Why scientists use social media

Over the past few weeks, as part of my Churchill Fellowship, I've been speaking to scientists across the US and Canada about their motivations for using social media. It has been interesting to hear what motivated them to start and their motivations to continue. 

The reasons scientists made the first step in setting up social media accounts for professional use have included being 'told to get online/start a Twitter account' by research funders or their institutions; to voice general frustrations and/or connect with others outside of their immediate research lab; because they heard it was 'a good thing to do' from others or they wanted to connect with the public about their work. For many, it is of course a combination of those reasons.

Very few started out with an aim or vision of what they wanted to achieve. Their navigation of the networks and their choice of network was determined by what they were told to do (e.g. 'get on Twitter') or by word of mouth from other colleagues (e.g. 'You should use Twitter, it's great). Examples of why that was a good thing to do have included the opportunity for them to connect directly with the media, promote their own work, connect with policy fellows, interact with students, patient groups and other researchers. Their navigation of the network and the content they decided to post was on a trial and error basis. They tried what they thought was interesting and see if anyone responded.

No-one I have spoken to so far started engaging after a training event nor did they have any training before starting their social media accounts. Although this may be a sign of timing. The majority of people I have interviewed have been using social media for a number of years already - so before training sessions were available.

My own experience was that I started using Twitter after reading a book (Ben Goldacre, Bad Science) and realised that there was a community that existed online that shared my interest of evidence based decision making and thinking. That opened many doors for me to develop new ideas and connections in an area that interested me. I entered into that community and there was an immediate positive feedback - I gained insights, comments, entertainment and information that made my job easier and better so I continued to engage. It also increased my personal satisfaction in my PhD role.

An important step in the initial take-up of social media is the ability to find a 'role model' or entry into a familiar community (e.g. #phdchat) where the 'account' can then begin to contribute and add their perspective or content.  This first step can determine whether or not people find value from the network. Many people reported opening a Twitter account and then not knowing what to do with it, ignoring it for a few weeks/months and then slowly going back to it after finding a community that interested them or a person that they were interested in following.

These first interactions can determine within what community the account sits on the network and this obviously tends to be one that is familiar to the person/group running the account. Once in this network, the feedback needs to be positive and useful and this is key to whether the account continues and grows. If the person enters into this community and they find it supportive and helpful then they continue to engage online and use social media where they can. The examples of positive outcomes are similar to those listed above (the reasons others encouraged that person to begin a social media presence, e.g. new collaborations, support, advice).

From there, this first community can open up a network beyond the initial one, through shared conversations and interests, and leads to conversations and interaction with new connections. This again has led to the formation of new scientific collaborations, informal support, scientific advice and discussion of topical issues.

The amount of time that scientists spend on social networks isn't pre determined. They log on when they have a spare moment, in evenings or weekends and sometimes if they know a particular event is taking place at a certain time (for example a live-stream or a Twitter event). This approach, although overlapping with their day-to-day schedule happens on on 'if I can', 'if I think something is really important' basis. It's occurs around what is easiest for the scientist and what is timing works with their schedule.

The growth of scientist-led accounts has been mostly organic and driven by the individuals behind them because they think it is of benefit for them. They drive their own communication for their benefit. Also and this isn't a secondary point, they find it fun and entertaining.

This organic growth in the #scicomm area is why I think (especially on Twitter) we have many overlapping audiences of accounts in the scientist or scientific communications-led content. These conversations are taking place between people that are in areas around the globe, have many different roles but share very similar interests. This is extremely powerful network and is why those that can get value from the networks are vocal and supportive of their time spent on social media.  I'm interested in finding out more about how this network works together and it's growth and development.

The question I am interested in is how to engage beyond that group that is already involved within science and science communication. From conversations I've noticed how those those that have a particular plan or goal online can navigate beyond these familiar audiences into other groups that are of benefit to do this. Quite often they report using key leaders within those communities to gain entry and interactions but they do this in a conversational way that benefits that new community and isn't in a 'We are telling you what the best thing to do is' - they encourage debate and discussion around a familiar topic that links the two communities. One example of this approach is the Union of Concerned Scientists who hosted Twitter chats in collaboration with the Mom's Rising network to discuss issues around sugar in processed food. The other key step here is the use of a hashtag that is relatable and can move across networks to continue conversations elsewhere. This fosters a new community around a new topic of interest, creating new connections and reaches beyond the initial community.

To utilise social media networks to their full potential I think this targeted approach prevents a large opportunity for research-led engagement. However, it takes an increased amount of time and development than the organic approach and requires time built within job plans and projects. Also, the employment of people with the right skill set and knowledge to perform these tasks. This approach means the engager needs to determine the communities needs, rather than just their own. What is the most useful network for the community? How does that network work? What language does that community use? How do form connections within it? When are they online? All of this takes a level of skill, learning and time to invest into that community.

This second model I think provides a huge opportunity for online engagement with science. It can foster real two-way conversations about science with new audiences. This cannot be measured with 'exposures' or 'impressions' but with knowledge of long term outcomes and the quality of conversations.

This June I am undertaking a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship to look at the communication of science via social media. I will be traveling to North America and I am looking to connect with people as I go. You can read more about it here.


  1. Even I too feel that engaging on a social media platform like Twitter is essential so as to connect with the outside audience and let them know about your research work. With such an active social media platform one can actually get feedback and suggestions for their work and hence proves beneficial for oneself.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

How many papers should academics publish per year?

How to help someone that is writing up their thesis

Getting Women into Science, EU Directive