Social media for scientists

By Grant Jacobs 28/04/2013 1


I’m preaching to the choir here, aren’t I? You’re already on social media!

Seriously, let me give a shout-out to Holly Bik and Miriam Goldstein’s little paper in PLoS Biology, An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists. Leave a copy on the department coffee table for those less confident about use of social media in science, perhaps?

Bik and Goldstein highlight that many academics are reticent about utilizing social media,

In academia, there is often a particular stigma attached to online activities. Actively maintaining an online profile and participating in social media discussions can be seen as a waste of time and a distraction from research and teaching duties. We believe this perception is misguided and based on incorrect interpretations of what scientists are actually doing online.

I have some sympathies, it must seem that way from the gossip about general use of social media. And not helped by the wayward examples the mainstream media highlights!

Really it’s over to your use of it. Some stick closely to work-related issues. Look and you’ll find there are specialist social media sites, just as there are specialist blogs.

I feel it’s more a matter of starting in a smaller way in circles you are comfortable with and working from there. You will want to balance the benefits against the time involved, as they discuss. (I had to laugh at the description for ‘Write for established blog’ or ‘Start your own blog’: ‘Life-Sucking Yet Strangely Satisfying’! Ah, yes… Seriously though, blogging isn’t that bad. I think.)

You should read their tips and, in particular, the potential benefits they discuss, but below are a few casual thoughts of my own. I realise this is unlikely to reach the people it might best target as readers here are already on-line, but perhaps this might encourage those who at the moment are more readers than participants.

  • Try pick one form of media first and learn it rather than take them all on at once. With that in mind, when reading Bik and Goldstein’s article, perhaps use it as a guide to the types of media you’d like to explore first.
  • Many will find it more comfortable to keep work and private networking separate. I’d recommend that. In one sense, this isn’t entirely possible: work colleagues will be able to, if they put the effort in, locate your personal site and as you get to know people you will naturally make casual comments. But you can at least use (say) a different twitter account for personal stuff, limit your Facebook account to contacts outside of work, use different blogs for work and your political rants (or whatever else). People will know you have interests and contacts outside work so some ‘slippage’ is expected. The question is more one of signal-to-noise: for work contacts too much unrelated ‘chatter’ filling otherwise work-related material can put them off.
  • Do browse around and read new forums for a bit. It helps to get a feel for what’s considered the form before jumping in. As you get more experienced you’ll be able to jump in more quickly.
  • Don’t feel (too) shy about asking people things – one of the key elements of social media is it’s much more a level playing field than many flesh-and-blood meetings with their social hierarchies. (Don’t feel offended if popular people don’t write back – most likely they’ve just got dozens of others writing to them.)

I’ll get out of the way and let you read their paper. Readers are welcome to offer their experiences and tips in the comments below.


Other articles on Code for life:

GoPubMed — PubMed browsing using ontologies

Forward to wikipedia – topic pages in computational biology

Choosing an algorithm — benchmarking bioinformatics

Nature’s reproducibility effort: when to get data specialists on board

Literate and test-driven programming (in bioinformatics)


One Response to “Social media for scientists”

  • […] It’s only been a week since publication, but the paper has already become the highest scoring article in PLOS Biology (see Altmetric details). While the paper has been extremely popular with scientists on Twitter (37% of tweeters), it has also been featured in a few science communication blogs, including one post written by a co-author of the paper. But even though the visibility of paper is extremely high on social media platforms, how can it effectively reach academics who aren’t already using these services? A simple suggestion was made by blogger Grant Jacobs: […]