Scientists Can Find Outreach Success With Social Media

Before diving into the world of social media, scientists should decide what they want to achieve, experts advised.

CHICAGO -- Social media can provide scientists with opportunities to communicate with the public and promote their work, but they shouldn't feel pressured to start tweeting on Twitter, editing Wikipedia or posting to Instagram before they're ready.

"You don't want to force it," said Maggie Koerth-Baker, science editor at BoingBoing.net. "It will be obvious you don't want to be there." Koerth-Baker spoke at a session on "Engaging with Social Media" at the 13 February seminar on Communicating Science, at the AAAS Annual Meeting.

"You're never going to figure out what makes things go viral."

Maggie Koerth-Baker, BoingBoing.net
Maggie Koerth-Baker | Atlantic Photography

More scientists have begun blogging and tweeting over the last three to five years, noted the session moderator, Dominique Brossard (@brossardd), chair of the life sciences communication department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In one survey, about 17 percent of scientists of all ages were blogging at least once, and almost 20 percent said they tweeted about their research at least once in the past month. "The world of scientific communication is changing," Brossard said.

But before diving into the world of social media, scientists need to consider three things, Koerth-Baker said. First, they should ask themselves what would be the goal of their social media endeavors. Social media uses are many, and they include creating communities, communicating with the public and collaborating professionally.

"You have to figure out what it is you want to be doing," she said. Self-promotion shouldn't be the obvious goal, however, "because if social media is about anything, it's about authenticity."

The choice of platform, the second consideration, depends on a scientist's goals for using social media. Twitter is like a "giant, ongoing cocktail party," said Koerth-Baker (@maggiekb1), and it is often best for quick communication. Wikipedia can be extremely beneficial for some scientists, especially as a teaching tool for students. Others have found value in the community atmosphere of Reddit, particularly the site's "Ask Me Anything" question-and-answer sessions.

"This is a huge challenge to undertake and to do it effectively."

Kim Cobb, University of Georgia in Atlanta

But the third aspect scientists should consider is whether they actually need to be on social media, she said. If a scientist doesn't have a good reason to participate, then it can be reasonable not to do so, or at least to not participate on several platforms at once. "You don't need to be anyplace, and every place might not right for you," she said.

Scientists should also be careful to keep their public and private personas separate, as mixing the two can detract from their authority as an expert in their field, Koerth-Baker said. Tweeting about politics under the same handle that a scientist uses professionally, for instance, could undermine credibility.

Many scientists are uneasy with using social media, noted Kim Cobb, a climatologist at the University of Georgia in Atlanta. There can be a stigma associated with non-traditional forms of self-promotion. And scientists may worry about overselling the societal relevance of their research, over-simplifying results to the point of inaccuracy or losing their status as an objective representative of science.

Social media can also require a large commitment of time. "This is a huge challenge to undertake and to do it effectively," Cobb said.

Cobb (@coralsncaves) only began blogging and tweeting in 2012 in an effort to increase public engagement with climate change and promote women in science. Her blog has provided opportunities for storytelling that are not available in the more traditional methods of communication used by scientists. "My blog has become a wonderful medium for me to expand on the wonderful adventures I have," she said, as well as the people, struggles and science behind those adventures.

"Personal is better" when it comes to blogging, Cobb has found. Humor, the use of storytelling and the addition of photos also contribute to a post's success.

Scientists who aim for the sky and try to create blog posts or other media that will spread virally across the Internet are probably going to be disappointed, though. "You're never going to figure out what makes things go viral," said Koerth-Baker.

Danielle N. Lee | Atlantic Photography

Social media can reach many communities that are underserved by traditional forms of communication, noted Danielle N. Lee, a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University and blogger for Scientific American. African-Americans and Latinos have adopted social media in large numbers, and in urban areas many access the Internet only through a smartphone.

"Science is not a utopia," Lee said. "Because it's not universal, you have to find the language to communicate with different audiences."

Lee has found many ways to use social media to reach out, particularly to urban minority communities. On Twitter, Lee (@DNLee5) has gotten involved in conversations-demarked by hashtags-and inserted science into the mix, letting people ask her questions and helping to dispel myths. On Facebook, she has been able to reach specific communities in a more personal way because she is often only a few steps removed from the person she is communicating with. "Having someone who you can relate to makes a big difference," she said.

Minority communities in general are underserved when it comes to news about science and technology, Lee said. No publications in the ethnic minority press have science sections, and they rarely have reporters dedicated to covering science. This affects the views that people in minority communities have of scientists, and those views translate into classrooms and the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce.

"We have a problem here," Lee said. But "if we raise the profile of those of us [in the minority community] who are already participating in the STEM workforce, that can…change the conversation and shift the metrics."

Social media can only go so far in doing that, however. And so Lee challenged journalists in the audience to diversify their sources, pitch stories for publication in ethnic media outlets and include more minority scientists in their reporting. "I'm not asking you to change what you're writing about, just who you're talking to," she said. After all, Neil deGrasse Tyson isn't the world's only black physicist. Though he does know how to use social media extremely well. 

To promote public engagement with science, AAAS has made LiveStreamed video of the Communicating Science seminar available at no cost to anyone who registers for user credentials.