By Bill Sullivan
Scientists have been surprisingly slow to embrace Twitter and other forms of social media. Even today, a certain stigma remains attached to academics who use these tools. Some view social media activity as a frivolous use of one’s time—a distraction that has little to no value at work. Regardless of your personal feelings towards social media, it is not fair to judge others who have made these tools an integral part of their research program and career development.
Here’s why. Twitter has a great deal to offer a scientist. For many, Twitter is simply the best way to monitor breaking science news or newly published articles. You cannot fault someone for using a 21st century method to stay informed. In fact, Twitter may be helping scientists to be more efficient. Using the search engine and hashtags, scientists on Twitter can quickly isolate the signal from the noise, pulling out the tweets that are most relevant to their discipline.
With each passing year, more scientists from around the world are flocking to Twitter. Some new, some old. Some down the hall from you, and some who are on the other side of the globe. Some who are just starting their career, and some who have been around the block. Even some “big cheeses” are on Twitter now, sharing their wisdom, insights, and advice. There is much for a young scientist to learn from the lessons offered by these seasoned scientists. And, I would argue, a lot that seasoned scientists can learn from those who are at the beginning of the journey.
There are countless other ways scientists are leveraging the power of Twitter to enhance their research program. I’ve established new research collaborations on Twitter. I post job opportunities in our laboratory or at our school on Twitter. I attend virtual scientific meetings on Twitter. I ask the hive mind for help with new techniques we are trying to master, or to brainstorm ideas to solve a mystery we are trying to crack. Through discussions on Twitter, I have learned about new ways to facilitate intralab communication and options for electronic notebooks. We post and discuss new research papers on Twitter, much like a cyberspace journal club. We share amazing microscopy images or confounding data with one another. We share in one another’s successes, and offer support to one another when science is kicking our ass. #ScienceTwitter rocks!
Many faculty members are also incorporating Twitter into their education and service missions. At one level, Twitter is an effective way to communicate additional information and articles to students. Twitter can be used as a forum to post practice questions or case studies that students can then discuss as a group in cyberspace. On another level, Twitter is a fantastic platform for science outreach, a novel means by which we can educate the general public in matters concerning science and medical research.
Twitter is much more than a passive news source; it is an important mechanism to broadcast your news. Twitter and other social media outlets have enhanced my career. Thanks to sharing our research on social media, I’ve been invited to give more talks, write more review articles, and attend more meetings. It is also a great way to stay in touch with former members of your lab. In addition, most of our journals, societies, and funding agencies now use social media platforms, and they are waiting for you to join the revolution.
I know, I know: we all have a zillion other things we need to do. Do we really have time for social media? I was skeptical at first, too. However, I found that it takes much less time than you think and, in many surprising ways, it’s actually a timesaver. You can share articles, comments, and photos in seconds. Communicating via Twitter is often quicker and easier than email in some cases. Considering all the advantages I’ve outlined above, I’d argue that the minimal cost in time is far outweighed by the benefits. The question is not, “Can you afford to be a scientist on social media?” The question is, “Can you afford not to be?”
So please think twice before criticizing someone for augmenting their research program or career with social media. With any luck, maybe we can convince you to start taking advantage of these modern forums of science communication.