More and more scientists are taking advantage of social networking tools to talk about their research. This trend was even deemed worthy of a paper in Nature this week. I've read this paper, and I had mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it was good to see the use of social medias showcased in such a prestigious journal. On the other hand, I felt it came out of nowhere, and was too descriptive. I was left wondering, if I were not already using twitter and other similar things (partly) for scientific purposes, would this article have changed my habits? Maybe not.
However, there are a number of different reasons for which getting involved in social networks is a wise decision for a researcher or a lab, and I will highlight those who seem the most relevant. Obviously, social media presence goes beyond having a twitter account. This is why, at INNGE and the French Ecological Society, we have a facebook page. This is why my former group has a blog to talk about the new papers, and this is also why I have a blog. Taken all together, these tools offer an incredible potential for scientists to engage in the discussion, and we should all work actively to use them.
Cut the middle man
It's often tempting to complain about the fact that Science (not the journal, the discipline) is hard to spread from within the community to a broader audience. Short of some really stunning results, which may or may not be stunning science but are appealing in terms of communication, the general public is left relatively uninformed about what happens in the labs. The reason is simple: channel through which we can communicate scientific informations are relatively few, and it can be tedious to write a press release. Or to talk with journalists, which may be tempted to slightly arrange your sayings, due to a mis-understanding of the subject, or the necessity to fit some editorial format.
Using social media will effectively result in the elimination of the middle man. Scientists can be in charge of their communication, and reach out to the greatest audience available. The part about being in charge is especially important: in a few clicks, you can have a wordpress or a facebook page up and running, and you, the researcher, will be able to talk directly about your work. This will require a short time of adaptation, as the general tone of a blog post is not one of a paper (unless I'm wrong either in the way I write papers or blog posts!), and the degree of precision differs. But once this is done, you may even find the exercise enjoyable!
Help your ideas invade
Probably the best advice I received about what science is about comes from one of my collaborators, who interrupted our burger-seeking walk to tell me that ideas are like populations, and if I want to be a good researcher, I have to make my ideas invade the resident community. Shortly thereafter, we found a burger place, which only makes the memory more enjoyable. Invasion is about two things. Either you have a high fitness, or you benefit of an Allee effect. Being present on social networks will help you achieve the later.
For this reason, we owe journals like Ecology Letters or Methods in Ecology & Evolution a big thank you, because they mention every new paper on twitter (well, that, and they've also accepted papers of mine, so you know...). Some papers get retweeted, and benefit from a terrific, instantaneous exposure. I've seen a few instances of one of the authors getting involved in the discussion, and it was all very stimulating.
I'm not aware of any studies establishing a correlation (or the lack thereof) between the number of times a paper is mentioned on social networks and its number of citations (my guess is that it will help citations happen sooner, not necessarily increase them – although good papers may be retweeted more frequently, so there are confounding effects here). But it definitely will not harm you to see a lot of people talking about your work.
Update on Jan. 21, 2012 — I became aware of this blog piece at BMJ Web Development, with a link to a paper showing that the number of tweet is a fairly good predictor of the number of citations. Here you go, now.
The permanent conference
A while ago during a discussion about social media, someone mentioned to me that the kind of interactions established on twitter resemble the ones established during a conference, albeit soberer. I have to agree with this. Just look at the incoming tweets, or facebook updates, and you'll see what everybody is up to. What they write about on their blogs. What kind of webpages they are reading.
It's not necessarily about science, and you'll probably find yourself bonding with people, which may at some point become collaborators. This is one of the strongest points to me, the ability to be permanently in touch with your community. Even though it's not always productive, it's always good fun. But it can become very interesting. You can ask for advice. You can get feedback, ideas, suggestions. And a lot of things which would have gone completely under your radar suddenly become accessible to you. Just for this, it is definitely worth the few minutes a day that you'll soon find yourself putting into the exercise.
All the cool kids do it!
I've tried to make the point that being active on social networks can help you take control of what is said about your science, will let other spread your ideas, and will make you feel as if you were in contact with everyone at once. But more importantly, it's cool. Wicked cool. Hype.
Basically, it will give you two things. Visibility, and the image of an engaging researcher / group of people. Students will actually look for these traits, so being easy to reach may attract people to your lab. It's also why you should not use Word to do your lab webpage (unless you are so good and attractive and awesome that it stops mattering), by the way.
And the best part is, it's free (as in beer)! And should you want to get started, I'm sure you'll find plenty of people willing to help you, and set things up for you, and introduce you to these tools. I'm confident that they will become an increasingly important part of the daily routine of scientists in the near future (which is why we use them so much at INNGE), so don't miss up this opportunity.