Communicating Science through Social Media

Science communication remains as challenging as it is necessary in the era of big data & strong presence of social media. Scientists are encouraged to reach out to non-experts through social media, collaborations with citizen scientists, and non-technical abstracts. Many of us attempt to broaden our impact by sharing interesting studies with friends, family, colleagues, and the broader public on social media. Technology has revolutionized how the public engages in science, particularly data acquisition, interpretation and dissemination. The potential benefits of citizen science and crowd sourcing projects are immense, but there are significant challenges as well. Paramount among them is the reliance on “near-experts” and amateur scientists.

Science and technology are integral parts of society and we encounter them in our everyday lives. They directly affect development and progress, and are linked with social change. It is therefore important to communicate new science and technological developments as well as promote an understanding of current facts to a wide audience.

Science communication is a movement which has been gaining momentum across the globe in recent years. It is driven by a vibrant mix of scientists, social scientists and communications professionals who believe in the importance of wide communication of the complicated world of science and technology.

It is important to communicate science for a number of reasons, which include:

  1. Accountability–Scientific research is largely funded by public money so scientists have the responsibility to communicate the outcomes of this research to society so they can reap the benefits.
  2. Reputation–communicating good scientific research works to enhance the reputation of an academic institution and can help to attract more funding and recognition.
  3. Bringing science closer to society–Science communication is not simply to deliver a form of public acceptance, but its role should be more to enhance public scrutiny of scientific development. When scientific progress is dealing with such issues as stem cells and cloning, it is important for society to be involved in the debate at an early stage. This is not just a question of accountability on the behalf of the science, but a public that is willing to discuss science and technology can bring many benefits and help to bring science closer to society. Providing the general population with the right information they need to join an informed debate will enable us to make the right decisions about which frontiers our science will push in the future.

Science Communication Through Social Media

The world has gone digital and scientific community is no exception. In recent times, there is tremendous outburst of online digital media and scientific institutions worldwide enthusiastically participating in it. Some universities have many departments and labs individually on social media. Nowadays, one can also find a lot of scientific communication activities like citizen science, science humour pages, explainer videos posted on daily basis on facebook, twitter and Linked In.

The importance of social media also reflects on recruitment of communication personals who are now required to have social media skills to get a job. But with almost all international research institutes going active on social media, the research community of India has lagged behind. Researchers initially join twitter with enthusiasm and later there is a huge lag phase where you never use it. The main reason could be the inability of manpower to handle the social media in institutes or scientists may not be aware of how to use it and what to post/tweet. Moreover, in developing countries, scientists often get  discouraged with less number of following for their science tweets.

Indian researchers have to get more visibility for a plenty of reasons. So, here are some tips which can help to grow on social media like facebook and twitter exclusively for science communications.

  1. Don’t shy away from taking photos: Scientists are known to be working in silos. The first step towards becoming an active social media user may be to remove your shyness to face the camera. Click as much photographs as possible, may it be your lab selfie, groupfie or any activities in lab. Ask someone to take your photographs while you give presentations or take live photographs in conferences and tweet it, this will give you visibility among community in conferences.
  2. Don’t bother about your followers on twitter/facebook: Many scientists stop using social media just because they find less number of followers. In social media, you can’t just expect people to follow you and especially in a country like India where science is not much looked upon as news. So even if you have less than 50 followers, just continue using twitter/facebook. Within a year, you will start to get reasonable followers and enthusiastic discussions on facebook.
  3. Take selfie video tutorials: Take some time out and explain some topic or your research on video through youtube or directly on twitter/facebook. This may help you get in touch with people of your discipline.
  4. Use appropriate hashtags: Hashtags help users segregate as well as highlight the topic you are tweeting about. Hashtags can also gain you more visibility in the specific topic to other users. Use appropriate hashtags wherever possible. e.g. #SciCommers is famous hashtag used by science communication community.
  5. Follow enthusiastic people and accounts: Make sure that the scientific community is followed by you and they should know you are on twitter. As soon as you join twitter, start following scientists/researchers who have reasonable presence and activity on twitter. Also start following lab accounts, science media accounts and science explainer social media accounts. Keep interacting with them on different topics.
  6. Keep retweeting/reposting: You may not have original tweets everytime. Retweeting and interaction is an activity you must actively involve yourself into. This will help to become active even when you lack original content and your activity. Your wall or profile should not look dull that you haven’t tweeted or posted for a a long time. Generally, people do check daily activities and rest follows.
  7. Share awards/outreach/research often: Take social media as a way to celebrate your activities. If your colleagues win award, do consider sharing it on your profile congratulating him/her. Share your research happenings and paper publications as well. The more active you are, the better visibility you have and more people follow you. Basic science needs continuous funding and support from philanthropists to run the show and in democracies the funding is often reflected by the public interest. Social media visibility of the scientist or scientific topic may sometimes create tremendous interest among public which can help government bodies to decide their funding priorities.

