Scientists on Twitter

Last week I talked about how it might be more beneficial to talk to scientists about the science of science communication to get their buy in into the nuts and bolts of science communication. Then you have a backbone of data against which you can teach science communication itself.

One example I used last week was a paper on scientists using Twitter by Coté and Darling, published in FACETS journal on June 28, 2018.

Their paper answers the question: when scientists use Twitter, are they merely talking to other scientists, or are they sharing their science with a broader audience?

Coté and Darling reference several other articles about scientists using Twitter, including “Should You Be Tweeting?” by Bonette (2009), in which the author talks to various scientists about how they use Twitter to disseminate their research, stay up to date on research in their field, and communicate from conferences, and a paper by Bik and Goldstein (2013) about scientists using social media in general, including blogging, RSS feeds, Tumblr, Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Coté and Darling note that:

” papers that are tweeted about more often…accumulate more citations (Eysenbach 2011; Thelwall et al. 2013; Peoples et al. 2016), and the volume of tweets in the first week following publication correlates with the likelihood of a paper becoming highly cited (Eysenbach 2011).”

Their study, however, focuses specifically on what audience scientists reach when using Twitter. This is an important question, because in science communication we always want to know who our audience is. Coté and Darling aim to figure out just that using a robust and replicable methodology.

Does Twitter provide a platform that allows scientists to simply promote their findings to other scientists within the ivory tower (i.e., “inreach”), or are tweeting scientists truly exploiting social media to potentially reach new audiences (“outreach”)?

They studied scientists who tweeted largely about science and who were faculty members, so that tweeting was considered outside of their day job. They drew these scientists from an online list of ecology and evolutionary biology (EEMB) researchers which has ∼450 members and provided a good sample of tweeting academics. They used a sample of 110 people from this list, who had a range of followers – from under 500 to over 1000.

They determined the “reach” of each of these scientists by determining the number of followers of each follower, using the professional social media marketing company Nuvi.com. Each follower was then classified into one of 10 “types,” for example “outreach organizations (museums, aquariums, etc.),” “applied science organizations (e.g., conservation agencies),” “media,” “government,” or “general public.”

They identified inflection points in follower numbers: the points where those numbers increased at higher rates. They found several thresholds of interest: at ~450 followers, the number of scientist followers increased significantly. At ∼870–960 followers, non-scientist followers increased significantly. What was interesting was that decision-maker followers were more difficult to obtain, requiring ∼2200 followers or more. Their conclusion?

On average, academic scientists with more than ∼1000 followers had more non-scientist than scientist followers

and

Tweeting academic scientists have more followers who are scientists than who are non-scientists.

They do provide a few caveats, however:

  1. High numbers, diversity, and reach of followers offer no guarantee that messages will be read or understood.
  2. It is difficult to gauge the level of understanding of scientific tweets.
  3. Social media is likely not an effective replacement for more direct science-to-policy outreach that many scientists engage in, such as testifying in front of special governmental committees, directly contacting decision-makers, etc.
  4. Scientists who tweet more obtain more followers – and these tweets will see more uptake if they have links or images, and if they are easy to understand.
  5. Scientists need to make their message matter to their intended audiences – many tweet specifically about science and nothing else, which can be a good way to get a dedicated following.

So if you’re a scientist, having read Coté and Darling’s science behind “outreach” and “inreach” via Twitter, does it make you want to join Twitter if you haven’t already? Does it motivate you to try and obtain more followers to move more into outreach than inreach? Do you feel more positive about using Twitter when you have evidence like the results of this paper to guide you? Would you check out the other references in the paper to get a more comprehensive view of how Twitter helps scientists connect with each other and stay on top of current research? Or do you think social media is still a waste of time?

I’m interested to hear from readers what they take away from the results of this study and how it might affect their Twitter usage.

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