Communication and Engagement

Not quite 100 ways for Scientists to Engage in Social Media

Last night at a post lecture drinks reception I got into talking about using twitter as a scientist, and an academic, and thinking about what is in science communication for the communicator.

During Richard Dawkins speech at the launch of the MCR-Arthritis Research UK research centre here at Birmingham University I attempted my first proper live tweeting (for those wishing to follow the hash was #DawkinsMRC, it was also filmed and I shall add a link to the footnotes when it’s available). I have new found respect for people who live tweet well – listening, thinking, typing, and checking sentences actually makes sense, whilst trying not to miss anything was much more challenging than I had thought it would be. Whilst this seemed like a worthwhile thing to do at the time, a conversation with an professor of exercise science at the centre made me step back to thing about how scientists can engage with social media and more importantly why we should bother. In my first post “Thou Shalt Communicate” I wrote about why science communication is important but failed to mention how it can benefit an individual. As long as someone is engaging the public about Cancer Research for a charity such as CRUK for instance, then there will generally be more donations and therefore more money to do research. If that is true why should you be the one to communicate your research, couldn’t someone else do it?

The Prof. I was chatting to, yes it was more like an informal chat – did I mention the drink at the drinks reception, has recently joined twitter. A decision made one morning where he turned to his wife to say,

“I want to be on Twitter” …shortly followed by,”now what?”

He had clearly thought that it would be a good idea to open up this means of connection with the outside world, a direct link with the public with which to share his work, but did not know quite how to go about it and why he was doing so.

If we look at a business blog post 100 ways to engage social media, maybe we can get some ideas about how to engage social media. Some of the 100 points transfer directly; you can share content such as papers, science blogs and news, you can lead by engaging in a science related twitter chat (try #twitJC a twitter journal club held on Sundays, or #PhDchat on a Wednesday), and you can link and tag to make yourself easier to find and build your reputation as an expert, you can even find out what your competitors are up to after all many of them will be communicating their science (you can also work out what social media interactions are working for them).

Sure as a scientist you are not going to have customers from which to request feedback and complaints, but scientists have a different role – answering questions. If you have ever talked with the public, and been enthusiastic and pitched the level of detail right for the audience, they are generally very interested in what happens behind the close lab doors. At the CRUK centre in Birmingham I have had a lot of opportunity to participate in lab tours, indeed this is where my love of science communications comes from, and allowing the public to get behind those closed doors always goes down very well. It is such a mysterious world we work in, just compare it to the average office…

Labs are so mysterious that even people that work in the next corridor have no idea what goes on behind those doors. A few months back I was talking to some of the ladies from the Cancer Research Clinical Trails Unit (CRCTU), a team within our building that has a corridor on the same floor as some of the older laboratories and with whom we share a coffee room. They had never seen the inside of the lab and it occurred to me the different worlds that existed either side of the two very similar looking locked doors; one of offices and desk work, the other labs and test tubes. I do not have access to their world and they do not have access to mine. I took them on a tour of the lab immediately, let them load a gel, answered some very good questions and sent them back to their own world. If you engage the public as a scientist you should be there to answer questions, improving public knowledge and raising your profile as an expert in your research area.

Social media has many, and I mean many, platforms and different ways of communicating; blogs, twitter, facebook, linkedin, I really could go on…really!

The thing is you need to know what you are trying to achieve and chose a few platforms, maybe just one to start with, so not to spread yourself too thin. You should also think about the time you are willing to put into the project. Twitter is one of the least time consuming social media tools requiring as little or as much time as you can afford, a blog on the other hand might take more time to produce. Obviously you can communicate more information in a blog, where as you can get one good sentence in a tweet and link to the information elsewhere.

To repeat myself about why we communicate science,

“…if a society is to progress, it must support scientific research and such support will come only if the public understands the nature of science” – The Media and Communicating Science to the Public, John Bishop 1997, the then Deputy News Editor (Science) of The Wall Street Journal

But what is in it for you, the scientist? Many grant and funding bodies encourage the communication of research to the public and if you are actively engaged in science communication there may be financial rewards. Next, if you are sharing research that has come out of your lab you are raising your public profile, and that of the university, whilst also making your research more widely accessible to both the public and other researchers. A lot of scientists are using social media now days and the more connected we are the more likely research will spread across disciplines and help scientists from widely different fields. No longer are we stuck in a world of “this is a chemistry lab” and “that is a biology lab”, science is become ever more intertwined and we have to stay connected to know what is going on. Also, if everyone else starts connecting, and you don’t, it might mean you are missing out on something.

So you are a academic researcher, perhaps new to twitter, science blogging and the like, where do you start? I do not profess myself an expert but these few ideas might help you on the way.

If you are new to twitter try to write a good bio so people know who you are: “Professor in the department of Medical and Dental Sciences at the University of Birmingham studying Pulmonary Disease” is better than “Brummie Scientist” and will encourage people in your department, university and research field to follow you. If you are part of an institution there will be a university, department and/or college twitter feed that you can follow – you might wish to use these in you bio, e.g. @UniBirmingham instead of University of Birmingham, to save characters. If you are posting content that is relevant to your institution and department try adding their twitter @username to the end of the tweet to make sure they see it. Mentioning others will help you get a RT (re-tweet) and communicate to more people. Followers will come with time and interaction but twitter is a very useful tool if you just use it just as a news feed and to find out what others are doing in your field. Finally you can’t expect people to follow and interact with you if you do not do the same for them – favourite good post, RT posts that are in your area of interest, reply to tweets, and try to use hashtags (the # before a continuous stream of letters from one or more words or abbreviations).

If you are trying to get information out in the form of a blog try getting some backing from the university, department or institution you belong to so you can use their channels to advertise its existence. There may even be opportunities to write a guest section for a blog with established followers. If you are in a writing mood you might wish to make sure Wikipedia knows about your research area or just make sure it is correct.

If I still haven’t encouraged you to jump into the world of social media try these posts for inspiration:

I shall also direct you to some useful links:

As always comments are very welcome and you can contact me @beckieport. Other accounts of interest in this post include @RichardDawkins, @MRCcomms and @ArthritisRUK.


If you happen to be a doctoral researcher, or in fact anyone new to twitter, I recommend checking out this presentation “How to Use Twitter as a Doctoral Researcher” by the brilliant @biosimonUoB. It is a good introduction to this social media tool, and includes examples of how to use twitter well (e.g. The Deep Research). Most importantly the presentation has some key points to remember such as warning against publishing “unpublished data”.


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