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The Good, the Bad, and the Selfie

The barbarians were at the gates, the handwriting on the wall. Their digital firepower was unstoppable.
Without further ado, they stormed the ramparts, overrunning scientific strongholds. There is no turning back now. Social media is a juggernaut, its impact profound and already making itself felt in ways that few could have envisioned.

by F. Key Kidder
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Social Media's Role in the Scientific Community

Revolutions rearrange the established order. On one side are the disrupters, agents of change who champion social media. The diehards have a different drift—many of the old lions and scientists in positions of power are defenders of the status quo. Betwixt and between are the majority of scientists, who are of different minds about social media.

Digital tumult rattles science in its entirety. Researchers certainly hear the roar. Social media has insinuated its way into every corner of the scientific enterprise—employment and hiring, career trajectory, research practices, collaboration, marketing, publications, internal communication and outreach, and commerce.

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Is nothing sacred? Old ways of doing business are under attack. Most everything scientists were taught about how to ascend—soldier on, keep your head low, and await your turn—is being turned on its head by fast risers. Engagement with society at large was once the occasional necessary evil. Now it’s encouraged, the better to make a case for socially relevant research that funders increasingly expect. The entire book on communications is being rewritten; don’t expect the new one to be completed anytime soon, because the change is ongoing and near stupefying in scope. Research resources have never been as rich, abundant, or accessible. And journal peer review, long the final word on scientific progress, finds itself besieged by digital discourse that seeks to reaffirm and restore the indispensable scientific element of trust.

Some of the changes social media wrought in 2014 were less weighty but nevertheless added buzz to the narrative. Who said science wasn’t sexy enough to attract young talent? Full-figured Kim Kardashian was somehow inserted into the controversy. And for all those who bemoaned the fact that most Americans cannot name a single scientist, recent headlines trumpeted the rollout of the first celebrity lists of scientists—“20 Chemists Worth Following on Twitter” or “These 40 Science Experts Will Completely Revamp Your Social Media Feed.” Are the names on these lists great scientific minds or skilled social media users?

No sooner had social media managed to get one foot inside the gates of the research community then legions of doomsayers warned of the cheapening effects this paragon of popular culture and its attendant communication platforms would impose on the good name of deliberate science. And while numerous scientists have since succumbed to social media’s inevitability—reasoning they will miss the boat so many others have caught— many remain suspicious of social media’s shiny offerings. Still others resent colleagues who revel in them, figuring it exacts an opportunity cost on their research. “If you’re serious about a research career, it’s easy to invest too much in social media,” said Jim Austin, who heads up the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s careers section of the journal Science.

Senior scientists are quick to trot out the cautionary tale of astrophysicist Carl Sagan. Back in the 1980s, he was riding high as the public face of science. His TV show Cosmos, broadcast in 60 countries, was said to be the most watched program in public television’s history. He had a hand in 20 books and published 600 scientific papers. His elevation displeased colleagues. Despite having awarded him its highest honor, the National Academy of Sciences denied Sagan membership.

But as more scientists are compelled to compete for their share of shrinking research resources and funding opportunities, the right touch of social media can provide the soft sell that sustains them in today’s harsh economic climate. Mastery of digital communication platforms can become a matter of self-preservation, as microbiologist Jonathan Eisen explains in “To tweet or not to tweet” in the careers section of Science.

As one who works the edges of science communication, the tenured Eisen experiments “with new tools for communication in the same way I would actively test a new microscope.” Judicious social media exposure opens doors to recognition and grants, he says. “People cite my work more almost certainly because they’ve heard about it more” on blogs or Twitter. And other scientists most certainly are inclined to take potshots at him, as did a reviewer who questioned Eisen’s mental “bandwidth.” Social media’s forward curve remains a charged and contentious space for researchers to occupy.

Prolific Twitter users like Eisen were exactly the kind that Great Britain’s Neil Hall had in mind this past summer when he proposed a Kardashian Index that measures the number of Twitter followers against the number of citations that a scientist has accrued. Scientists with high scores, suggests Hall, may be “seen as leaders in their field simply because of their notoriety” derived from their dalliance with social media. Ms. Kardashian is famous for being famous. Hall is “concerned that phenomena similar to that…may also exist in the scientific community.”

His lighthearted proposal produced a Twitter storm of both blowback and approval, sometimes from the same source, reflecting the general ambivalence of the rank and file and the quandary faced by scientists torn between the old and the new.

“There is a lot of noise out there, a lot of people communicating about the value of social media,” said Jamie Vernon, director of science communications at Sigma Xi and editor-in-chief of American Scientist. “With so many competing voices, it’s hard for scientists to decide who to listen to.” Vernon cites an article that “essentially” questioned the qualifications of scientists with a high K-Index but then continued on to list the “top 50 science stars” based on their scores.

Besides dealing with overblown social media reputations, Hall’s paper tacitly underscored the discrimination women face in the scientific community. “Interestingly, in my analysis, very few women (only one, in fact) had a highly inflated Twitter following while most…had fewer followers than would be expected. Hence, most Kardashians are men!” But Vernon says women are “capitalizing on their ability to come together (via social media) to bring down barriers,” citing the example of Hope Jahren, who runs a geobiology lab at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

The fully tenured Jahren was stunned when a longtime male colleague inadvertently emailed her a letter he wrote to the department chair that described her work as “pathetic” and asked “Do she otherwise contribute to the Dept? (sic)” That email, said Jahren, “was a love letter compared to some of the stuff I heard as a student.” Her subsequent postings protesting her treatment continued to stir the controversy and spark debate.

