Broader benefits of social media for scientists

in Science

There are many different views on the most effective use of social media in science, and I don’t claim to have the only or best one. I will instead try to highlight some of the things that are possible and hope that it can inform others’ thinking on how they might use social media to their advantage. To fully reveal my advancing age, I will confess that by social media, I really just mean Twitter.

If you dislike the use of Twitter for self-promotion, this piece is probably not for you. It’s good to be aware that being proactive about sharing one’s work and success might appear overly self-oriented to some, but in my opinion and experience, this concern pales in comparison to the explosion of opportunities and other advantages that can materialize as a result of effective communication. This can allow individual scientists much greater control over their own visibility to overcome hurdles or biases. Indeed, there are other methods of scientific exposure using traditional mechanisms (interpersonal networking at conferences many can’t afford to attend, visibility from prestigious advisors or institutions or funders or journals), but social media can help level the playing field relative to those.

Below is a list of a few ways I believe Twitter has supercharged my own science, career, and relationships.

Learning: “Lurking” (observing prior to frequent participation) is probably how many scientists start using Twitter. We can observe and learn about science, events, opportunities, career advice, interpersonal styles of others we might want to work with. It’s an excellent place to start and can be done easily from a private account (requires prior approval for others to follow). There are many good reasons for a private account, and it’s important to recognize that not all members of the scientific community are comfortable with or face similar levels of confrontation online. However, a private account can also limit visibility in some of the ways that are most beneficial.

Sharing: One of the most powerful uses of Twitter is to allow others to see what we’ve done and who we are. This can involve the science itself. The reasons to use Twitter to share science are not that different from the reasons we communicate science in other ways. The benefits of expanding knowledge aren’t really realized if that knowledge remains locked in our heads. I would argue that it is our responsibility to communicate that science to those who can benefit from it. If it is publicly funded science, this is even more so the case that we should allow those who funded it to see what they paid for. While journal articles and preprints have a somewhat broad scientific audience, certainly Twitter can reach further or different audiences. A thread of tweets—that is, a “Tweetorial” explaining the work, the backstory, important data buried in a supplement, and the failures as they happened— can attract more eyes and add important context.

We also want our science to be better. We aren’t going to have all the good ideas. Other experts can give us feedback on our work that can make it a lot better by challenging our assumptions, our thinking, and providing their own insights, expertise, findings, and reagents. Communicating our science to more audiences just expands who can see it and help us improve it. The barrier for commenting on a piece of work via Twitter is much lower than a full review but can still be immensely useful.

Besides a discussion of science itself, we can also share useful lessons from navigating science, our methods, the hidden curriculum of career advancement, challenges that we’ve faced that others might be able to help with, and more. Both sharing my science and my practice of it has made a huge difference in my ability to recruit people to my lab. I frequently am contacted by students who learned about me and my work through Twitter.

Twitter can also help spread the word for various initiatives and lead to career benefits. For me, it was absolutely essential for gathering a critical mass of like-minded and generous peers for New PI Slack, a community I started for junior faculty to collectively navigate the shared challenges of their new jobs. It also undeniably played a role in the visibility of my advocacy efforts that led directly to my roles on the boards of various open science organizations like ASAPbio and eLife. Sharing my science and my various other initiatives led to a large number of speaking invitations and job opportunities (both for myself and my lab members). I shared many of the things I had learned from starting my lab on my blog. These most certainly would not have been seen by many if not for sharing those posts via Twitter. Some of those posts resulted in inclusion of my materials in online courses or requests for consultation by outside organizations. For example, people all over the world still send me photos of my experimental decision tree hanging on their lab walls or contact me to say they modeled their lab onboarding document after ours.

Sharing isn’t just about the victories. Some of my posts and tweets that garnered the most attention and private communication were about challenges and my own failures. Expressing difficulties in science or in navigating it can attract much-needed support and ideas that can help us get unstuck. This leads to perhaps the most important aspect of social media for me, connection.

Connecting: Despite the massive advantages I have enjoyed professionally from Twitter, perhaps the most impactful are the personal benefits. I have met countless friends and collaborators this way. I’ve found those who inspire me to be better, those with whom I identify, those who showed me how to speak up for what I believe in. I’ve tried to show others that a very wide range of behaviors, rather than one true way, can result in success. Most of my real reasons to use Twitter are about people, inspiration, and creating bonds of shared experience. 

So what are the caveats? There is no shortage of harassment, mansplaining, and negativity on Twitter, but luckily there are many tools to navigate this (unfollowing, muting, blocking, reporting, locking down to a private account for a period of time, or simply taking a break). While not always successful, I try not to tweet when angry and try not to forget that despite the intimate nature of the medium (hearing everyone’s thoughts), it is indeed a public forum. Ultimately, I believe my personal network, my science, and my professional trajectory have been undeniably and positively impacted by Twitter. I hope others also can navigate it in a way that helps them find their own voice and unique path.

About the Author:

Prachee Avasthi is an Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College. Twitter: @PracheeAC