September 2012

The expanding multiverse of the scientific community: new media for communication

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Biochem Belle avatar on TwitterBiochem Belle (biochem.belle@gmail.com) is a postdoctoral fellow in a biomedical research hub in New England and a member of the ASBMB. She holds a B.S. in biochemistry from a Southern U.S. state university and a Ph.D. in chemistry from another Southern university. Her doctoral studies focused on enzyme substrates and inhibitors. She is now exploring how protein organization and interactions affect their functions in cells. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/biochembelle.

Sometime during the upstart days of social Web, blogs earned a reputation in some circles for being places where people posted pictures of their cats or inventories of what they ate for breakfast. The stigma carried over to other social media platforms, from the microblogging site Twitter to the search giant’s Internet playground, Google+. Although you certainly will find no shortage of pet videos and meal updates on the Internet, the web has much more to offer scientists than cat photos and muffin recipes — and much to gain from our presence and interactions.

More than muffins
The way scientists are sharing via social media is not so different from what scientists have been doing for centuries. In a lecture on improving science communication on the Web at the University of Rhode Island Metcalf Institute in late July, the editor of Scientific American’s blog network, Bora Zivkovic, likened blog posts to the earliest forms of scientific communication, such as the letters and journals of Newton and Darwin, which were written as very personal accounts of their observations that were later published to disseminate information.

Although peer review has changed how we communicate original research findings, science bloggers provide the same types of content that journals, symposia and society newsletters have been cranking out for decades. Commentaries on science in policymaking, science education and training, the power and pitfalls of peer review, and much more appear in numerous social media postings — and in editorials and letters in the most prestigious journals.

Research blogging gives brief synopses of new research papers and in-depth critical analyses of published studies, similar to the research highlights and journal clubs that are found in many publications and lab meetings. Blogging and live-tweeting of scientific conferences serve as meeting reports. Sacred tips about grant writing and information about how study section reviews work, once confined to career-development workshops, is now posted, archived and updated online. Social media has become another method for sharing valuable information with the scientific community.

More than medium
Although digital platforms provide content similar to traditional forms of scientific communication, social media also radically changes these communications. Scientific journals and society publications will continue to be useful resources, but in some matters, they can quickly become echo chambers — select individuals given the podium, another voice or two providing counterpoints, the whole debate taking place in just a few issues before being left behind for the next topic. These commentaries now can be transformed into incredibly dynamic discussions! Social media is not static; it is a living, growing, morphing thing. A post can be shared across multiple platforms, reaching a variety of audiences and sparking new conversations while often remaining connected to the original. Rather than waiting weeks for a response to be reviewed, edited and published, it can go up within minutes. This might sound like a recipe for disaster to some, but comments are typically subject to rapid response too, with participants correcting errors, extolling virtues and pointing out bias.

Social media brings in another powerful element: diversity. People from an array of backgrounds at different stages of different career tracks in different sectors are using social media to talk about the practice, culture and findings of scientific research. Online, people are not just sitting quietly at the back of the lecture hall listening to others debate some piece of research or the fate of the scientific establishment. They’re participating.

Everyone, from the undergrad to the institute director, has a voice. There are no time constraints for organizing one’s thoughts. It is not necessary to compete for the attention of the moderator or editor. An argument is more readily judged by its essence than the number of publications or titles of its presenter. It is far more difficult to interrupt a response midstream and drown out that voice.

Eavesdropping on social media can provide a wealth of information for scientists at all stages, and some users simply choose to listen. But active participation can bring even more value. Social media is a testing ground to flesh out ideas, improve writing and even build confidence. Individuals who might often go unheard, who are perhaps too timid to speak in public, can find their own voices through social media.

Many scientists choose to use their professional identities online, but pseudonymous scientists also contribute to the great diversity of social media. The reasons for choosing to write under pseudonyms are varied but rarely nefarious. Credentials lend credibility, but in the digital age trust is built on behavior. Every individual engaged in social media creates an identity, and that identity is established by the content he or she creates and promotes. To borrow again from Zivkovic, “I don’t care about Samuel Clemens; I care about Mark Twain.” Whether you choose to use your professional identity or not, you can find your voice.

More than material
Scientists are discovering direct benefits from being online. Some scientists use blogs for data sharing or public outreach, which are critical elements for many funding applications now. In fields such as ecology and astronomy, social media networks are leveraged to collect and analyze data. You will find scientists troubleshooting experiments in different cities, even different countries, at all hours of the day and night. We are sharing samples of cover letters and grant components and providing feedback on job and funding applications, often for people we have never met. Scientists are expanding networks, finding people with shared and diverse interests and expertise from all over the globe.

It works because social media has moved far beyond content; it has become another place to create community. We connect and nurture relationships with people from curious nonscientists to established experts. We catch up from time to time, chatting about the silly, the serious, the mundane and the extraordinary. If we posted only the profound, then we would lose the camaraderie we share. This is what transforms social media. Relationships may begin as an exchange of tweets but become friendships and collaborations, bonds with mentors and peers that reach beyond the confines of a social media website.

We accept that chance connections at conferences or seminars have sparked lifelong professional relationships. The same is possible in virtual space. Not every scientist needs to have a blog or Twitter or Tumblr. But just like the phone call or the walk down the hall to chat with a colleague, social media are tools that can broaden our reach and enable us to build rich, diverse networks of peers and mentors.

 


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