By Sally James
In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, many scientists have taken to social media platforms, particularly Twitter. Social media can facilitate research collaboration, generate ideas, clarify misinformation, and further understanding.
Here are some of the ways that science is happening on Twitter, including strategies to extend the reach of ideas or ask others for help. While most of these examples address the urgent pandemic, they will work in ordinary times as well.
Know your audience
Many scientists imagine Twitter as a giant science conference. After reading a technical paper or watching a webinar, you get an idea or have a question. Why not ask on Twitter? It would be like mingling at the conference happy hour after the presentations. In this case, your audience is composed of your scientifically literate peers.
But on another day, prompted by a headline story in the popular press, you may want to post for a more general audience. You might see something that doesn’t seem correct scientifically. Posts directed to a layperson will need to be in less jargon-filled language—it can help to think of your audience as your neighbors. Or think of your audience as scientists from outside your own discipline, who don’t know the acronyms that you use.
The recent pandemic has been a tour of how individual epidemiologists, virologists, and others have posted some of their scientific findings directly to Twitter, aimed at both other scientists within their field and also at educated journalists and public-policy leaders and scientists from other fields.
Twitter posts are conversational. Think of the person you want to reach as you are writing.
Data scientist Dr. Trevor Bedford of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has been posting results about the mutation changes in the virus that causes COVID-19. Bedford has shared that he gets valuable comments from other scientists on Twitter. As he summarized to the audience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle in February: “Science is happening on Twitter.”
Here’s an example of Bedford’s post from early in the pandemic on March 2, where he explains why he believes community transmission is happening. Note his use of the “Twitter thread.” Twitter restricts the number of characters that can be used in a single post, but you are allowed to string multiple posts together to form a thread. The numbers to the right of his post, “1/11,” signal to his audience that this post is the first of 11.
Note that Bedford posts for his scientific peers as well as a general audience. He uses accessible language but provides links to technical resources in case his peers want a deeper dive.
There are many places to learn how to write more deftly and briefly for the public. One of them is from a nonprofit organization, COMPASS, which helps scientists develop their communication skills. Another place is the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which offers workshops online here. Additionally, many colleges and universities have communication staff who are eager to help faculty share their work on social media.
Let’s look at some more examples of science communication on Twitter. Dr. Kira Newman is a physician who praised the exchanges of hospital protocols and helped share them via social media.
Others involved in COVID-19 research have posted requests for lab protocols or reagents, such as this call for lab supplies from Dr. Florian Krammer. (And it worked…he did get the supplies.)
Still another example of science exchange comes from Dr. Aaron Ring, a scientist analyzing a recent paper and asking others to help him figure out the relationship to a drug being developed as therapy.
Post publications thoughtfully
When using Twitter, don’t forget to “tag” specific scientists, publications, or your institution in your posts. If you want to highlight or comment on a publication you read in a PLOS journal, it can be useful to tag at least one author of the study as well as the publisher itself (for example, @author_name and @PLOS). If you are commenting on an article written by a news reporter, you can include their Twitter handle in the post along with their news agency. You can find Twitter handles by searching Twitter itself or going to the respective websites.
These tags make your post easier for the intended audience to find. Also note that tagging is not the same as a hashtag, which is a specific word or phrase that looks like #scicomm or #COVID-19. Hashtags are useful to include in your post because they are searchable, meaning people who are searching for scicomm or COVID-19 posts will see yours.
Here is an example of a good post featuring a publication, which includes a figure/illustration and thanks to collaborators and funders. Dr. Atul Butte names collaborators, uses the tags of those on Twitter, and thanks the study funders. He also includes a hashtag to help get his tweet noticed by people interested in open data.
Many scientific meetings take advantage of hashtags, too. Organizers frequently set up a hashtag they ask everyone to use during the conference. For example, the Association of Clinical Oncology is on Twitter as @ASCO, but the hashtag for their annual conference this year is #ASCO20.
Some scientists will tweet in advance of the conference, using the hashtag to announce that they will be a speaker or attendee. It can serve as a great way to plan ahead for the conference or create times for people to hang out during meals and breaks.
Make lists to help organize your Twitter feed
On your home page in Twitter, you’ll see an option for “Lists.” You can create private or public lists for yourself, a group, or institutions. You could make a list of all your funders, or your collaborators on a specific paper, or of the influential scientists in your field who are on Twitter. You can also make a list of hashtag(s) you like to follow. Here are some tutorials that explain how to create a list.
You can also see the public lists made by other users, which could save you time. When you are on a person’s Profile page, click the ellipsis (three dots) icon to the right of their name. It will give you a choice to View Lists, and you will see lists they have made. Dr. Atul Butte, for example (mentioned above), has more than a dozen lists you may wish to follow.
Listening, sharing, and etiquette
The most important advice I have is to be authentic and generous. One of the most effective ways to grow your audience is to be useful. Do you know about an event in your field that’s happening and might be of wide interest? Post the event information with a link, and possibly a photo or illustration that’s relevant. Do you know about an award being offered or a fellowship opportunity? Post that information, even if you are not personally eligible.
Don’t be afraid to thank other collaborators or lab workers, and show your gratitude in a genuine way. Here’s an example of being genuine and using a photo creatively from Dr. Miriam Merad.
Choose your battles: don’t spend all your time criticizing other posts. Explore and experiment and imitate the posts of others that you find especially valuable because that’s one way for you to learn.
Leave some comments on how you’ve been using #sciencetwitter for #scicomm!
About the featured image: “The figure is a network analysis showing the Twitter accounts with the greatest impact in the conversation around COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2 and cancer/oncology as measured by SymplurRank. Data is derived from the Healthcare Social Graph® – Symplur.”
Sally James is a freelance science writer in Seattle, writing mostly about medical research and biotechnology. As a volunteer, she has organized events on health literacy. She is @jamesian on Twitter. She wrote for PLOS about patients discussing cancer on social media.