Sometimes a study makes you think. Not because it’s complex or because it’s wrong, but because… well it hits close to home. Isabelle Côté is an SFU professor of marine ecology and conservation and an active science communicator whose prime social media platform is Twitter just like me. Ok, I have a bit more followers than her but my subject is maybe a bit more broad than that from the author of this new study. She wanted to know if her followers are mainly scientists or non-scientists – in other words was she preaching to the choir or singing from the rooftops?
From the press release:
Côté and collaborator Emily Darling set out to find the answer by analyzing the active Twitter accounts of more than 100 ecology and evolutionary biology faculty members at 85 institutions across 11 countries.
Their methodology included categorizing followers as either “inreach” if they were academics, scientists and conservation agencies and donors; or “outreach” if they were science educators, journalists, the general public, politicians and government agencies.
Côté found that scientists with fewer than 1,000 followers primarily reach other scientists. However, scientists with more than 1,000 followers have more types of followers, including those in the “outreach” category.
Twitter and other forms of social media provide scientists with a potential way to share their research with the general public and, importantly, decision- and policy-makers. Côté says public pressure can be a pathway to drive change at a higher level. However, she notes that while social media is an asset, it is “not likely an effective replacement for the more direct science-to-policy outreach that many scientists are now engaging in, such as testifying in front of special governmental committees, directly contacting decision-makers, etc.”
Further, even with greater diversity and reach of followers, the authors concede there are still no guarantees that Twitter messages will be read or understood. Côté cites evidence that people selectively read what fits with their perception of the world, that changing followers’ minds about deeply held beliefs is challenging.
“While Twitter is emerging as a medium of choice for scientists, studies have shown that less than 40 per cent of academic scientists use the platform,” says Côté.
“There’s clearly a lot of room for scientists to build a social media presence and increase their scientific outreach. Our results provide scientists with clear evidence that social media can be used as a first step to disseminate scientific messages well beyond the ivory tower.”
I do agree with some of the conclusions, although I’ve experienced that it can differ from niche to niche. E.g. my wife is also a scientist who blogs with a lot colleagues on early education. For them to get real outreach, they don’t need to use twitter, but both Facebook and Pinterest are great drivers for their outreach-audience of practitioners. It’s just one example, but I do think that different audiences often use different social media platforms thus maybe making this study interesting to replicate in other fields of science. Oh, and the answer for myself? As I have a bit more than 1000 followers I’m pretty convinced I’m doing both.
Abstract of the study:
There have been strong calls for scientists to share their discoveries with society. Some scientists have heeded these calls through social media platforms such as Twitter. Here, we ask whether Twitter allows scientists to promote their findings primarily to other scientists (“inreach”), or whether it can help them reach broader, non-scientific audiences (“outreach”). We analyzed the Twitter followers of more than 100 faculty members in ecology and evolutionary biology and found that their followers are, on average, predominantly (∼55%) other scientists. However, beyond a threshold of ∼1000 followers, the range of follower types became more diverse and included research and educational organizations, media, members of the public with no stated association with science, and a small number of decision-makers. This varied audience was, in turn, followed by more people, resulting in an exponential increase in the social media reach of tweeting academic scientists. Tweeting, therefore, has the potential to disseminate scientific information widely after initial efforts to gain followers. These results should encourage scientists to invest in building a social media presence for scientific outreach.