The Social Scientist
Though occasionally one may spot an overwhelmed academic at post-conference cocktail parties looking as though they would rather be alone with a good book, many are shaking the stereotypes for reclusiveness and introversion. Increasingly, scientists have been turning to social media as a means to expand their virtual sounding boards, to promote their work to a broader audience, and to advance their academic careers through networking. The first time I heard a professor exclaim in class “This researcher posts great stuff on Twitter almost every day—I strongly suggest you follow her,” I knew I had to take a closer look.
Scientists have plenty of options available when it comes to selecting a route to promote their discoveries, ideas, and advice to the world. Typical—and incredibly powerful—social media platforms include Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, but a study conducted by Nature found that a great proportion of surveyed scientists were active in a few extra networks existing only within the academic domain. According to the 2014 survey, the most common of these ‘science-gone-social’ networks was ResearchGate, which now boasts 8 million users. Academia.edu and Mendeley received honourable mentions.
ResearchGate encourages scientists to describe their area of research, to follow updates from colleagues, to upload published works, and to take part in discussions focused on their field. The site even calculates scientists’ ‘RG score’, which is meant to act as an overall score of academic reputation based not only upon the impact of published works, but also number of followers, how many discussion groups are contributed to, and how many answers to research questions have been provided to online collaborators—essentially, a measure of public interaction with content. ResearchGate users have found that their posted publications receive a surprising amount of attention and the Nature survey found that several of their respondents had entered into fruitful collaborative relationships as a result of their online presence. Perhaps a resource like this is something to explore, if you haven’t already.
As for the more typical avenues of virtual expression, Twitter is the darling of a rich collection of scientists. In an article published by Elsevier Connect, top science writers describe the social platform as a “giant cocktail party that I can drop in on at any time" where ideas, achievements, and future projects are being discussed 24 hours a day. No matter how famous and seemingly inaccessible your favourite scientist or science influencer may be, a front-seat to their public persona is always available to you online. Even better, if you endeavour to interact with these popular academic Twitterphiles by making your work and ideas visible to them, a ‘retweet’ or a ‘like’ can go a long way. You may find science journalists lining up to report on your work following a retweet from Elon Musk or Craig Venter.
Here are a couple of Twitter account collections focused on scientists and science experts who play the social media game very well:
One last science-relevant social media platform to mention is Reddit. One special feature of some Reddit sub-communities (‘subreddits’) is that they host ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions (AMAs) with surprisingly interesting and well-respected characters from the science world. These spotlight sessions allow users the opportunity to ask and possibly receive celebrity answers in real time. Even if your question doesn’t get an answer, you get to witness a crowd-sourced interview unfolding before your eyes, which blows me away every time.
Here are two great subreddits for science news:
The subreddit ‘/r/Science’ (above) features frequent AMA sessions and even facilitates ‘PLOS Science Wednesdays’, where recently published stars from a PLOS journal will field questions from an array of science-oriented users.
The options are vast and the possibility of becoming distracted or overwhelmed is enormous, but I think that the world deserves more members of the scientific community engaging with lay audiences and other scientists by way of social media.
Perhaps your next major collaboration or kernel of inspiration is just a click away.