Should My Lab Have a Twitter?

Right now, just about everything has had to move online, and I’ve found myself thinking a lot about online teaching and alternative research and effective collaboration. But instead of that, I wanted to talk for a moment about something that I still don’t know what to think about: professional social media for academics.

The first time academic social media really hit my radar (other than #overlyhonestmethods, which I’d always assumed at the time was originated by other students like myself as a way of coping with the stress of a thesis or dissertation on their otherwise non-academic social media accounts) was when I doing a literature review in my last summer as an undergraduate. I was reading a paper entitled “Human fecal water content of phenolics: The extent of colonic exposure to aromatic compounds”, a highly technical paper about measuring volatile compounds in the extracts of human excrement. It had a vaguely medical justification, but at the end of the day it was a highly technical proof-of-concept on a pretty new method. And it had, the metrics box in the corner of Science Direct helpfully informed me, exactly 1 tweet about it. I was so baffled by the concept of tweeting about a paper by academics for academics that I saved a screenshot of it to my evernote.

I’ve heard about academic twitter accounts a few times since, most notably by the professor that taught my grant-writing class. I’ve had it stressed to me that as a potential future professor, I should curate my online presence, both in terms of not having drunken facebook photos show up when someone googles my name (not something I’ve ever been too worried about) and in terms of having a positive, curated presence show up in the results instead (hence this blog). And I can see the benefit of discussing publicly-funded science in an open forum, in a format that’s accessible to the public and well-communicated, but… well, for one thing, the Science Direct article was neither open nor accessible. So who was this for, exactly? Why and how are researchers starting to make social media accounts for their labs?

Well, I’ve seen it used in academic spheres as a platform for much-needed activism, a networking opportunity (especially for groups that otherwise might not have much community at their institution), and an accountability tool for publicizing research misconduct. Being in human subjects research, I’m also pretty familiar with the need to recruit participants.

The thing I’m less sure about is whether social media is useful for communicating science between researchers and the public. Social media is where many people get their news, and it’s tempting (for me, at least) to be idealistic about one’s own ability as a researcher to be able to correct misconceptions and misinformation where the people already are. But do researchers have the time to do this well? Do we really want to be training people that twitter can sometimes be a reliable source of scientific information? Is there a good way to communicate the often-complicated results of scientific studies within a character limit without causing more misconceptions? I think it’s telling that twitter and google are both linking to the CDC webpage on COVID-19 directly in their attempts to combat deadly misinformation, away from using their own platform.

The particularly thorny thing about social media for science communication and academic networking is that these questions are relevant no matter who the intended audience is. There’s no divide between intra-community conversations where everyone is mostly speaking the same language and widespread public discourse removed from the initial context, so the posts you’re hoping to use to talk to your peers and increase visibility of your papers are just as visible by the rest of twitter. It’s an admirable goal, in my mind, to do academic extension on the open internet, but also a large undertaking. I think it’s worth asking yourself why you want to make a professional social media account, who the intended audience is, and how you feel about your posts reaching beyond that group.

If you go through that and still feel like it’s a worthwhile activity, I’d recommend approaching it like this academic blogger–a way to force you to refine your ideas to a state that is fit for public discussion.

2 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed your post. As I was looking through graphics on my blog post, I focused more on the shift to online learning that has been caused by the pandemic. I did not think alot about Twitter and how it’s properties could be used in education. I feel as you do that it is alot like us blogging or any higher education instructor using a blog. It is also a great way to pass out information without the use of email. I am sure there are many educators with Twitter accounts but I would assume very few use them for educational purposes. That would be an interesting info-graphic to see. As you imply in your post, it would be possible to get an outside look at certain educational ideas that are posted on an educational Twitter account, not just that of the account holder. Outside ideas are always a good thing and could shed light to a student who may need a new or different way to understand a certain concept. Thank you for your insights, I enjoyed reading your post.

  2. Thanks for your post! I have the same thought when I consider if I should use my Twitter account for academic purposes. I am not a fan of Twitter, although I created my account many years ago. I only had three Tweets before I joined the lab. This is just my other social media account to follow accounts related to my hobbies. But all the other people in my lab are using it, so I had the pressure to use it for academic purposes. Then things get strange. As you said, who the intended audience is? I started to follow my colleagues and other researchers I know. A lot of information I’ve seen on Twitter is not related to research or just duplicate information that they shared on Facebook or Instagram. So even if I started to use Twitter last year, I don’t consider using it for academic purposes. Still, some researchers use Twitter for science only, which seems to be an effective method to promote their research.

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