Thursday, June 04, 2015

Social Media for Scientists

I recently gave a seminar on the use of social media for scientists at an internal event at Stockholm University. It was an opportunity to collect my thoughts, and also to summarize what shortcomings the presently available platforms have. It would be odd if I didn’t share this with you, wouldn’t it?

There are many uses of social media, but three of them are particularly important for science: Networking, Communication, and Outreach.

Networking can best be described as the making and maintain of contacts and the exchange of information. It blends into science communication, which is more generally about discussing your own or others’ research, with your community or with the public. And then there is public outreach, which has a broader aim because you may also want to draw attention to your institution or yourself, or to generally get people engaged in science.

Networking is really unavoidable if you want to work in science today – and you are almost certainly doing it already. Communication is essential for research, and so I think using social media to this end is part of being a good scientist. And I strongly encourage you to try if you like public outreach because of its many benefits. I don’t think every scientist must engage in public outreach; in the first line scientists should do science. But it can be very rewarding and helpful to your science too, so if you have both the time and the interest, you should definitely consider it.

A lot of scientists I know shy away from using social media for no good reason and seem to believe twitter and facebook are somehow not intellectual enough. Or maybe they mistrust their own abilities to withstand the temptation of cat videos. To me twitter, facebook, blogger and, to a lesser extent, Google plus and ResearchGate are simply tools that help me to stay up to date, keep in touch with colleagues, discuss science, get feedback and advice, and share my own research.

There are many other reasons to use social media, but they are all driven by the underlying changes in the communities: We are more people in science today than ever before, collaborations are becoming more international, there are more and more papers being published. Social media is a good way to manage this. If you’re not using social media, you are putting yourself at a disadvantage, it’s as simple as that.

I have the slides of my talk online here, where I have some remarks on the social media platforms presently most widely used by scientists: Twitter, Facebook, ResearchGate, LinkedIn and Google+. In physics in particular there are also the PhysicsForums and the Physics Stack Exchage which are well frequented and can be really useful to ask questions, and give or get answers. These services differ somewhat in their aim and use, so if you are new to this you might want to check these out and see what suits you best.

The existing platforms leave me wanting for the following reasons:

  • None of the existing social media sites covers the spectrum from professional to personal contacts.

    Presently we either have pages like LinkedIn and ResearchGate that focus entirely on job experience and skills and, in the case of ReseachGate, publications. Or we have sites like Facebook and Google+ where you don’t have this at all. But I know most of my colleagues personally, and I am also interested to hear what is going on in their life beyond the publication record or changes of affiliation. For me, like for many scientists I know, work life and private life blur together. Maybe it’s the shared experience of losing friends during the postdoc time that creates these ties, be that as it may, it’s a reality of research.

    I mostly use facebook, because there we also talk about the human side of science, the frustration with peer review, the nuisance of writing proposals, the inevitable rejections, the difficulties of balancing work with family, travel stress, conference experiences, and so on. To me this is part of life as a scientist. Every one of us goes through difficult times every one and then, and using social media is a way to both get and give support. So even if I were using a site like ResearchGate, I would still use other sites in addition to this.
  • None of the existing sites integrates a useful archiving function.

    This is something I really don’t understand: Why isn’t there a way to tag posts on either of these platforms with keywords or move them into folders for your own reference? On facebook you can now at least do a keyword search on your timeline, but it is working badly. On twitter too you can search your posts, though you have to use a third party service for that. Still, I and others I talked to, often get frustrated not being able to find a particular post or reference or comment.

    There are of course apps like for example Evernote that allow you to basically archive anything you want in categories of choice with keywords, and to a lesser extent you can do this on Feedly too. But then if you archive a reference, you will not have the discussion about it in the same place.
  • The professional sites are too public.

    Michael Nielsen in his book “Reinventing Discovery” has a charming analogy in which he describes a scientist with an unfinished idea as someone owning only one shoe, looking for a match without wanting to show the shoe to anybody. Nielsen describes how awkward and hesitant scientists can be before they start talking about their lonely shoes, and I find much truth in this analogy. It’s all well and fine if you have a question and ask it at the Stack Exchange or ResearchGate or facebook or wherever. But that really isn’t how it works if you are looking for a collaborator.

    To begin with you might not know exactly what the question is, or what you are looking for isn’t somebody explaining how to do a calculation but somebody interested enough to actually do it in exchange for being coauthor. There is also the prevalent academic paranoia of getting scooped. Especially in fields where competition is high, people don’t normally go around and publicly distribute their half-done research projects. And then, maybe most importantly, both the person asking and the person answering might have some misunderstandings and they might be afraid of their mistakes being publicly documented. Michael in his book lays out a vision for the matching of shoes, and I think what is really important in this is to allow scientists to find others with similar interests and then give them a private space to discuss off the record.
  • None if the existing services has an integration of bibliometric or scientometric data.

    There is plenty of data about coauthor networks within communities and also their evolution over time, mutually quoted references, and various ways to visualize research topics and their relation. I think this is relevant for scientists to know how many other people are working in their area, how it connects to other fields, who is working on making these connections, and how the field develops. Research has shown that many breakthroughs in science originate at the intersection of fields that weren’t previously known to be related, so these maps are interesting from a purely scientific perspective already. But they are also of personal use because they give researchers an idea about how their own research fits into the larger picture.

    Here is for example an interesting paper about pivot points in string theory. I know, the visualization isn’t all that great, but note that the paper is more than a decade old!
I could go on about how I hope that webinars will become better integrated and that conferences will come to have a better online presence since I find it extremely annoying and cumbersome that every institution is using their own registration system, but I can see that for what the software solution is concerned these are difficult to address by any one service.

What social media do you use to discuss science and how has your experience been with that?


  1. Thank you for these wonderful arguments. I did find in your slides as well some data about impact of social media, which are useful for my work as a science writer in a research intitute.

  2. Archiving:
    In G+ I have both empty Circles and private Collections that I can use as "archives" for bookmarks things I want to go back to, possible things to send to a reading group, or just topic bins for future reference.
    Ken Z

  3. By looking at your slides I see that smart people can truly make a clever use of this stuff. I am too old fashioned for this. I usually give some colloquia only at the request of the abbot and listen to what other monks have to say. We make progress too slowly for these accelerated times but there we are. The major advantage of being a monk is that you do not have to apply for funding. We are neither in Facebook nor in ResearchGate. But we certainly are subscribed to arXiv's newsletter, we read many preprints and we make use of Web of Science.

  4. Igor,

    If you have an example, can you give me a link? I've been searching John Baez' and Terence Tao's pages up and down, and while I have found lots of examples for outreach, I haven't found much discussion about actual research.


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