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Social media arouses conflicting value judgments in the scientific community. 

by F. Key Kidder
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Social Media Still a Bit Player in the Lives of Most Scientists

Social media arouses conflicting value judgments in the scientific community. Some are true believers and others think it is Pandora’s box, while a greater number eye it coolly and are casual users.

If there’s one thing that scientists of every persuasion can agree on, it’s that the discourse thus far has been characterized by too much talk and entirely too little data.

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That is beginning to change. The trickle of empirical evidence may be thin, but every drop is precious when the vessel is empty. And as the research on social media usage emerges, it begins to chip away at the competing claims and assorted conflicts that remain rife among scientists, and provides snapshots of who’s using these platforms, who’s not, and why.

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The paucity of data is hardly surprising. After all, social media is the new kid in science town. The very fact that it gained entry to the research world was a rude awakening for old-school purists. For eons, scientific communication was governed by the deficit theory, which held that outside publics who knew nothing about science needed an elementary education. Scientists occasionally spoon-fed factoids to lay audiences and then retreated back to the lab. Enough was enough—back to work.

Events began conspiring to force a change after the turn of the century. There were mounting scientific missteps and prevarications, ethical lapses and controversies that wouldn’t go away—a “brazen culture of lawlessness,” opined The Wall Street Journal. Scientists were cast as corporate and political errand boys, or spinners. It all shaped up as a public relations crisis of the first order. To restore the public trust, scientists were compelled to go forth and engage stakeholders. Dialogue was the new communicative mandate. Against this backdrop, social media struck some as a godsend, others as a necessary evil. Either way, it was in the door.

From this initial foothold, social media continues to insinuate its way into the scientific enterprise, pulled along by an army of younger scientists and a smattering of older enthusiasts who use an array of platforms to build their brand awareness, network and exchange information across disciplines and continents, and have a means for timely feedback on articles, methods, tools, jobs, grants, and data files.

But the usage numbers currently aren’t on their side. Claims of career advancement and great expectations to the contrary, the scientific silent majority is either sitting it out or perfunctorily engaged, and is still disinclined to see much real value in jumping into the social media maelstrom.

But this, too, seems likely to change. Notwithstanding the stereotypical perception of scientists as not the most socially skilled creatures, the tide is inexorably drawing scientists outward, toward greater levels of engagement.

The reasons vary. Funders, especially nongovernmental ones, prefer to see research wrapped in the sort of social narrative that engagement stimulates. Scientific expertise is increasingly folded into contentious debates on issues including climate change, evolution, and vaccines, or summoned forth to address great global predicaments. And since scientists cite faulty public knowledge and media reports as major problems that impinge on the good health of their profession, more feel compelled to enter the fray.

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Given more time for the scientific community to acclimate to social media and the introduction of new, smarter platforms, the ascendancy of social technologies over scientific communication seems inevitable. Already the guard is changing. Not that long ago, journals like Nature, Science, and Cell were the exclusive reserve of formal papers, the traditional means of dissemination. To some degree, all have jumped aboard social media’s bandwagon.

But for the here and now, according to notables who track social media’s uptake among scientists, its scope is considerably more constrained.

Social media is not to be confused with social outreach. By almost every measure, more scientists are taking periodic leave of the lab to mingle with various publics—for many researchers, it’s becoming the tacit expectation. But few use Twitter or Facebook to do so.

“For the majority of researchers, there has been little change in the use of [social media] to communicate with nonacademic audiences over the past five years,” declared a 2013 study by Claire Wilkinson and Emma Weitkamp.

A whole host of 2014-15 surveys confirm the status quo still holds. Among University of Michigan faculty, about half responded that they do not—and will never—use Facebook or Twitter for academic/professional work, although half would blog “under the right conditions.” A Nature survey of more than 3,000 scientists and engineers reported low usage levels for Twitter (most useful in conference settings), LinkedIn (useful in job searches), or Facebook. In a University of Wisconsin-Madison study that queried school scientists about their use of social media platforms for “science-related purposes,” respondents most often checked the “never” box. The same study found that a majority of scientists had not visited ResearchGate or Mendeley, two leading social research communities.

Findings of a ballyhooed 2015 collaboration between two heavyweights—the esteemed Pew Research Center and AAAS—applied a different spin to the debate. (Pew’s data was obtained by polling 3,748 U.S.-based AAAS members.) Results essentially confirm lower levels of involvement, but one key metric showed improvement. Scientists who believe their careers can be advanced through media coverage and social media participation increased from 37 percent in 2009 to 43 percent in 2014.

“We need to be careful when we think [AAAS membership] represents science,” cautioned Dominique Brossard of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who co-authored that school’s 2014 social media study. “I think they represent people interested in science.” (According to Brossard, 39 percent of AAAS members are 64 or older, 71 percent are male, and members are predominantly white.) Another underwhelmed observer estimated the respondents represented less than “0.00107 percent” of America’s body of science and engineering professionals.

