Scientific societies in the internet age

January 14, 2014

Guest Post By Sarah Boon

These days much of our life takes place online: banking and bill payments, keeping in touch with friends and colleagues via social media, reading the news, and more. Are scientific societies keeping pace with these changes, and should they even try?

As a scientist, you likely belong to a plethora of societies. Most have basic services, including a website, the ability to join and renew online, and a newsletter – often in PDF format. Only a few, however, emulate societies like the American Geophysical Union (AGU), which adds to these basic services a series of guest blogs, an active Twitter account, online streaming of conference sessions, and more.

You may wonder what the point is of all these activities – and what it has to do with you and your science.

At the simplest level, migration to online platforms and utilization of social media is budget friendly. With science funding in decline across the board, operating costs at scientific societies can also be hard to cover. Sending out e-newsletters instead of printing paper copies, having online membership renewals instead of mailing them, connecting via email instead of in print…all of these activities reduce costs.

The other rationale for a bigger online presence is to better connect society members with each other (regardless of age), to recruit new members, and to connect science and scientific societies with the broader public community.

By Raymond Nakamura

Back to the AGU example: they have over 20,000 followers on Twitter (@theAGU). At the recent Fall Meeting in San Francisco, both AGU staff and conference attendees tweeted from the conference using the hashtag #AGU13 – spreading the word across the web about exciting new science while it was being presented. AGU also provided a virtual conference attendance option – perfect for those of us who didn’t have the time or budget to attend, but don’t want that to keep us from staying up to date on the latest research in our field.

The AGU’s blogosphere includes 11 individual blogs, covering topics from weather to landslides, and science policy to science communication, all in publicly accessible and largely jargon-free language. Posts on these blogs are cross-referenced on their Twitter feed and their Facebook page (which has over 19,000 likes). Key new papers published in AGU journals are also posted on these sites, reaching a broader audience than just researchers who sign up for e-alerts of journal tables of contents.

The AGU has Twitter and Facebook followers at all career stages, across scientific disciplines, and from around the globe. They also have followers who aren’t scientists at all, but are interested in knowing more about the science shared in their feed. Scientists on Twitter often engage with @theAGU to share research results, ask questions, and connect with other researchers.

Two great Canadian science examples are the Canadian Association of Geographers (@CanGeographers) and the Society of Canadian Limnologists (@Can_Limnology). With over 1600 followers, the @CanGeographers Twitter feed is integrated with their website, as well as with a weekly email newsletter put together by Dr. Dan Smith (UVic) that highlights news, publications, and fun topics in Geography. Through these online ventures, readers are kept in the loop about what their colleagues are up to in Geography departments across the country, whether they use that information to find recent papers or develop new collaborations. It also keeps the community up to date on student and faculty opportunities and major news items in Canadian geography, as well as recent relevant blog posts and news articles about Canadian geography in particular, and the discipline of geography in general. The same is true of the @Can_Limnology feed, which connects over 900 followers in a similar manner.

Ultimately, a strong online and social media presence benefits the membership of a scientific society by increasing opportunities to connect with other researchers – as well as broadening the range of researchers with which to connect. It also provides a platform (e.g., blog) for public dissemination of research results, which is particularly important in an era when science is often seen as secondary to ‘real life’.

If you think Twitter and blogging are a waste of a scientist’s time, take a look at this article on academic blogging, and this one on the role of Twitter in science. The evidence may change your mind – and convince your scientific society to change theirs, as well.

Sarah Boon Sarah Boon has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about the environment, science communication & policy, women in science and academic culture. She is a member of the Canadian Science Writers Association and The Explorer’s Club, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013. Sarah is also the Editorial Manager at Science Borealis. Find Sarah on Twitter: @snowhydro


iIage1: Thinkstock
Image 2: Editorial Cartoon by Raymond Nakamura

Filed Under: Scholarly Publishing Science Communication Sarah Boon Raymond Nakamura

Post a Comment

Robert C. Cowen

Earth scientists who question the value of joining the electronic universe don't realize how far they have come in public recognition. When I chaired AGU's public information committee in the dark ages this kind of public outreach, contact, and interaction was at the top of our (then unobtainable) wish list. I have watched with gratitude how AGU has responded to this opportunity and become a leader in this grand adventure of public engagement.

Victor Venema

Reading the title, I had expected that the blog post would answer the question: do we still need scientific societies when networking has become so easy in the internet age?

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