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Scientists & the Social Media

Laboratories are at the forefront of research and analysis. But when it comes to communication, they are followers rather than leaders and can be very slow to adopt innovations.

by Hans Buskes
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Laboratories are at the forefront of research and analysis. But when it comes to communication, they are followers rather than leaders and can be very slow to adopt innovations. The use of social media is a case in point, as a recent survey of nearly 200 lab managers revealed. There are six good reasons for labs to explore the opportunities offered by the social media (see sidebar on page 14).

Imagine the following situation: An analyst has grave doubts about the accuracy of GC results and suspects a technical fault. She quickly composes a short message describing the problem, accompanied by a spectrum chart of the characteristic peaks, which she produced on her mobile phone. She adds a hashtag such as #labpros and “tweets” it into the ether. Within a minute, she receives the first response, quickly followed by six more. Two make the same suggestion: “Check that the injector isn’t clogged with septum particles.” Bingo! Problem solved within ten minutes.

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Experienced GC users will know that this is not the first time that output has been distorted by a contaminated injector or column. And experienced Twitter users know the power of the hashtag! Your message reaches thousands, possibly millions of other users within seconds, and it would be a very esoteric problem that didn’t attract countless useful suggestions. So, Twitter is part and parcel of lab practice, right? Wrong.

A matter of time

Many professionals have an aversion to social media. This even applies to those working in the field of communication itself, so what hope is there for lab professionals? In his book, Tweeting at Work (Twitteren op je werk), Dutch communication expert Huib Koeleman laments, “It is still all too common for communications people to consider the social media so much nonsense, even though they have never bothered exploring the possibilities in any detail.” These are the very people who should be grasping the opportunities presented by new communication tools with both hands. Yet the skepticism with which they view any innovation is par for the course. Exactly the same fate befell the office telephone and, much later, the Internet. Their reticence is due to the fear of lost productivity, excessive personal use and the difficulty of managing usage effectively. “It is very easy to invent reasons for not using Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, and to build a case against the social media based on unfounded allegations,” states Peggy McKee, who recruits laboratory personnel in the U.S. Nevertheless, the future is not difficult to predict. The telephone and the Internet are now taken for granted; it is only a matter of time before the social media will also take their rightful place in the office and the laboratory.


Lab managers are not the most social of creatures, or so the results of the survey would have us believe. Asked how often they use various social media, almost 100 percent admit to never having used flickr and over 80 percent had yet to open a Facebook account. Twitter is virgin territory to over 60 percent of respondents, while around half have never used Hyves.1 Only LinkedIn achieved a more creditable rating by being unfamiliar to only 4 percent. Clearly, managers feel most at home with this more business-oriented resource. Its high score, as well as the low scores achieved by the other social media, can be attributed to the lab managers’ main objection to social media: they fear that the dividing line between business and private usage will be lost. This misgiving applies somewhat less to Hyves since it is intended almost entirely for private use anyway. According to the survey, the reasons that lab managers have thus far resisted adoption of the social media are, in order of importance:

  1. Blurring of the boundaries between private and business use
  2. Loss of productivity
  3. Security: the danger of confidential information being leaked

The survey also asked lab managers to assess how often other lab professionals use social media. Their responses paint a very different picture. They believe that around 85 percent of analysts are frequent users, particularly of Twitter, Hyves or Facebook. Contributions to an online knowledge forum suggest that managers are not keen to allow the use of social media during working hours. A few lab managers from commercial organizations state that they might turn a blind eye during the night shift, when there is little else to do, but not during the daytime. However, as the WikiLeaks controversy illustrates, outright prohibition is an admission of weakness. Governments that ban WikiLeaks or put pressure on companies whose servers host the site are coming to realize that the Internet genie is now well and truly out of the bottle and it can’t be put back. Managers must manage and, hence, they must manage the use of social media in the workplace.

Managing social media

As the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” Take a leaf out of the Dutch government’s book. Do not apply a blanket ban, but rather encourage the use of social media, making it subject to clear rules and guidelines. In a policy document on online communication, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs cites seven reasons for government staff to become actively involved in the social media. At the same time, it offers advice on how to tread the narrow dividing line between official responsibilities and private interests, and how to prevent sensitive information from being leaked. Let us remember that these issues have little or nothing to do with the resources; they have to do with the people who use them. The opinions expressed by an individual can reflect badly on the organization but this risk is not confined to Twitter or Facebook; it applies equally to e-mail correspondence, phone calls, conversations at social events, and so forth. To paraphrase, it is not the gun that kills, but the person who pulls the trigger. We must step into the social media world and embrace the opportunities, but we must also manage the risks.