Fresh research that sheds light on scientists’ use of social media is emerging, fortunately. A 2013 study of nanotech researchers (“Opinion: Tweeting to the Top,” Yeo; Brossard; Scheufele; Nealey; Corley) provided some of the first empirical evidence of the impacts of scientists using online tools to interact with lay audiences. Engaging in Twitter activity with journalists increased peer-reviewed articles published and citations; the study further showed that exploiting Twitter amplified one’s prominence compared with scientists who weren’t users. An online presence is a near necessity for professional scientists, but this study indicates the career rewards of an active presence.

Not that long ago, “we were all scrambling around, excited just to have a (social media) platform,” said Vernon. As social media matures and usage becomes “more professionalized, we have to be more rigorous about analyses” that build the case for best practices.

Twitter’s eminence as the social tool of choice is owing to the perception that it is a more professional platform than Facebook, which in turn is considered superior for the dissemination of personal information and so lends itself to the architecture supporting the vast new research networks that are transforming laboratory practices. Network-enabled research, remarked one user, has approximately the same relationship to traditional research as driving has to pushing a car—it’s a problemsolving dream.

“Such possibilities have long been dreamed of,” said Jim Austin, who heads up the careers section of the journal Science, a solid platform that’s “truly social in a scientific context,” complete with its very own social tool kit to connect global users that opens up a new world of collaborative possibilities.

Similar efforts in the past “seemed to be a waste of time,” said Austin. But ResearchGate, often called Facebook for scientists, rolls with the momentum of a membership approaching five million—each and every one a scientist. Just as Facebook revolutionized users’ digital presence a decade ago, ResearchGate is a game changer that increases the visibility of research and citations and allows users to track who is citing them and their publications—an optimal networking opportunity. boasts a bigger membership of 12 million, but anyone can sign up. It’s an idea that has caught on— social networking sites continue to proliferate, many discipline-specific.

A survey undertaken by Nature that studied the social media activity of more than 3,000 scholars and engineers found that nearly half visited ResearchGate regularly. (Google Scholar was the leader with 60%.) LinkedIn was third with 41%, followed by Facebook at 38%. Twitter (13%) and (5%) weren’t even close.

“When scientists want to seriously talk science using social media, they go behind closed doors to sites like ResearchGate for their nitty-gritty conversations,” said Vernon. “Some scientists are shy about going public on Twitter with what they’re thinking. Social network communities are a safe place to ask hard questions and get the right kind of feedback.”

These same networks, in concert with other social media platforms, have assumed de facto responsibility for rectifying research falsehoods that slip through the editorial review processes of journals. Image and data manipulations that toy with the truth and other miscues are increasingly being flagged through crowd-sourced, post-publication peer review—a development not without controversy. Some question the wisdom of giving junior scientists a forum “where any unhinged idiot with an Internet connection can rage away against a highly technical paper that he doesn’t get,” said one observer. Others suggest that such blowback is a thinly disguised power play to maintain control, since post-publication peer review often gives voice to the marginalized.

Nobody has a more colorful take on the situation take then does Zen Faulkes, a biologist at the University of Texas - Pan American:

“Post-publication peer review through traditional scientific publishing is like kabuki theater: a slow, rehearsed drama in which the viewer must recognize the subtle profundities of performers wearing deliberately ambiguous masks.

“Post-publication peer review on social media is like the mosh pit at a punk rock show. It’s fast, uncoordinated, a lot less subtle, more in your face, and involves a few more risks.”

Then again, social media is inherently risky, says Dennis Meredith, a science communication consultant and author who reminds us that too many scientists proceed without being fully informed and become “overwhelmed with tools and techniques and are probably confused about how to use social media to their advantage. They suffer from sins of commission, like jumping into Twitter or starting blogging without a strategic plan, or sins of omission, opting out of media pathways that may be beneficial.”

By strategic, Meredith means “using the same discipline and strategy a manager might use in designing research programs.” Consulting available literature is a smart first step. Meredith recommends the Public Library of Science (PLOS) guide on social media, which “takes a strategic approach by asking what you want before you jump in, and then gives you the pros and cons.” As a rule of thumb, Meredith urges researchers observe his three B’s: be strategic, be useful, and be careful.

Social media is loosening the grip that trade shows and conferences have held on product marketing. These venues remain vital for developing leads and learning the wants and needs of customers, but more manufacturers are turning those conversations into social media offerings to help press their case.

Lab instruments are one example—Bio-Rad Laboratories, which makes a range of life science research products, developed interactive tutorials targeting bench scientists and complementing the written content for its nucleic acid detection and analysis systems. The response has been favorable, says marketing manager Paul Streng. Concise educational animations that provide “tips and tricks for successful research” have generated positive feedback. “If customers see [social media] as a sales pitch, it diminishes” the message, said Kevin McLaughlin, senior marketing communications specialist for Shimadzu Scientific Instruments.