Social media for ECRs: Serious scientists can (and do!) use Twitter

26 June 2017 Categories: Communication, Featured, Science

The role of social media in science has been hotly debated, with the most recent skirmish coming from a Guardian op-ed. Entitled “I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer,” the article has inspired both a “nonserious” response and ironically, its own set of hashtags: #seriousacademic and #nonseriousacademic. An anonymous graduate student wrote the original article, making this a great occasion to look at the benefits of social media for ECRs. I’ll focus primarily on Twitter, since it’s the most popular science social media network.

I joined Twitter in May 2015, and for the first few months, I used it only passively to aggregate my favorite news sources. In following a few science-related media accounts, I discovered great science journalism I hadn’t previously seen, and I was able to keep up with my old favorites with minimal effort. But the best thing I discovered from science Twitter was rotating or “ro-cur” science accounts, in which one scientist a week takes the reins to tweet about lab and life.

Science with a side of life…or life with a side of science?

In my opinion, it is this science/everyday life interface that makes Twitter so valuable, especially for ECRs. Ro-cur accounts like @biotweeps and @realscientists allow scientists to discuss their research, but followers also learn more about the curators’ lives, including their #scientisthobbies. Seeing scientists at various career stages maintain a healthy work-life balance shows ECRs that we too can find a happy medium, and that we don’t lose the other parts of our identities just because we choose to work as scientists.

Twitter’s interscientist support network is also incredibly valuable. During graduate or postdoc studies, we often end up isolated, working long hours in the lab, constantly worried about our progress. Hashtags like #fieldworkfail and #overlyhonestmethods help us remember that scientists are human – prone to error, never perfect, but always willing to try, and try again! For ECRs interested in nonacademic careers, Twitter also provides support that may not be available from an individual advisor or department.

Twitter provides a community and forum in the best and worst of times, and many science-related hashtags originate from problems scientists face. Engineer Isis Anchalee started #ILookLikeAnEngineer in response to sexist backlash against a company ad campaign in which she was featured. After Tim Hunt disparaged female scientists, women scientists banded together behind the #distractinglysexy hashtag. These are just two examples among many of scientists fighting back against outdated scientific stereotypes and biases to show the incredible diversity of scientists today.

Tweeting out your message

Chances are, the last conference you attended had a hashtag (this week, PLOS is at the Ecology Society of America Conference, #ESA2016). Attendees can use this hashtag before a conference to network with other attendees. Once the conference starts, scientists can use the hashtag in tweets about talks, poster sessions, or vendor booths. All of this content is then easily searchable using the hashtag, increasing the conference’s reach to those to aren’t able to attend. At large conferences with many concurrent sessions, hashtags are especially valuable for staying up to date on conference happenings.

In addition to helping build interscientist community, Twitter gives scientists an outlet to communicate with non-scientists, or scientists from different fields. Twitter’s reply/retweet structure makes it easy to respond to fellow users, allowing for true dialogue to take place. Other social media, like YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram, give a visual approach to science that may be more appealing to certain audiences. As explored in a previous ECR Community Blog post, the perception of scientists as cold and distant engenders mistrust. Social media may help us overcome this obstacle by making science more accessible to the public. Twitter’s #scicomm community is incredibly active, helping scientists learn how to best distill their science for non-specialists. Caltech even offers a “Social Media for Scientists” course to help scientists increase the visibility of their research.

False impressions of social media

My excuse for not joining Twitter sooner seems silly now. I remember thinking – “what do I have to tweet about? I’m just a graduate student, and my life is not very interesting.” This kind of attitude misses the point of what science social media is all about. Though there are some instances of scientists behaving badly on Twitter, the site is not merely a platform for self-aggrandizement. Instead, the best users share good content from many different types of sources, not just things they’ve produced. Tweets praising fellow scientists are common, and even criticism/disagreements can be levied as part of a larger, constructive discussion.

The graduate student who wrote the Guardian piece takes a negative view of science social media, writing that he hopes that “employability is not directly correlated to how many likes you get on your Instagram posts.” In holding this view, he equates social media to yet another competition among researchers, similar to the quest for funding. While social media use is not a requirement for scientists, I hope he will take another look at these social platforms to see how they can enhance the ECR experience. Social media isn’t perfect, but the community that it creates can help support ECRs in today’s difficult scientific climate.

This article originally appeared in the plos.org Blog.

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