Scientists using Twitter: Dispelling the Myths

May 06, 2014

Invited post by Sarah Boon, PhD

Recently, Kirk Engelhardt, Director of Research Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology, posted two hotly debated articles: one on why more university researchers aren’t tweeting, and a second on whether Twitter can make scientists better communicators. We had a lively discussion (on Twitter, of course) about the comments flooding these posts, and some of the interesting assumptions that people held about the Twitterverse.

Based on that discussion, this post aims to dispel five key myths that seem to come up in most discussions of scientists using Twitter.

1.    Serious scientists don’t Tweet.

Au contraire! Serious scientists know that science is a community endeavour that isn’t limited to the rarefied air of the institution, and see Twitter as a networking and idea-generating resource. Talking with colleagues around the globe on Twitter is cheaper than going to a conference, and less commitment than a regular coffee date with colleagues. Twitter is a way to share your own research, stay up to date on research by others, share and generate ideas, get updates and news from your scientific societies, get copies of papers and debate the trials and successes of being a scientist.

Just a few examples of ‘serious’ Canadian scientists who are active on Twitter:
A small selection of well-known US scientists on Twitter include Julie Hecht (canine science), Michael Dettinger (hydrologist), Diana Six (forest ecology/bark beetles), Michael Campana (hydrogeologist), and many, many more.

2.    Twitter takes too much time.

Twitter takes as much time as you want it to - it’s all in how you use it. You have the option of keeping track of what’s happening and up to date on new papers by following specific lists of people (scientists, scientific societies, journals, news). This level of engagement is like watching the news on TV: you don’t have to talk to anyone or engage with anything, you just watch the ticker feed go by and take what you need from it.

The second level of engagement involves sharing things you see in your feed by retweeting them or favouriting them, and the top level is engaging other Twitter users through direct conversations. I’ve had discussions on topics as diverse as the difference between paying for art vs paying for science, the best resources to use in teaching science grad students how to write, and how to model stream temperature using statistical approaches.

If you can watch a marathon weekend of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, if you spend time each week skimming journal table of contents or routinely check the news for science stories, you have time for Twitter. Ultimately, you control your time investment.

3.    You can’t say anything meaningful in 140 characters.

While it can be difficult to get your point across in 140 characters, it’s not impossible, and you can write multiple tweets to string together a longer message. Getting the right message compacted into a 140-character space without resorting to unintelligible acronyms and shorthand is great training for being succinct, clear, and sticking to what’s important. Sound familiar? Oh right, just like writing scientific papers, or asking questions after conference presentations.

It’s true – sometimes nuances are lost or missed in the brevity of a Tweet. But doesn’t the same thing happen over email? Or even in conversation?
The 140-character limit is no excuse not to tweet. If you learn how to work with it, you may develop stronger communication skills as a result.

4.    Twitter erases necessary boundaries between students and faculty

Having a Twitter account doesn’t automatically erase boundaries between you and your students. How you use it does. You’re likely to engage more students If you maintain professionalism but also inject humanism and personality. Being on Twitter doesn’t mean you have to be their best friend. It just makes you human – and studies have shown that being human and telling your story is one of the best ways to engage non-scientists in science itself. See This is What a Scientist Looks Like and other initiatives for examples.

By tweeting about your research and research process, you help those interested in a career in science see how they, too, can become scientists. Remember: just because your students ‘follow’ you on Twitter, you aren’t required to ‘follow’ them back. And if they are following you? Act accordingly. Twitter isn’t an excuse to be an idiot – it’s governed by the same social mores as other forms of interaction and community building.

5.    Twitter is only for self-promoters

Yes, there are a high percentage of self-promoters on Twitter – but consider that your idea of ‘self-promotion’ could be someone else’s idea of ‘sharing.’ Besides, it’s your decision how much – or how little – you want to self-promote, and which self-promoters you want to follow.

Interestingly, Tweeters who only self-promote tend to lose followers – it’s by engaging with the broader community and sharing ideas, successes and failures that you build a constructive online community. If you only talk about yourself? Twitter members will drop you like a hot potato.

As scientists, we’re trained to draw conclusions from the examination of evidence. Too many scientists dismiss Twitter out of hand based on anything but evidence. Give it a try, test it out, and then draw your own conclusions as to whether or not it will work for you. Hey, if a shepherd in the Lakes District of England who is a professed lover of ‘old things’ can enjoy Twitter – so can you.


Guardian Higher Education Network: Can engaging with the public help your career in academia?

