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Social Media Gone Viral

Once considered superfluous, social media has now become a vital tool for scientific information sharing, knowledge building, and networking.

by F. Key Kidder
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Not that long ago dialogue was the communication problem du jour in the scientific community.

The prevailing deficit communications model had been discredited. Scientific monologues that stuffed factoids into the knowledge void of the nonscientific public were boomeranging. Audiences couldn’t penetrate the scientific jargon wall or relate to scientific enterprises— your research is well and good, they said, but what’s in it for us? Scientists had no appetite for tedious public engagement. Funders and institutional heads wanted clear evidence that scientists were fulfilling their part of the social contract. And pharma, meanwhile, was buried under mounds of miscommunication mistrust.

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Greater engagement was the order of the day, and it had better be good. So communication researchers stepped up to craft recommendations to get the ball rolling and move dialogue along through local media, educational channels, and the like, hardly the stuff of broad impact.

Social media? It was an aside, a footnote. Best practices? Social media wouldn’t stand still long enough for anyone to learn what they were dealing with. The social media concept had itself, as they say, gone viral.

Fast forward to 2012. Want broad impact? Step right up. Want dialogue? Social media is digital dialogue on steroids. Engagement? It was occurring to the twentieth power, and with a more symmetrical communications paradigm than the one-way deficit model. Social media is two parts social, one part media. Listen in. Was there ever a better way? But getting a grip on social media remains a challenge. Untamed and unpredictable, it rolls like a cyber tsunami, sweeping and reordering the communication landscape.

Twitter, Facebook, and the like have insinuated their way into every nook and cranny of society—labs included. Innovators in the use of research technologies, scientists tend to be late adapters of social media platforms. In one 2011 poll of 200 lab managers, 80 percent were total strangers to Facebook, 60 percent to Twitter.

Most insurmountable is the value scientists place on empirical truths and peer review, juxtaposed with the loose talk and quick judgments of social media. With their conservative mien, scientists are repelled by the havoc, the unknowns that troll social media sites. Some contend that scientists, with their natural left-brain orientation toward analysis and logic, lack the skills to supply the right-brain kind of creative, chatty content that dominates social platforms.

But that hasn’t stopped them all. “Much worse than a good scientist communicating poorly is a nonscientist spreading pseudoscience plausibly,” said blogger Strangetruther, sounding ready to straighten out social media miscreants. Brad Voytek, a postdoc at the University of California, uses Twitter for research feedback. “[Scientists didn’t achieve] their breakthroughs because they communicated less,” he said. Alistair Dove, senior scientist at the Georgia Aquarium Research Center, uses Facebook and Twitter to share his “passion.” Funders like such outreach, he says, and it ensures his science is accurately portrayed, avoiding misunderstandings that can interfere with trust.

“The scientific community needs to understand what ethical practitioners of public relations have long known: Trust is not about information; it’s about dialogue and transparency,” said the authors of the essay “Managing the Trust Portfolio: Science Public Relations and Social Responsibility” published in an American Academy of Arts & Sciences collection.

It’s a contentious point of departure for scientists who see no place in the profession for PR or self-aggrandizement. A 2012 Kelly Services worldwide survey of 170,000 found that 53 percent of respondents in the Americas believed social media hinders workplace productivity, compared to 41% in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East and 34% in Asia-Pacific nations. But in this brave new digital world, social media, superfluous in the yesteryear, has assumed a primary role as the connective tissue linking scientists and nonscientists—for better or worse. Twitter, Facebook, and cohorts, if not quite pillars of scientific communication in all quarters, are established agents of change that inexorably impact many of the ways lab managers do business, serve their career development, and interact with constituencies.

The stereotypical view has millennials and younger scientists—avid users, often proselytizers—as the first to take the plunge. They may regard any scientist without an active web presence as a Neanderthal. Older scientists, some dismissive, are more inclined to sit it out. A third group gathers at the water’s edge, one toe timidly in. They perceive social media to be important but are uncertain where its real value lies.

But that is changing. Life scientists say it increasingly influences their decision making. Social media use is up among all age groups, says Pew Research, as is its penetration among the scientific community. In a 2012 AstraZeneca poll of 372 of its scientists (37% from the UK, 31% from Sweden, and 25% from the U.S.), 18% said social media is very valuable, 33 % said valuable, and 35% said somewhat valuable. Social media’s value lay in information sharing/networking (62%), knowledge building (61%), networking (61%), discussions (33%), and getting the message out/thought leadership (10%). The most popular channels were professional networks (79%), wikis (53%), and blogs (50%).

Popular platforms:

Facebook: Some scientists create a Facebook page solely for professional purposes to avoid the zanies. Others share photos and comment on daily lab life. One benefit is to demystify and humanize scientists— in the popular imagination, scientists may seem humorless nerds, peering into test tubes through thick eyeglasses. Photos can overcome that image and give a fresh face to a profession that needs it to recruit young talent. Asked to name any living scientist, most can summon only Stephen Hawking.

