Social media and its use in science

Toby Lauder

With the rise of the internet in the past few decades, the number of people engaging with social media is higher than ever; Facebook alone has an estimated 1590 million users and approximately 76% of American adults who use the internet are active on at least one social media platform [1]. This provides a wealth of opportunities for businesses and organisations wishing to extend their reach, but could also revolutionise the way the scientific community communicates.

Thanks to the popularity of social media outlets, websites like Facebook are increasingly being used as a way to advertise and communicate with the general public – a single post on social websites can reach thousands, or even millions, of viewers. This is one of the reasons the scientific community is beginning to adopt social media as a way to engage with the wider population; a search on Facebook will bring up countless scientifically based pages and groups sharing content with members and the wider online community.

Websites such as Twitter can be especially useful to scientists wishing to communicate their research to the general public, as the short bursts of information accommodated by the website can be more appealing to someone who has not specialised in that subject. This makes scientific posts more accessible to a wider audience- a clear advantage if one wishes to raise awareness of their work. The broader reach of social media is also useful for increasing the range and diversity of volunteers for studies. This enhances the reliability of study results.

However, one must be wary of social media being used for misinformation or fraud. Whether deliberately or unintentionally, many who use social media outlets to discuss scientific matters do so in an uninformed manner, and often spread incorrect information. Because increasing numbers of people use social media as a source of news, and posts on these sites are not usually reviewed for integrity, this can lead to a dangerous situation where misrepresentation of science causes members of the public to form ill- informed or misguided opinions. It is thought that this can have a snowball effect, leading to unfortunate effects such as the misuse of antibiotics. In fact, a study using antimicrobial resistance as a test subject has shown that those who post most about scientific or political ideas on social media tend to be the most ill- informed, and so half- truths, or sometimes even lies, gain ground within their social circles as people are more likely to believe information from close friends or family. [2] Additionally, the internet is making communities more susceptible to the echo-chamber effect (see Trump’s election) wherein people only connect with those of similar opinions and opposing views are either non- existent or brushed aside. This can create a vicious circle of misinformation. [3]

As well as communicating to the public, many researchers also use social media to contact and collaborate with their peers, both from within their field and from other disciplines. Scientifically- orientated social platforms such as Researchgate are increasingly popular- over 4.5 million researchers actively use Researchgate [4]. Sites such as Researchgate and Academia.edu allow users to share and download published papers; this can be a useful tool for researchers to discover which parts of their work are the most popular- it is not always the most cited paper which receives the most downloads!

The vast majority of people who use social media sites are in younger demographics [5], and this is also true for scientific users. A large number of PhD students use a variety of platforms to discuss topics, find help with burning questions and share ideas amongst their peers. Online groups and threads such as #phdchat, a weekly live chat event on Twitter, have been set up to accommodate the demand for online discussions between PhD researchers [6]. Blogs are another popular method PhD students have adopted to communicate with others about their lives. These are often used to share students’ experiences and research progress as opposed to discussing actual details of their work.

Since the majority of social media users are from younger age groups, many older, well-established researchers are reluctant to take to the web due to fear of being out of place in the young persons’ domain. The fear of the unknown is universal and can be a barrier to many activities. However, recent trends have shown that this situation is being overcome; increasing numbers of older people have started using social media, with huge rises in the numbers of those in the 65+ age range using social media in the last decade [7]. This trend could well be mirrored in the scientific community, which could lead to a situation where more scientific users are present on social media. This is likely to occur in any case as more PhD students and researchers finish university and move onto their working lives, but it would be interesting to see the opinions and work of more senior scientists published onto the web in an easily accessible format. Perhaps this could even help to encourage more young people to study science- greater availability of knowledge is likely to spark further interest. Furthermore, scientific knowledge is improved through collaborations and building upon previous knowledge- encouraging older scientists onto social media will help to improve our current knowledge.

Although many researchers use social media as a method of communication, many others have issues with the use of it for purposes relating to research. One of their primary concerns is that if results or ideas are published onto a social site, one always runs the risk of those ideas being plagiarised or stolen. PhD researchers are especially wary of sharing any details of their work- their projects hold the key to their future in the scientific community and they cannot afford to run the risk that someone will use their results to publish a paper on the subject before they do. Without any prior papers published, it is extremely difficult to expose foul play such as this- posts on social media are not accepted as peer reviewed, published material, nor are they likely to provide evidence that any plagiarism has occurred. The fear that data will be duplicated or stolen puts many off using online forums to discuss any details of their current work [6].

Another reason why students, in particular, are reluctant to discuss their area of research online is the fear of not being knowledgeable enough and coming across as ignorant or misinformed- once content is posted online, it is ‘out there forever’- a concept many find unsettling due to the fact one post may be used to characterise them. There are even rumours abound amongst young students and researchers about companies denying candidates interviews or jobs based on incomplete or incorrect ideas posted on their blogs. Whether they are true or not, the rumours discourage many from making comments online if they feel they are not confident enough about their knowledge or their ideas are not yet fully developed [8].

