Do social media have a role to play in the scientific process?

Simon Watts

Social media. Modern gimmick? Or important new tool for the development of science?

One of the most important things about scientific research is the dissemination of knowledge back to those who help fund it, i.e. the general public. In this modern age with the advent of social media can this be done more effectively? Furthermore, can social media play an active role in the scientific process rather than the simple one-way publishing of data?

When we hear ‘social media’ we first think of the big popular websites of today such as Twitter and  Facebook. These websites, and sites like them, have  been utilised by scientific groups in order to raise the profile of science and engage with the public. Space exploration in particular has made widespread use of social media, with the Mars Curiosity rover delivering cute first-person ‘tweets’ updating us of his/her/its status and general happenings. The European Space Agency would later follow the same strategy, completing the anthropomorphisation of space probes with the inclusion of grammatical errors, emoticons, and copious use of exclamation marks [1]. Either that or the cultivation of social media is now so important that it warrants the hiring of interns specifically for the purpose.

Publicising work is all well and good. Scientists no doubt welcome the opportunity to raise the profile of their work with the general public and social media is naturally suited for outreach. But does it have a role to play in the scientific process?

The current peer-review process works on anonymity. The theory is that you are not aware who is reviewing your work. Similarly, these reviewers are mostly unaware of the academic consensus on your work and are theoretically making an entirely impartial judgement of this specific paper. While it may be imperfect, this system evolved into its modern form during the 20th century [2], and has arguably evolved into the best system we can come up with. This is a far cry from the days of the decision laying 100% with the editors.

However, there are those who wish to involve elements of social media in this process. How about a voting system where popular papers may be ‘voted up’ to the top of the page, for example? Or a commenting system where discussions can be had on the content of papers? I believe that these suggestions should be considered with caution, and most definitely implemented after the paper has already undergone standard peer review.

Firstly the voting system risks turning the entire affair into a popularity contest and introduces bias on the perceptions of papers. Paper 1 with 37 ‘thumbs up’ may be overlooked when compared with paper 2 with 1,309 ‘thumbs up’. Further, those reading paper 2 for the first time will be influenced by the score before they even read the abstract. Do we risk thoughts such as ‘well I don’t understand it, but 1,309 people liked it so it must good’ straying into the scientific process? One must also include the possibility of the votes themselves being biased more deliberately, for example a whimsical highly radical paper being ‘voted up’ simply because the excitement that it may be true is appealing (and the research grants that come with the possibility). Similarly, the slightly cynical suggestion that a paper which contradicts the findings of many others may be ‘voted down’ by the research groups it opposes …is…? [Not a sentence otherwise]

Commenting on papers, while great in an ideal world, introduces other problems. Should the comments be anonymous? In this case there is no accountability. If the comments are not anonymous there are still issues to address:. People wanting to jump on the bandwagon of a popular paper to get their name out there? Graduates and post-docs wishing to be noticed by research groups and heaping praise on any paper they produce? If the comments are more in-depth and serious in nature do we need to come up with a way to ‘reference’ comments? A simple comment seems unlikely to receive the same attention and care as a funded paper.

There are, however, many benefits. Direct accountability of papers in a comments section where discrepancies and discussions can be had with the authors and the scientific community as a whole would serve as a forum to focus the future work of the subject of that paper. Voting can quickly identify the ground breaking and important work and allow more rapid progress. But considering the downsides I don’t see that social media should play an integral role in the scientific method as it currently stands. These same benefits can be had from simple internet forums without needing to be integrated into the peer-review process. And ultimately the greatest continuation or criticism of any work will still come in the form of published papers.

[1] – https://twitter.com/Philae2014/status/533385994708725761

[2] – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peer_review

Do social media have a role to play in the scientific process?

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