Twitter: Hashtags are hot, but beware tweets becoming tw-oops! Buckle up, it can get fast and furious, which makes Twitter prime debate territory for scientists willing to exit their comfort zone. “The qualities that make Twitter seem so inane and half-baked are what make it so powerful,” said Harvard professor Jonathan Zittain, codirector of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The mundane can morph into something far more significant as users retweet, cut and paste, aggregate, and amplify. It’s the stuff of discovery and innovation.

LinkedIn: This is the choice for scientists who want to present a “professional” image and avoid reputation management miscues that can damage careers. Activity is occupation-centric. Creating a good LinkedIn profile is key for networking. It has strong appeal across all age groups. Users can post news and links or use LinkedIn as a directory to learn about the industry and the competition.

Science outreach trends toward cyberspace

Niche social media sites attract clusters of scientific professionals—among the first were LabSpaces for researchers, Surgytec for MDs and Ph.D.s in medical sciences, and Scitable for scientists and researchers focused on genetics and cell biology. NASA Connect is the organizational mother site for NASA’s roster of social media platforms. More recently Google + “has become a playground for science folks who have crowdsourced a database of others with similar interests,” said Dietram Scheufele, professor and director of graduate studies for life sciences communication at the University of Wisconsin.

Science increasingly depends on digital technologies to communicate and convey. The Internet has already overtaken print media as the main source of science news. There’s a new science news cycle now. Aunt Tilly probably doesn’t read about it anymore. Research is first keyboarded into cyberspace, where it’s picked up by the university PR office and forwarded to newswire organizations, which feed cable news, which in turn supply the local news stations that Aunt Tilly watches on TV. Even Twitter, with its paltry 140-character limit, figures to play a bigger part in the news business. “The essentials of what Twitter does are an integral part of the news system of the future,” said David Winer, former editor of Wired. A headline, brief synopsis, photo or illustration, and link to the full article are all it takes.

If you can’t beat them, join them. “Savvy scientists must increasingly engage with blogs and social media,” said Paul Knoepfler, a University of California Davis professor who posts a blog about his stem cell lab. “Even if you choose not to blog, you can certainly expect your papers and ideas will increasingly be blogged about. So there it is—blog or be blogged.” Lab managers can spring into action after notable developments or small victories, in effect becoming opportunity managers.

Social technologies “have become a means of exchanging information among a network of peers in scientific and lab contexts,” said Scheufele. “The dissemination of interesting research findings or controversial studies” will increasingly flow through social media channels. “That’s not up for debate. It’s just a fact.”

Social media, he adds, “is increasingly an important tool for hiring. A quick check on Facebook or LinkedIn by human resources staff is the norm rather than the exception. And it seems applicants have become more savvy with respect to Facebook privacy settings and what they share with public audiences.” The hiring door swings both ways in social media. Applicants with a strong social conscience can vet prospective employers for their record on issues. Kelly reports that 26% of life scientists are now more inclined to search for jobs via social media than by traditional methods.

“Younger generations aren’t going to look for your company or society in print—they’re going to go directly to your website and then maybe your Facebook page, and if interested they will follow you on Twitter,” said Kea Giles, managing editor at the Geological Society of America. “If you’re not there, neither will they be—and then you’ve lost them at a critical point of contact.”

Social platforms abet research too. Academic scientists, long fragmented, are joining ResearchGate, a Berlin-based social network that aims to enhance global collaboration by circumventing the lengthy peer review process. Instead of waiting for research to appear in an elite handful of journals, ResearchGate’s “open science” system allows members to share papers, knowledge, and ideas. It is described as a “mash-up of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn,” with membership approaching 1.5 million. GlaxoSmithKline is an industry leader in social media. Not only does it listen to consumers and give voice to employees to promote trust and flatten silos, but it also enhances R&D by bringing global colleagues closer together, sharing digital platforms.

Social media, remarked one blogger, “is not a thoughtful environment.” Nor does social media always keep things sociable. With so many users who shoot from the lip, it can devolve into a repository for free-floating hostility or a battleground. Information flows in different ways, making it difficult to control. Social media never sleeps, so staying on top of discussions and threads can become high maintenance.

Brand and management, exposed to the roar of the crowd, can feel the heat. Big pharma wages its trust offensive by maintaining a significant social media presence. One characteristic of social media sites is a means for users to leave comments. Most drug companies refrained from joining Facebook until they were granted a privilege others didn’t have—blocking the public’s ability to openly post comments. When Facebook reversed itself in 2011, saying it wanted “authentic dialogue between people and businesses,” a number of companies shut down their Facebook pages.