Dawn Bazely: Figuring out the link between social media and what I do as a Biology prof

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

Filed Under: Scholarly Publishing Science Communication Sarah Boon

Post a Comment

John Pastor

I don't tweet and I never will. This blog has convinced me that I am correct. Here's why:

1. Tweeting is "less commitment than a regular coffee date with colleagues." Doing good science requires commitment to meeting with colleagues regularly and spending the time and effort to ponder their thoughts and opinions. Decreasing commitment to these human interactions is strike one against Twitter.

2. The level of engagement of Twitter is "like watching the news on TV: you don’t have to talk to anyone or engage with anything". Same comment as in point 1. Strike 2.

3. Twitter apparently allows us to "inject humanism and personality" into interactions with students. What better way to engage students at a human level that face-to-face discussions after class, in your office, or in your laboratory? Strike 3.

I have never believed that putting a machine between people improves communication. That includes the computer upon which I write this email. So I am also partly to blame.

Some of my best memories of a mentor come from when I was a post-doc at Oak Ridge National Lab. Knowing that I was a pipe smoker, Bob O-Neill would stop by my office and say "Let's go walk and smoke." We would spend anywhere from a half hour to several hours walking through the Oak Ridge experimental forest, smoking a pipe (me) or cigarettes (Bob) and arguing fiercely about hypotheses, experiments, equations, anything to do with science.

Instead of tweeting your students and colleagues, go for a walk with them through the woods and argue about something. But do it face to face.

Sarah Boon

1. While Twitter may be less commitment than a coffee date with colleagues, nowhere does the post say that it *replaces* that coffee date. It's an alternative, especially when your colleagues are in another province or country. I regularly interact on Twitter with scientists from Canada, US, UK and Europe - scientists I'd never meet for coffee due to logistical constraints.

2. The level of engagement on Twitter is what you make it. Same with engaging in person - it's what you make it. I interact with very engaged scientists and students on Twitter. I don't interact as much with those who aren't engaged.

3. It's fine to have face-to-face with your students - and again, Twitter doesn't replace that. But try going for a walk with a class of 150 students. What kind of face to face do you get that way? Connecting with a large class - on their own terms (i.e., social media) - can go a long way towards strengthening in-class/in-person connections as well.

You've missed the fundamental point of the article. Being on Twitter doesn't replace human interaction. It broadens your interactions to include people you may not be able to interact with regularly. It opens up the scientific endeavour beyond your immediate dept or university, and is a way of democratizing the scientific conversation.

Tom Huntington

Thank you, Sarah, (and Kirk) for your article and championship of Twitter as a worthy communication vehicle for scientists.

John, I agree with Sarah that you "missed the fundamental point of the article. Being on Twitter doesn't replace human interaction. It broadens your interactions to include people you may not be able to interact with regularly. It opens up the scientific endeavor beyond your immediate dept or university, and is a way of democratizing the scientific conversation."

I intentionally chose to copy that advice from Sarah -- both with the suggestion that you re-read it and to re-emphasize it for myself.

I'm just just one random example of Sarah's advice to you. I am neither a Scientist nor a Science Writer, but I AM a science geek (actually a "Human Nature Science Geek), and there is no way I'd be able to be engaged with a conversation with either you or Sarah about the merits (or demerits) of Twitter for scientists or science writers or human interaction.

I am just beginning to explore how to relate and communicate on Twitter and I am beginning to "be in awe" of it's possibilities for finding and engaging with "people I may not be able to interact with regularly" (or ever!).

John, I'm an old man (and I'm beginning to think with a lot of humility that I might even be a "wise old man"), and although one of my "wise advice to myself" is to not give/offer unsolicited advice, I'm gonna be brave and offer it to you in response to your response to Sarah's article (but first, thank you for sharing your opinion/response so clearly and boldly).

As I read your response, I feel/sense a rigidity of belief that I doubt serves you well (or your students) and which is (may I a "non-scientist" dare to say) a very un-scientific attitude.

I am not a "true believer" in or "convert" to Twitter, but I am "open to the possibility" that it MAY be helpful to my efforts to connect with Human Nature Scientists and Human Nature Science writers who may resonate with my efforts to translate/communic

Jeffery Williams

I've noticed that professors HAVE used Twitter to replace personal interaction. At a conference I recently presented at, I got no feedback from any of the professors. Then I checked Twitter the next day and saw several professors tweeting criticisms of my work. So am I now supposed to track all these people down and ask them to expand on their tweets? It's incredibly frustrating.


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