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Why do birds tweet?

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Social media in science communication

To tweet or not to tweet? Not only are articles that have strong coverage in social media likely to be cited more in the future, social media is also the tool that allows us to communicate directly with the general public. In a time of fiscal crisis, when austerity diminishes national research budgets we, researchers should be able to show that our work has value. People should have an opportunity to discuss our research and judge it from a moral, ethical, political or any other point of view. And we should be able to defend them.

The majority of researchers do not use social media in their work, yet some of their colleagues are very active in persuading them to change their mind. So I think it is important to answer the question whether social media is good for academic workers or is it a waste of time, that could be spend on research or teaching? The fact is that participating in on-line discussions and reading all the posts that appear in your feed and can be very time consuming, and no one should think that he or she will build solid on-line presence with no work.

One of the most striking examples, of the view of some academics on social media and blogging involvement, was the negative grant review that claimed that “Eisen (…) may not have the bandwidth to coordinate this on such a large project alone, especially given his high time commitment to his blog”. To be honest I am also impressed by the fact that Jonathan Eisen is able to be so active on the Internet and coordinate the work of his laboratory at the same time, although I know that some people simply spend less time sleeping and resting. Anyway, if we assume that tweeting or blogging needs work, is it worth it once in a while?

In my opinion there are 5 main advantages of social media involvement.

1) It may foster your career development

Research has shown that the correlation between social media coverage (represented by altmetrics scores, which includes the main social media platforms and blogs) and citations is relatively low, although the main reason for this low correlation is the fact that fewer papers attract social media attention than those that get cited. Being both cited and attracting social media attention is the privilege of a relatively small number of papers, but there are still plenty of papers that achieve some citations but have no social media coverage.

On the other hand, articles that have strong coverage in social media are likely to be more cited in the future. A big number of tweets or posts about an article brings it to more viewers and results consequently in more downloads. There is a long distance between readership and citation. Some articles that are well known might rarely be cited, depending on the topic (e.g. it is usually easier to get citations when describing new methods than presenting new outputs, see the post “What we can learn from recent citation rankings”), although it is quite certain that heavily tweeted articles increase an author’s recognizability and increase the probability of being cited. (Need further reading? Try here:1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5)

Having your own social media profile, increases the possibility that other people will post or tweet about you and your research. It also gives you an opportunity to influence and maintain the current discussion about your works.

Good social media usage may also increase your ability to make new academic connections, but remember that it will not replace physical involvement in the scientific community.


Conceptual model of the relationship between social attention, article view and citation

Image source: Xianwen Wang, Chen Liu, Zhichao Fang, Wenli Mao, From Attention to Citation, What and How Does Altmetrics Work? ArXiv:1409.4269 [cs.DL]

2) Discussion lies at the heart of academia

Social media abolishes the limits of time and space, making discussions boundless. This is really what science is about. I am pretty sure that immediate international feedback may make you a better researcher, although do not be disappointed when it does not come. A lot of researchers in your field fight for international attention. But regardless thanks to Internet you can easily discuss your work with a colleague in a different location to yours. This might be useful.

3) We, the researchers, depend on public funding and we should be able to convince the general public that academic research is valuable and necessary

I hold a PhD in sociology, and to be honest when I analyse the public debate from the 60s and 70s, I think that something bad has happened to our society. Research outputs in the fields of the humanities and social science used to be a regular part of the everyday debate about politics, social problems, culture and ethical issues that we were facing 40 or more years ago. And in my opinion, they are not any more. Now information from these fields is only breaking into the mainstream if it can be reduced to short, simple news, which does not contradict dominant opinions. 20 years ago we could blame the journalists and media producers for this fact, but we cannot do this today. Social media is the tool that allows us to communicate directly with the general public, politicians, opinion leaders, journalists and anyone who is interested in our work. In a time of fiscal crisis, when austerity diminishes national research budgets we, the social researchers should be able to show the general public that our work has value. Otherwise our disciplines will plunge into dangerous stagnation, and will probably disappear in the future. It is for this reason, that since our work has value, that it will also be bad for society to lose it. Thus we have an obligation toward ourselves and towards the general public to prevent this loss, and now we have the tools to do so. (This point was made earlier by Carly Strasser).

4) Society has the right to be informed about our research and to discuss it openly

“Every scientist should also be a popularizer and should be trained to be so. Because people need to know where we are, and need to make decisions.” – told me Sergio Canavero, who is researching head transplants. This is right. People should have an opportunity to discuss our research and to judge it from moral, ethical, political or any other point of view. And we should be able to defend them. Whether we like it or not, we are part of a broader, collective entity and all the time we use public funding (even when we have a private scholarship, we often build on the work of other researchers which are publicly funded).

5) We should be able to attract high school students to our work to find followers

This is also important to me. And social media might be very useful here.

Of course there is a big difference between using social media to communicate with peer scientists (which is important to develop your research and career) and popularization. But in the case of social media this difference is as small as possible and lies in language only. Believe me that journalists, popularizers and passionates use social media to follow the works of professional scientists, even if they themselves do not try to be understandable.

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