audience I could reach on my own. This kind of expansion of reach is only good for you – after all, NSF calls them “broader” impacts for a reason.

All you have to do is be a little creative. Let’s say your lab currently does community outreach by going into local schools and talking about science, for example. Imagine how many more school kids could be reached if you made the materials you create or your lessons available online, complete with an outline of how the day was structured and reflections afterwards.

Or, let’s say you organize volunteering events which benefit the environment, like beach cleanups or invasive species removal efforts. How many more helping hands do you think you’d get if you posted them as facebook events or developed a network of local tweeps who like to volunteer?

Yes, there are lots of ways to make a difference without social media. But for each of those ways, social media can enhance and expand the impacts, allowing localized, small-scale efforts to become global.

4. It’s Not Narcissistic To Google Yourself
I have two words for you: Personal Branding.

Once upon a time, opinions of a person were based on resumes and references. Then came Facebook and Google. Suddenly, in a little less than a second, a potential employer or colleague can learn a lot about you. After all, the internet never forgets.

In fact, as the world turns to the web, if you don’t have a presence there, it seems odd. Just ask Danah Boyd, an Assistant Professor at NYU and a visiting researcher at Harvard Law. “There is no doubt that all faculty searches include a Google search,” writes Boyd. “One of the things I hear most frequently about a new hire is how disturbing it is that he doesn’t have a web presence. Something must be wrong, right?”

Being active on social media allows you to build and manage your web presence. Suddenly, you are controlling what appears as a top search result for your name. Potential collaborators or employers will find what you want them to, instead of what might be lingering around without you realizing it.

The best part is that they’ll get to see the real you. If you’re a good fit, they’ll be able to get that impression from your twitter feed or blog posts. Instead of being a name and a resume, you’ll be a person – and you’ve already begun charming them, even before they’ve met you face to face.

5. Practice Your Mad Skillz
No matter how good you might naturally be at anything, there is always room for improvement. I can say with full confidence that engaging in social media will improve skills which are beneficial to your career as a scientist. Most obviously, you’ll improve as a communicator. Tweeting, for example, forces you to express thoughts clearly and concisely. Blogging allows you to practice writing. As Drew Conway wrote, “a wonderful side effect of [blogging] is that the overall quality of your work will also increase, as you become a better writer, researcher and conveyer of complex ideas.”

Not only will you practice skills you already have, you might find you learn some new ones. I had never learned HTML before blogging – now, I’m in charge of updating and relaunching my lab’s website. Without a doubt, I am more marketable because of the skills that social media has forced me to learn and hone.

Citations

  1. Phillips DP, Kanter EJ, Bednarczyk B, & Tastad PL (1991). Importance of the lay press in the transmission of medical knowledge to the scientific community. The New England journal of medicine, 325 (16), 1180-3 PMID: 1891034
  2. KIERNAN, V. (2003). Diffusion of News about Research Science Communication, 25 (1), 3-13 DOI: 10.1177/1075547003255297

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. MedicalMileLive 12:34 am 10/12/2011

    Christie, you are a social science genius. I like the way you are promoting social media and if any professionals have any doubt where social media is going, they should read this article with the many references you have cited.

    Link to this

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