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I’m a scientist and I want to use social media. Now what?

Opinion | Researchers
I’m a scientist and I want to use social media. Now what?

In this post, you’ll find some common goals that scientists have for using social media, and what social media platforms and approaches might best fit those goals. 

There are many ways that you can use social media to share your work and your research. There are so many different social media platforms and approaches to creating content, in fact, that it’s worth spending time thinking about your ultimate goal and who you want to reach before you jump into creating content. 

Before you say that your goal is to reach broader audiences, take a moment to think about whether and why this goal is really important to you right now in your scientific career. It’s ok if it’s not – maybe at this moment, what you really want is to reach a broader community of your peers, to find job opportunities or attract research collaborations. Dedicating some thinking space to your current communication goals will help you decide what social media platforms and content approaches will work best and be most rewarding for you. Feeling rewarded is very important to the sustainability of the communications effort you are about to undertake.

Below you’ll find some common goals that scientists have for using social media, and what social media platforms and approaches might best fit those goals. 

I want to advance my scientific career and have impact in my field

Many scientists who contemplate using social media ultimately hope that doing so will help their work have more scientific impact. 

Faced with a competitive academic job market and an exploding number of scientific journals, modern researchers may struggle more to make their mark and get tenure. The exact average number of views and citations that most scientific research papers receive is controversial. But it’s fair to say that the number is probably underwhelming. 

Scientists today are turning to social media to publicize their published research papers and network with potential collaborators. This good news is that this works. A 2014 study showed that researchers who tweet and talk to media professionals about their published findings gain more citations of their work than researchers who do only one or the other. And it makes sense – like most people, scientists are increasingly turning to social media to get their news. Scientists are using social media to stay up to date with happenings in their field. Social media platforms like Twitter and the now universal hashtag have also made it easier (nearly automatic in some cases) for people to instantly reach others with similar interests. This means that a scientist’s tweets are likely to reach other scientists in the same field, yielding more reads and ultimately more citations.

Do you want your research to have more scientific impact? Do you want more of your peers to read your papers? Use X (formerly Twitter) to share work in progress and published research findings. Share your papers on ResearchGate. Update your LinkedIn profile with your latest publications and projects. Try to blog about your research, whether for your own blog or for an institutional or media blog. 

If you can find where scientists in your field “hang out” online (my peeps hang out on X and Instagram, using the hashtag #scicomm), your social media updates about your research will be even more effective.

I want to become a better science communicator

For some of us, using social media is more than anything a fun way to practice our communication skills. Do you enjoy telling your lab mates stories in between benchtop tasks? Have you always loved writing, or do you hate it but know you should work on it more? Have you considered becoming a professional science communicator? You might find social media a natural venue for practicing and building up your communication skills and experience.

If you want to become a better science communicator, either because you just love it or because it would help you with job or funding prospects, practice makes perfect. Push your comfort zone by trying new forms and formats of science communication. But also pick a platform and approach and stick to these for as long as it takes to “master” them.

Long-form science blogging, podcasting or creating science videos for Youtube or Instagram are great activities for improve your science communication skills. They require ongoing effort and practice, which is key. Each blog post, podcast episode or video that you produce will also require you to find a story, translate scientific information for a broader audience (because non-scientists may read, listen to or watch this content), decide on a message and think about what you want your target audience to walk away with. 

I want to inspire future scientists. I want more people to understand what it looks like to be a scientist in my field.

Many scientists today are drawn to social media not necessarily to tell a particular research story, but rather to share their experiences as scientists. Sometimes the goal is to help diversify the scientific community. Sometimes the goal is to open up the scientific process. Sometimes the goal is to change the culture of science and how it is done.

There are many different social media platforms that can help scientists bring others on their journeys in the lab or the field in a very visual, experiential way. Instagram stories and live videos, science selfies (#scientistswhoselfie) and other visual content are awesome mediums for inspiring others with “cool” science in action or showing people what it looks like to be a scientist (and what a scientist looks like).

If you want to inspire future scientists or want more people to understand what it looks like to be a scientist in your field, consider using social media outlets that reach young audiences and involving students and other young scientists in your efforts. (You may want to join efforts with your institutional or university social media efforts.) Bring your audiences on a journey with you via photos and live video. You’ll have to get personal – share your story and daily experiences. Leverage Instagram and platforms for livestreaming or recording video to bring your audiences behind-the-scenes footage of science in action.

I want to help non-experts make better decisions in their lives, based on science.

Of all the goals you could have for your social media science communication efforts, this one is the toughest to achieve. 

First of all, social media platforms are working against you, surfacing your content mostly to other people who are like you, who share your interests and who use similar hashtags (aka other scientists). To reach broader audiences, you will need to work hard to break out of your own social media “bubble”. You will need to find the online spaces where your audiences “hang out”, use their language and take their interests and values into account. You will need to create content that doesn’t share science for science’s sake, but that is focused on entertainment or answering the questions that your audiences would have about this science. 

To reach broader audiences with scientific information they can use, you will need to create content that is relevant, approachable, accessible, entertaining as well as educational, visual, shareable and actionable.

You probably can’t do this alone. Even if you have training in science communication and its theories, reaching broader audiences and helping them actually engage with and leverage scientific information in their lives is going to be a team effort. You will need to collaborate with artists, storytellers and other professional communicators to create accessible, visually appealing content in spaces that actually reach non-experts (think news media, popular mobile apps, podcasts and video games). I’m currently exploring such collaborative science communication with a new sci-art platform and community space where scientists can meet artists, called Lifeology.

Creating social media content for broader audiences may look like creating content for popular health tracking apps or collaborating with media outlets that have a wide reach and editors to help you create messages that speak meaningfully to non-experts. It may look like doing a TED talk or collaborating with a designer to create an engaging video series. It may look like creating mobile app or video games or entertaining podcasts that help people learn about science in bite-sized pieces. And it will definitely look like pushing the boundaries of your content generation and storytelling skills, and going beyond the social networks where you talk with your peers. 

This blog post is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.

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