New study reveals how scientists use social media

One thing is clear: the range of social media platforms that scientists are using is relatively vast and dependent on discipline and sentiments, particularly when it comes to mainstream social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

Bio Informatics LLC conducted a survey with regard to scientists and social messaging:

  • 77% of life scientists participated in some type of social media;
  • 50% viewed blogs, discussion groups, online communities, and social networking as beneficial to sharing ideas with colleagues;
  • 85% saw social media affecting their decision-making;
  • Discussion groups and message boards were still the most-used types of sites, but online communities were gaining fast.
  • User-generated content is not completely trusted for product information, but it is more trusted than information in printed trade magazines, editorial web sites, or online portals.

Likewise, the National Geographic Society has grown its Facebook community from just under 2-million fans to more than 7 million fans in the span of a few short months. Talking about Science on Social Media science communication has evolved into an essential part of the public outreach and education programmes of many scientific organisations. Where television documentaries and public exhibitions were once relied upon for these aims, social media platforms have now brought new opportunities for scientists and communicators to interact with their audiences.

Scientists at NASA have been creating and sharing innovative photos and videos for educational purposes since the 1950s, and today they continue to innovate on photo- and video-driven social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. NASA’s science communication has inspired us across the generations: from live international TV broadcasts of historic mission launches to using social media to allow students to interact directly with astronauts in the Space Station.

NASA has proven time and again that their historic photos and videos are a stand out way of generating public and media interest in their activities.

Their approach is a convincing example of how photos and videos can play a leading role in research communication and how social media can work as a prime conduit for these messages

How scientists using social Media

Millions of people all over the world are constantly sharing an extremely wide range of fascinating, quirky, funny, irrelevant and important content all at once. Even scientists are no strangers to this trend. Social media has enabled them to communicate their research quickly and efficiently throughout each corner of the world. But which social media platforms are they using to communicate this research and how are they using them? One thing is clear: the range of social media platforms that scientists are using is relatively vast and dependent on discipline and sentiment. While the future of social media is unknown, a combination of educated speculation and persuasive fact points to the industry’s continual growth and influence. Thus, scientists must utilize social media to communicate their research. The ability to communicate to the masses via social media is critical to the distribution of scientific information amongst professionals in the field and to the general population.

On any given day, 50% of Facebook’s 500-million-plus users log-on to the social networking site. The average user is connected to 80 community pages, groups and events, and creates about 90 pieces of content for posting each month . Meanwhile, Twitter’s 200 million registered users will produce 110 million tweets per day on topics ranging from CNN’s breaking news to celebrity gossip and more . Factoring in the social communities of YouTube, LinkedIn and Ted.Com equates the masses.

Communicating your Research with Social Media

How to for communicating Science through blogs, podcasts, data visualizations, and video. Some tips are:

  • Create and share images, audio, and video in ways that positively impacts your research
  • Connect and collaborate with other researchers
  • Measure and quantify research communication efforts for funders
  • Provide research evidence in innovative digital formats
  • Reach wider, more engaged audiences in academia and beyond

Social media affords certain opportunities for researchers to explore the research process in more social ways, which may in turn help to connect research with its core social remit and commitment. Of course, it is not just opportunities. There are a number of new vulnerabilities that social media creates and exacerbates for researchers, which we do recognise. But we hope that by situating social media more explicitly in the research workflow, researchers will feel empowered to choose whether or not to engage, what expectations they can have going into it, and how to go about getting started.

Some Risks of Using Social Media

Although a series of opportunities arising from social media such as faster, more personal and in parts also more emotional communication, the greater level of reciprocal exchange and the potential new culture of dialogue between experts and the layperson are noted in the statement, the risks from social media are however allocated more space. These include:

  • As the major social media providers such as Facebook make content available according to non-transparent rules, this could represent a problem of credibility for those who publish material there.
  • The participation in media that does not have specific selection programmes will require from scientists particular communicative knowledge and skills that many will not have.
  • Communicated content could be devalued by an immediate comment and any corrections may only then be carried out with great difficulty. In addition, there is always the danger of a “shitstorm” or that misinformation is distributed, either as a result of an error or deliberately, as well as the dominance of social bots in the debate.
  • The partially existing “echo chambers” in social media could nullify the potential democratisation effect and send it into reverse.

Science for our society

Knowledge should not be a privilege, and it is important to make sure that society benefits from the fruits of scientific and technological research. We need to ensure that we encourage the communication of science and technology to society either using traditional way or using social media , in order to make sure we bring science closer to society. This will hopefully result in progress away from a ‘science and society’ approach, where the two stay largely separate, to a more integrated ‘science in society’ approach.

Writer: Shashank Dwivedi 

( Editor of Technical Today Magazine & Dy. Director, Publication in Mewar University)

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