What role do social media play in science?

Jorge Poole

The quarterly results announced by Facebook on 4th November 2015 revealed something truly staggering: on average, 1.1 billion people use the social media site per day. To put that incomprehensibly large number into context, that is more than 1/7th of the entire population on earth. Twitter, Instagram and the social network for professionals, LinkedIn can all boast hundreds of millions of subscribers. These people are doing everything from gossiping about celebrities to following breaking global news stories on these social media platforms. With these sites now inexorably interwoven in our daily lives, controlling the way in which we interact with each other and consume content, it is becoming increasingly important for science to exploit these tools to remain part of the broader social discourse.

The sheer speed at which social media has grown in the past decade is frightening. While the origins of social networking can be traced back as far as the 1970s and Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), online meeting places accessed over telephone lines via a modem, it was not until the dawn of the internet that the social network was able to become the omnipresent cultural phenomenon that it is today. Facebook and Myspace were both launched in 2004 to a great fanfare, with the two sharing a modest user base of over 300 million within 5 years. This explosion in engagement has produced an endless fascination about the ways in which social media is shaping our society. It has connected friends and family across the world and blurred geographical borders. It has revolutionised journalism and the way in which people acquire news. It is changing the battleground for political debate. It has even become a tool for terrorist recruitment and propaganda. In 2011, the influence was evident in Egypt where interim Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq resigned from his post, with the announcement made initially by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on its official Facebook page, allowing for instantaneous communication to its more than 700,000 “friends”.

The drastic transformations of journalism and politics have been firmly in the public eye, but another, somewhat quieter revolution has been brooding in the arena of social media; the birth of social networks geared towards scientists. Labroots, Quora, ResearchGate, Academia.edu and Mendeley have all entered the market with the basic premise of building a global network of scientists who are sharing, collaborating and building a new generation of scientific research. This idea of international collaboration is nothing new to the world of scientific research. Contrary to the popular depiction in traditional media of solitary scientists toiling in their labs, virtually all scientific discoveries have been made by groups working together.

The revolutionary aspect of scientific social networks, however, has been that where in the past collaborative networks may have been confined within a geographical area or educational institution, today there is simply no limit to their reach. Collaborations can span continents and can even be done without the need to meet face to face. So much of modern scientific research requires cross-disciplinary expertise that these social networking sites have begun to demonstrate their importance. Research teams that traditionally were made up of a large number of on-site scientists with varying skills, can now be replaced by small core teams supported virtually by experts in their field from across the globe. Social networking collaboration is likely to appeal to funding panels as it provides a far more cost-effective method of carrying out high level research.

The startup that seems to be spearheading this social movement among scientists is ResearchGate. With over 8 million users, the platform has grand goals to become the fundamental venue for collaborative discussion and peer review. ResearchGate has gained such traction that investors have been lining up to pump money into the company, including the man crowned richest individual in the world, Bill Gates. His high profile financing of $35 million comes on top of two previous rounds of undisclosed investment. It is plain to see why researchers are rushing to join the platform. Emmanuel Nnaemeka Nnadi was a microbiology PhD student based at the University of Jos, Nigeria. His area of study was mutations in candida fungal species, but he lacked the funds or sponsorship to allow him to perform molecular analyses. Using ResearchGate, he was able to collaborate with Orazio Romeo, a pathogen researcher from Italy who could provide the equipment and expertise that was required.

The explosion in social media for science, however, has come as a surprise to some and not without reason. The list of failed attempts to create a Facebook for scientific collaboration runs into the dozens, including SciLinks, 2collab, the well-backed Nature Network and Epernicus. The wariness of researchers to share papers and data online stemming from fears from competitive research groups seemed the obvious explanation. In particular, early career academics worry that exposing research too early in a public domain such as a social network, will open them up to ridicule and perhaps stunt their career progression. In the case of Nnadi, the opposite was in fact the case. Following the exposure received from the publication of his collaborative work, he gained several other research invitations from all over the globe. Success stories such as that of Nnadi continue to draw scientists to the networks, providing them with a burgeoning collection of research papers. The growth of such platforms threatens to upend the pay wall model that has sustained the multi-billion dollar scholastic publishing industry.

In today’s consumerist world, the rate at which modern technologies are rushed from the lab to the marketplace mean that media outlets are extremely important for building public awareness around new breakthroughs in science and technology. The major problem for science is that very often these news reports do not distinguish between well-founded and illegitimate scientific findings. There is a tendency in the media to sensationalise and embellish in order to gain audience, with little thought given to the resulting misapprehensions of the public. However, with the rise of social media, the way in which we access the news is changing rapidly.

A new study, conducted by the non-partisan American think-tank Pew Research Center, found that the share of Americans for whom Twitter and Facebook serve as a news source is seeing a dramatic rise. The clear majority of Twitter (63%) and Facebook users (63%) now turn to the platforms to to find out what is going on in the world. This is a substantial increase from the 52% and 47% respectively of users questioned in 2013. In particular, Twitter has shown its strength in news distribution. For example, the US Geological Survey (USGS) turned to Twitter after a 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan, China. They analysed the millions of tweets from users reporting the quake and using the data were able to pick up on an aftershock in Chile within one minute and 20 seconds, taking only 14 tweets from the filtered stream to trigger an alert. The news dissemination powers of social media present a golden opportunity for scientists to seize control from media outlets as to how scientific news is broken and exercise their responsibility of accurately informing the public.

Many scientists have already taken full advantage of social media to develop their public profiles, with some even gaining celebrity status through their virtual following. Science Publishing Group have put together a list of “The top 50 science stars of Twitter”, topped by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the American astrophysicist whose musings reach an audience of four and a half million. There was a time when many in the scientific community dismissed social media as being superfluous and merely a tool to distract ourselves from real events and discussions. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that social media has the power to make their craft more pertinent than ever before. It can empower debate and collaboration; communicate advancements; engage and inspire a new generation of researchers. In light of this, scientists must overcome any preconceptions and join the rest of the world on social media in order to facilitate scientific progress.

What role do social media play in science?

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