It wasn’t so long ago that scientists had only a couple of ways to share their work with the world: publishing in a research journal or presenting at a scientific meeting. This often limited exposure to a relatively small sphere of scientists. Today, with carefully crafted posts on social media channels such as blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, scientists can now widely spread the word of their latest publication, share daily results from their laboratory, debunk shoddy studies, and even find collaborators.
Even so, relatively few scientists embrace social media platforms as a tool for communicating their work, according to researchers at the University of Otago who recently published a survey of 587 academic scientists who use social media for professional purposes (PLOS One 2016, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0162680). Many of those scientists use social media tools primarily to communicate with other scientists, notes Kimberley Collins, the study’s lead author. “Some used it as a forum to share their research directly with the public and media, but most saw it as a tool to share research within their field and to stay updated with science outreach and communication.”
Diving into social media can be intimidating, though. To give scientists a better handle on how to do so successfully, a few institutions are offering courses that aim to teach digital communication skills to scientists.
For one assignment, students in “Social Media for Scientists,” also known as #caltech107, were tasked with creating a tweet about their research.
Áurea Martín Morris and Maruxa Martínez-Campos teach a course called “Make Your Research Viral: Social Networks and Science” at Barcelona Biomedical Research Park, a coalition of research institutes that houses 1,500 scientists and support staff. Martín Morris, a social media activist, and Martínez-Campos, a biologist who works in scientific communication, first teamed up three years ago to teach the course.
“Social media isn’t only for communicating with friends or for liking a video with kittens,” Martín Morris says. “Scientists are starting to realize how important it is to know what research other people are doing and to let them know what you are doing.”
During the course, which is taught in two four-hour sessions, students learn how to use different social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook. Martín Morris and Martínez-Campos say they are constantly updating the course to include new social media tools.
“We give them an overview of everything,” Martínez-Campos says, adding that students are encouraged to think about which tools will work best for their purpose and to keep in mind the limitations on their time. “They come out of the course having a feel for the different tools and whether or not they’ll be able to use them,” she says.
António Granado, a veteran journalist and professor at Nova University of Lisbon, has a similar outlook for his course on social media for scientists. He tells his students, most of whom are working on their doctoral degrees, “You are going to learn about a lot of tools. Some of these tools you will never use, but you will know that they are available to you.”
Granado’s three-day course aims to show students how to communicate with the public using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. “We really think it’s important to reach out,” he says. With the help of social media, Granado says, “scientists have a very good opportunity to communicate what they are doing directly to the public.”
Another reason for scientists to reach out to the public, Granado says, is that resources to do science journalism are becoming scarce in newsrooms all over the world. “The science that is done inside the university should not stay inside the university. It should be communicated to the public. In the end, the public is paying for your research.”
Granado has taught the course a few times each semester for the past two years. In addition to science communication, the course includes tips on using aggregation tools, such as Pinterest and Scoop.it, to help students curate their interests. It also focuses on managing one’s online identity.
Perhaps the most in-depth course in social media for scientists started at California Institute of Technology this past spring. Mark Davis, a chemical engineering professor, joined forces with lecturer and social media manager Sarah Mojarad to offer a quarter-long class for undergraduate and graduate students. “All the students are on social media, and the excitement for this type of communication is very high,” Davis says.
The course focuses on thinking about the issues students will communicate to their peers and the general public. The goal, Mojarad says, is to encourage people to think about how they can use social media strategically.
“I’ve been doing outreach for a long time,” Davis adds, “and I think this really is a new way that students want to engage. We just have to help them do it in a proper way.”
The class, referred to as #caltech107, features guest speakers, such as Veronica McGregor, the social media manager at the National Aeronautics & Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Sandra Tsing Loh, who hosts the syndicated minute-long radio science show “The Loh Down on Science,” spoke to the students about how to remove jargon from their posts.
Students also discussed how they would go about debunking bad science on the internet, posted tweets about their own research, and dissected how organizations have successfully and unsuccessfully dealt with a crisis using social media. For their final project, students were asked to compare Caltech’s social media presence with that of a school they thought was using social media well.
The class proved to be so popular that when it was offered again this fall, it filled to capacity in the first four minutes of registration. Davis also says that on the basis of interest from faculty, he and Mojarad are working on a half-day workshop that distills the essence of the course into an afternoon.
Often faculty members are still trying to figure out what they can accomplish with social media, Davis says. They wonder if it is a time sink that will detract from research. “We have to be mindful about how we show that it can, in fact, be a very powerful tool,” he says.
For chemists who are interested in establishing a social media presence but don’t have access to a formal course, the American Chemical Society has plans to publish a book about using social media to communicate chemistry. Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh, the book’s lead editor and an instructor at Central New Mexico Community College, says the book’s goal is to share effective ways of using social media to communicate, conduct research, and teach chemistry. Social media is only going to become more popular, she points out. Not taking advantage of the broad reach it provides would be a missed opportunity to communicate chemistry.