Perhaps because of this fear, many scientists prefer to communicate using outlets which provide some form of anonymity. Reddit’s science section is a popular choice to discuss scientific principles where users are anonymous. Several million people use the forum to ask questions covering a variety of disciplines and subjects and this not only gives scientists a standpoint from which to inform the public and correct any misunderstandings, but visitor numbers are also far larger than any real-life audience a scientist could hope to attract, extending the reach of science by a huge factor [3].

Another draw of websites such as Reddit for many professionals is that it allows them to separate their professional and personal social media usage through anonymous accounts; the aggressive language often used on internet forums can be personal and antagonistic, so many users would like to separate this from their private lives, or they may simply wish to have a distinct online presence where they can be less formal and professional. Many scientists find this method of separating their online presences beneficial; a popular option is to use Facebook for personal use only or for communicating scientific ideas to friends and family whilst communicating to wider audiences on other social platforms [9]. Another option some use is to limit accessibility to social media accounts for acquaintances or collaborators who were not known in person- Facebook allows users to alter the information viewable on their profile depending on the viewer [10].

Aside from the issue of anonymity, the crowded, and sometimes antagonistic, nature of social media sites can make it difficult to filter out the useful comments and replies from the unhelpful ones, particularly if a group or account has a large following. Although many would trust their own abilities to decide whether content is useful or scientific, or that their own online network would aid in filtering the unscientific posts, it can still take time to sift through the wealth of information. However, many argue that it is worth the time commitment to discover new points of view and to establish a new source of peer review outside of the traditional, arguably flawed, method; commenters on social media posts are genuinely interested and have gone out of their way to discuss a topic rather than being paid to review the content and so would hopefully have useful feedback [11].

The life of a researcher is a busy one and the lack of available time is another reason why many are reluctant to partake in social media updates of their work- they feel it will take valuable time away from their research to set up, build up a following and maintain blogs. This can be reduced by linking social media accounts with each other- the blog site WordPress, as well as several other platforms, allow users to link several accounts, notifying their followers when they update their blog, thereby reducing the need for unnecessary and time- consuming posts on multiple media. Twitter is another useful social platform in this respect, as the short posts allowed on the site reduce the amount of time spent creating them, freeing up more of the researcher’s time [5].

Although this reduces the time commitment involved in keeping their social media up to date, many investigators are still unsure about using social media in the workplace due to unclear or unpublicised workplace policies. They will not want to put their job in jeopardy, and so many will not communicate about their work outside of their office. Many researchers are also assessed based on the number of publications they produce- social media posts are not usually counted towards this, and so many do not see the point of committing to a blog when they will not be credited for their effort [8]. Perhaps then, it is time for employers to realise the value scientific communications on social media can have- by encouraging their employees to update blogs about their research (and making policies and guidelines regarding their use clearer), organisations may aid to inform the wider public about scientific ideas and principles whilst raising awareness of themselves and their work online.

Recently, there has been an increase in the number of conferences encouraging participants to live tweet their opinions or ideas about the talks taking place. Some go as far as to create their own trending hashtags so that users can easily find others talking about the goings-on. This is seen by many as a great way to encourage discussion of the ideas being presented- presenters can easily see the reception their ideas are given and it can help to streamline question and answer sessions. It is also extremely useful for those who are unable to attend the conference, as they can get a taste of what is presented without having been there and so avoid missing out. It can even spread the word to others who may have been unaware that the conferences were taking place, increasing interest and attendance. Many are still reluctant to tweet whilst listening to a conference due to not wanting to disrespect presenters or finding it distracting, although they often still appreciate those who do participate [6,12].

Social media has revolutionised the way we communicate as a society and the scientific community is starting to embrace the opportunities offered via its usage. There are no shortage of problems surrounding its use and many feel that social media websites are not scientific or rigorous enough for serious discussions, but as more young PhD students and researchers emerge, this is likely to be a declining opinion. The web is a source of both knowledge and misinformation, but as scientists we can help to educate the wider public and reduce confusion. The use of social media platforms for scientific communications is likely to increase in the coming years and one would hope that this will revolutionise the way science is communicated, increase its accessibility to the public and inspire future generations to become involved in the scientific disciplines.

References

  1. http://www.smartinsights.com/social-media-marketing/social-media-strategy/new-global-social-media-research/
  2. https://theconversation.com/how-social-media-can-distort-and-misinform-when-communicating-science-59044
  3. https://www.wired.com/2016/11/facebook-echo-chamber/
  4. , V., Noorden, Online Collaboration: Scientists and the social network, Nature, 512, 126- 129, 2014
  5. http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/11/11/social-media-update-2016/
  6. Zhu, Y., Proctor, R., Use of blogs, Twitter and Facebook by PhD Students for Scholarly Communication: A UK study, 2012 China New Media Communication Association Annual Conference, 2012
  7. http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/10/08/social-networking-usage-2005-2015/
  8. Maron, N., L., Smith, K., K., Current Models of Digital Scholarly Communication: Results of an Investigation Conducted by Ithaka for the Association of Research Libraries., Washington DC: Association of Research Libraries, 2008
  9. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0162680
  10. https://www.facebook.com/help/325807937506242/
  11. Jogalekar,, A., S., Social Media, Peer Review, and Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) in Chemistry: Trends, Pitfalls, and Promises.,Accountability in Research, 22, 6, 402-430, 2015
  12. http://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003789
Social media and its use in science

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