Results of numerous studies have begun to define social media’s user demographics. By all accounts, young scientists are the most avid users. According to the Pew Research/AAAS survey, female Earth scientists reported the heaviest engagement, while biomedical and social sciences were the leading disciplines.

Career, age, and gender differences can matter. In a study of academic biologists and physicists (Ecklund, James, & Lincoln), females showed sharply higher levels of outreach, and there was a marked decline in public engagement from graduate students to postdoctoral fellows and faculty. Another study found that “higher status and organizational autonomy” increased social media activity. Scientists “with more positive attitudes, higher perceived communication skills, and more formal communication training” are more apt to participate, according to Liz Neeley and Craig McClain in their 2014 evaluation of scientific social media issues.

Rigorous research seems incompatible with digital flash, and many members of the scientific community have a roster of reservations about social media. The academics are inhibited by the imperative to conduct pure research and blowback from senior scientists who generally take a dim view of social platforms. It’s safer to stick with email, which remains the leading mode of digital scientific communication. Others are timid about the Sagan effect—risking the envious wrath of fellow researchers by excessively beating your own drum, as did the late celebrity astronomer Carl Sagan. A more modern equivalent is the satirical Kardashian index, a comparison of one’s citations and Twitter followers that plays on the insatiable publicity appetites of the ubiquitous Kardashian sisters.

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But beyond that, scientists are rightly concerned about what happens to their communication—especially containing research data—after it enters the vast unknown of cyberspace. What is the impact of their message? Who is their actual audience? Who likes or dislikes it, or perverts it for their own purposes? The good news is that the scientific community can be counted on to root out the research rubbish. The bad news is that after pushing the send button, many a scientist is left to wait and wonder about communicative outreach that is now beyond his or her control.

The “confines of the clock” is another consideration that scientists who engage in social media may find difficult to control. “The most identified issue by scientists preventing them from engaging ... is a lack of time,” contend Neeley and McClain in their 2014 evaluation.

Altmetrics, a promising new measure that allows scientists to visualize a paper’s online attention, helps allay anxiety about the impact of social outreach. But its usefulness is limited, since the service does not capture the totality of one’s social media and web presence, nor does it discriminate between positive and negative citations.

Scientists are commonly counseled on how to use social media. Far less attention is paid to why. Given that social media is often cast in a negative light, scientists cannot be expected to embrace that which is presumed to adversely affect their career.

An overwhelming majority of scientists—87 percent according to the Pew Research/AAAS survey—believe it’s in their best interest to step up and engage the public and become more involved in policy debates. But only 47 percent employ social media in some manner. What’s holding them back?

Advocates are stepping up to counter this pejorative perception of social platforms, the notion that they are the domain of dilettantes. Without outreach, say some, your science dies. As the pool of federal research dollars recedes, “the ability to communicate the societal value of basic research to nonacademic audiences” is morphing from “an optional soft skill into a crucial tool,” asserts a 2014 report in The Scientist. The same study found that “the stronger scientists’ political beliefs—regardless of their leaning—the more likely they were to use Twitter or Facebook to talk about their work.”

University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers weighed in with a Journalism & Mass Communications Quarterly study they contend is the “first comprehensive empirical evidence” linking the so called h-index—a measure of the quality of scientists’ work and influence— with the extent to which they interact with reporters and are active on Twitter. By coupling media outreach with tweeting about one’s research, scientists are rewarded with a “more pronounced spike in reputation,” and their work is more likely to be cited than the work of those who do one or the other.

Social media’s impact on global collaboration is another reason that should compel usage. Lab projects often transcend geographic borders. Scientific progress is built on the back of previous research, sometimes half a world away. And while most scientists believe that data sharing is beneficial, far fewer routinely practice it, at least according to a 2014 study published in BioScience.

Why are scientists so stingy about sharing? The profession has its share of big egos and competitive conflicts, but there are more practical considerations in play. A culture of secrecy pervades many lab operations. Issues like attribution and co-authorship can crop up. Blogging, tweeting, liking and other aspects of social media are beginning to punch holes in some of these barriers.

Even so, protocols and technical capabilities to facilitate sharing aren’t always in place, or are insufficiently robust. Locating data and interpreting results can be very time-consuming. Social media consultant and author Tim McCormick believes he can see a brighter, transformative future, but it might not arrive for a while.

Social media, he acknowledges, is a bit player in the lives of most scientists and clinicians. The rule of 90-9-1 applies—90 percent are lurkers and 9 percent are minor contributors, while the remaining 1 percent account for almost all activity. Instead of posting or publicly speaking, most scientists are passive users who use social media for reading and discovery purposes, or what McCormick calls social media listening.

That will change, argues McCormick, only when two things happen. First, publishers, institutions, scholarly societies, and conferences must offer resources to facilitate greater scientific social media engagement and deepen better pathways around research areas of interest. Second, smarter tools must be developed—perhaps along the lines of an improved Altmetrics—to monitor, curate, and refine information networks that will usher in a new era of social media activism.

One fine day, he supposes, social media will be integrated into scientific tools and environments to the point where the technology disappears, and then its usage will become ordinary.