Scientists and Social Media

By Kate Stone

Dr. Bill Sullivan is a Showalter Professor of Pharmacology, Toxicology, Microbiology, and Immunology at the Indiana University School of Medicine. That’s an impressive job title, but it’s not his only one. Bill is also a blogger. Social media is an efficient way for research scientists to connect with the public at large. Scientists have tools at their disposal to reach out to millions of people, involve citizen scientists in projects, and collaborate with colleagues. Yet social media use is often stigmatized. Since Bill actively uses social media to communicate with the public about the latest research news, we asked him about the relationship between scientists, social media, and the public.

GotScience: What is your relationship with social media and science communication?

Scientists and Social MediaBill Sullivan: Social media has not only transformed how people talk with one another, but has also become the primary way most people get their news and information. More and more people are gravitating toward Twitter, Facebook, and blogs to send and receive news about research.

For many scientists, however, social media has an undeserved stigma attached to it that stems from the challenge of keeping one’s personal and private life separate. Of course, there are venues such as LinkedIn and ResearchGate that harness the utility of social media without treading on the boundaries of personal life. I think there is much more to be gained from these platforms than there is to lose—and the more of them you use, the more people can connect with your science.

Personally, I am a big fan of Twitter. I mostly tweet about science from our lab or related research in our field, or other science that I think is really cool. Due to the brevity of posts, you can comb through a lot of information at a glance, with the option to dig deeper if you wish. It is a surprisingly easy way to meet others with related interests. Through your visibility on Twitter you can meet new collaborators, get invited to write articles or blogs, talk to press, or get a seminar invitation.

I also have Facebook and Instagram accounts. In the past, I’ve used these mostly to stay in touch with close friends and family, but I’m seeing an increasing number of colleagues on these sites. This is making the Venn diagram of personal and private life gel more and more into a single circle, which raises some intriguing questions. Do you “friend” people who may review your papers and grants, or vice versa? Should trainees and principal investigators be friends? What about your department chair? These are good questions, and the answers will be different for everyone depending on their level of comfort.

Finally, I really enjoy blogging when I get the time. In 2014 I cofounded a popular science blog that we call THE ‘SCOPE. This blog uses pop culture events as a springboard to talk about science. We try to convey science to the public in unique and entertaining ways. In addition to the social media channels I’ve already mentioned, notifying specific communities on Google+ or Reddit can help draw more eyes to your blog post or research article.

GotScience: How are scientists currently using social media and for what purposes?

Bill Sullivan: Social media is today’s way of disseminating—and acquiring—information, so many scientists use these outlets to talk about new publications, offer their scientific opinions, or engage in debate.

It is probably more important than ever for scientists and science enthusiasts to get involved in science advocacy. Social media can be a useful venue to take science to the streets. Scientists are using social media to boost outreach activities, engage in activism, and get the public informed and energized about all things science.

But there are creative ways to harness the power of social media tools to advance one’s career and research goals as well. For example, you can make group pages on Facebook or LinkedIn to attract people with expertise or interest in a scientific topic. It is a convenient way to host a virtual journal club or lab meeting—post some interesting data or a paper and contribute to the discussion thread anytime, anywhere.

While there is no substitute for going to scientific meetings in person, you can attend some meetings virtually by following hashtags for the conference. Many people “live tweet” proceedings from the meetings, so you can follow along and even participate to a degree.

In times when research funding is getting increasingly tighter, social media platforms can be useful for raising your own money. Sites such as Kickstarter and Experiment are where you start, then you broadcast the message on your social media channels.

YouTube houses a surprising number of good lectures about almost anything you might need to learn. You can also watch people do certain techniques at the bench or post your own how-to videos to help train others. Social media in general is a terrific forum for asking the “hive mind” your scientific questions.

Finally, many journals, journalists, funding agencies, and scientific societies have presences on social media. Following them gives you real-time access to new studies, funding announcements, or meeting times.

GotScience: How might scientists use social media in the near future to collect data? Share findings with other scientists? Share findings with the public?

Bill Sullivan: Surveys are very easy to do across a variety of social media platforms, and special groups or pages can be generated to attract your audience. One way I’ve seen this implemented is through personal genomics services. By asking people questions about their phenotypes, these services can make correlations with genotypes and share this information with all users.

The more scientists engage on social media, the more useful it will become for all of those involved. Scientists not only share data and protocols, but also answer questions about techniques or help brainstorm ideas. Social media is also a great way to advertise positions available at your lab or university, or to discuss policies that affect scientists.

I think blogging is a wonderful way to share findings with the public, and many universities are installing research blogs on their websites that present their discoveries in a more digestible form. While blogging is more involved than a simple tweet, it really isn’t very taxing to knock out a 600- to 700-word post that explains your finding in lay terms. In my experience, people who blog often tend to write better papers and grants, so it is worth the time invested to practice communicating your research to diverse audiences.

It is important to remember, though, that having a social media platform is no substitute for doing high-quality science. If you don’t have quality papers or blog posts to promote, if you don’t do top-quality work or reporting that is reliable, social media is not going to serve you well, and the attention you draw could sully your reputation. Be judicious about what you share and cautious about what opinions you expose for all the world to see.

GotScience: Most of our readers are not scientists but have a high level of curiosity and love science. Is there anything else you want to share with them?

Bill Sullivan: Make sure the scientist or physician you follow is legitimate. Social media is a lot like the Wild West—it is unrestrained, but it is also unregulated. There is no authority checking the validity of tweets and memes before they get posted. It is a great place to become aware of things, but take care to follow up on claims with proper research from experts who can be trusted.

If you love science, then get involved! Trumpet the value of science to your representatives in Congress. Scientific research is woefully underfunded, and we train far more scientists than we currently have jobs for. Help spread the word about the merits of science and evidence-based policies, and you’ll be doing your part in making the world a more reasonable place.

Dr. Sullivan’s social media channels:


Featured image: Social media cloud. Mark Kens / Techndu via Flickr (Creative Commons).

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