What precisely are “social media”?

The danger of frequently used terms such as “social media” is that nobody actually knows what they entail. Avid users associate the term with the new media and a large number of fellow converts. Nonusers think more about the social aspect and the exchange of personal messages. Neither view is complete, for a number of reasons.

In the social media era, the traditional consumers of information have become the producers of information. In his book Content Nation, John Blossom offers a definition of the social media based on four key criteria: scalability, accessibility, equality and influence. Social media enable users to reach a precisely defined target group (scalability). Merely collecting as many followers as possible is pointless (other than as a boost to the ego), especially if the people you actually wish to contact are not among them. The social media are usually free to use, at least in their basic form, which makes them extremely accessible. The publisher or distributor of a traditional medium derives a certain power or status from the control he can exert. In the social media, all users are equal. Moreover, the social media enable users to exert influence. The examples are many and varied (e.g., the recent uprising in Egypt, the public outrage sparked by an advertising campaign for Pretzel Crisps, the hijacking of Nestlé’s Facebook fan page by Greenpeace activists).

Dr. Hans Buskes, general manager, Communicabus, can be reached at


  1. Hyves is the most popular social networking site in the Netherlands, after Facebook. It is exclusively for private use.


Six reasons why laboratories should embrace the social media

  1. EXPERIENCE. The social media bring the lab into direct contact with a huge international network of people whose expertise is based on experience. Their input can be very useful in problem solving as well as in matters such as the purchase of new equipment.
  2. RECRUITMENT. The social media turn traditional recruitment methods on their head. Everything is faster, less expensive and more effective.
  3. BRANDING. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, to a lesser extent, LinkedIn are excellent channels for strengthening the organization’s name and reputation. Over 70 percent of Fortune 100 companies now have their own Twitter channel, and an increasing number of companies have appointed a dedicated social media manager.
  4. INTERNAL COMMUNICATION . In many organizations, mistakes and failure to achieve goals can be attributed, at least in part, to poor communication and poor knowledge sharing. Yammer, the business equivalent of Twitter, can do much to resolve this problem. A major advantage is that everyone within the organization can see the Yammer messages, which are archived for future reference. Yammer provides an ideal channel through which knowledge and information can be shared.
  5. NEW CLIENTS. The traditional communication tools are often restricted to an existing network. Social media open up new networks and opportunities to introduce the organization to new clients. This is clearly of interest to commercial labs.
  6. ALERTNESS. Although laboratories are less susceptible than commercial companies, negative publicity based on incorrect information can have a serious impact. In communication, a slow response results in loss of control. A presence in the social media can help to put the record straight, quickly and effectively.

The information below is based on a Lab Manager Magazine survey conducted in February 2011 of over 300 of our readers

A sampling of comments from the lab professionals who participated in the Lab Manager Magazine survey:


“My usage of social media has increased a lot in the past 12 months. I see it getting more and more useful as more people familiarize themselves with it.”

“I know many scientists who collaborate or speak with other colleagues in the field to troubleshoot problems.”

“New users are joining in increasing numbers and existing users are developing more interest and skill in use of the platform. There's consequently more and more useful material and interactions available.”

“I am making more contact with people I knew years ago, that can now assist me in sourcing used equipment. Funding for new instrumentation is becoming more and more difficult.”


“I have noticed a big increase in spam-like content on sites.”

“It is hard to keep separate the professional conversations from the personal, and I can't waste time with the personal conversations while at work.”

“Social media is being abused by vendors as a "free advertising" conduit: if someone asks a question in a forum, they immediately get jumped on by vendors trying to sell them something.”

“I don't trust the internet security-wise for social media.”

“Social media serves no purpose for work since email provides the means to communicate with researchers, faculty, staff and students.”

“I use it at home but not at work.”


1. If you use social media sites professionally, please identify the social media sites you visit (check all that apply):











Other (please specify):



2. How often do you visit a social media site for work-related purposes?



As the need arises


Once a week


Once every couple of weeks


Every other day




Once a month


Don’t know



3. Please identify all the reasons you visit a social media site:

To expand professional network


To gain knowledge


To connect with colleagues


To exchange knowledge


To get scientific news


Don’t visit social networking sites


To expand personal network


To participate in discussion forums


To job hunt


To promote my lab


To recruit personnel





4. Reasons for not visiting social media sites:

Lack of privacy


Waste of time


Business secrets may be leaked


For younger generation only


Intimidated by the technology





5. How has your opinion of social media changed in the past 12 months?





Not Sure