Scientist and Social Media: So You Want to Sip the Internet Firehose

Part 3 of a series on scientists and science communication in social media

By Bethany Brookshire
bbroo-at-mail.med.upenn.edu

So you think you want to get involved as a practicing scientist in online science communication? There are many reasons to want to get involved online. Perhaps my recent articles have persuaded you that post-publication peer review could be useful. Perhaps you want to interest young people or adults in what you do. Maybe you want the public to see scientists as more than just people in white coats with colored liquid in beakers. Perhaps you want to hone your skills in online communication or writing in order to branch out and provide yourself with new and useful experience in an uncertain academic world. Whatever the reason, this article can help you determine which platforms you want to use and how you might want to use them as you enter the wild west of the internet.

Twitter: You may have heard of Twitter, the online platform where you “follow” people who interest you, and get “followed” by others in turn. This highly concise format is limited to 140 characters at a time, but that hasn’t stopped Twitter from acquiring a strong contingent of scientists. Many scientists use Twitter to follow other scientists, to share links to articles of interest, and to promote themselves and their lab. Twitter can allow you to connect with other scientists, follow information during meetings*, and even receive updates on grants via the NIH Twitter feed.

Facebook and Google+: We all know about Facebook. While it can be a great way to connect with friends and share information, it can be harder to do so in an official capacity (unless you can get people to “like” your blog or website). Google +, on the other hand, while having privacy settings, can also allow you to put people in “circles” of who sees what, allowing personal friends to see one set of information while a professional circle sees another. But places where you connect with friends and family might not be the best places to practice your online science communication. If you want to practice your scientific writing, you need…

Blogs: Blogs are incredibly easy to set up and personalize (as well as privatize), and can be personal or professional (or even both). On a blog you have no word limit, and can use it to practice your science communication with the public by talking about your lab’s work , engaging in post-publication peer review on articles in your field, giving and receiving advice about funding and academic life, or even focusing on “life in science”. Blogging can be a great way to practice writing science aimed at people with various levels of knowledge or background. It can be a good way to connect with other scientists in different fields, and it can keep you abreast of the latest work in fields outside your own. Before starting, think carefully about whom you want your audience to be (Other scientists? Non-scientists? Kids?). Find other blogs that target that audience, and find out what tactics they use. Find out how they acquire an audience. Get in touch with them. And start writing! Find out what works and what doesn’t, and hone your skills in science communication.

Regardless of which method you choose, don’t be afraid to step into online communication of science. Your audience is out there, and a lesson in science communication is just one click away.

Footnotes:  *Scientific meetings such as Experimental Biology have their own “hashtags [#]” which allow you to filter your search to see only tweets related to the meeting.

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