Posted on Tue, Oct 30, 2012

The scientific community, it seems, is beginning to embrace social media as a way of improving dialogue and communication.  To the general public, the scientific community has seemed like an impenetrable fortress of scientific terminology, jargon and very complex concepts.  We wanted to understand the research more, but we were hopelessly lost when we tried to find out more about the great scientific breakthroughs we hear about. 

In an article published recently in Lab Manager Magazine titled “Social Media Gone Viral”, this communication barrier will be transcended through social media adoption.  The article cited that in a 2011 poll of 200 lab managers, 80% were total strangers to Facebook, 60% to Twitter.  This is not really a surprise.  There is a lot of skepticism from older scientists in what they consider the wild-west of communication – Twitter and Facebook.

Most of the communication and dialogue occurs in conservative scientific publications through peer-reviewed papers.  Dissemination of scientific research must be rigidly controlled to ensure the credibility of the research and trust in the researchers and the results presented.  To the general public, a lot of this great work is indecipherable.  In today’s internet age, audiences today don’t have time or patience to understand scientific jargon or relate to science-based institutions.  The research sounds great, but what’s in it for me?  If a Google search doesn’t satisfy their curiosity, audiences move on to other things and quickly forget.

It is acknowledged by most people that social media can simplify the conversation but it also allows for open expression of one’s views, whether it is empirically justified or pure conjecture.  Just about anything is allowed on social media.  Worse, it can sometimes degenerate into anonymous mud-slinging.  Social media interaction is as extreme a departure for how the scientific community has historically communicated as you can get.  Who, in their right mind would want to participate in this? 

But, as F. Key Kidder observed in his article, trust is not about information; it’s about dialogue and transparency, especially with the general public.  Social media is the platform that best achieves this, whether it is through Twitter, LinkedIn, or other social media outlets specifically aimed for the scientific community.  Some of these specific outlets can be found on Google +, LinkedIn Groups, LabSpaces and ResearchGate where researchers and scientist can connect and openly share ideas, research and other interests.  The scientific community will have to embrace social media.  It’s not going away.

Twitter, Facebook, and the like have found their way into just about every part of society, labs included. Scientists tend to be late adapters of social media but with the right coaching, scientists can become naturals in social media and society at large will benefit greatly from this transformation.  Scientific breakthroughs advance the evolution of humankind.  If these messages can be targeted towards mainstream audiences, then younger generations can get turned on to science and be turned on to pursue science as a career.

If you’re a scientist or researcher and are unsure of whether you should dip your toe into the social media water, here are 6 tips that will help you get comfortable with interacting in social media and maintain your professional integrity:

1. Create a complete LinkedIn Profile and Connect with Your Peers

Remember, you are a brand and have to take a marketer’s approach to building your professional profile.  Create a LinkedIn profile for yourself and treat it like a CV.  Tell your peers about yourself, where you have worked, what research you have conducted and what papers you have published.  This is a great way to build credibility and trust amongst your peers.

2. Get Recommendations from Peers

On LinkedIn, you can enhance your credibility by asking your colleagues and former colleagues to recommend or endorse your work.  When others view your professional profile, these recommendations and endorsements are there for them to see.  You can extend your professional network by connecting with other like-minded people.

3. Investigate Important Conversations Relevant to Your Areas of Interest

Think of it as a giant cocktail party that never ends.  Listening is knowing what is being said on-line about your organization, field or issue area.  Simply mingling through this mountain of information is not enough.  Listening involves sifting through the conversations being held in blogs and in social media and finding those conversations that are relevant to you.  The value of listening comes from hearing what other people are saying and making sense of the ideas and data presented.  Responding to these conversations with your own views can help you start conversations with peers you had not previously met.

Start with LinkedIn, for example.  LinkedIn is not a job hunting site, as most people think.  It allows its subscribers to start and become members of as many groups as you wish to be involved in.  This has allowed for the development of a great repository of groups that satisfy just about any area of interest in just about any industry.  There are great conversations going on in the Groups every day.  Join in and listen and then contribute.

4. To Blog or Not to Blog?

If you are not blogging about your publications or research, someone else will be, so you might as well do it so you’re not misinterpreted.  Remember to keep confidential or proprietary information out of your blog posts.  You probably have great relevant content or observations about other research you can share with your audience.  Here is an example of a great pharmaceutical science blog by Derek Lowe.  The key to Derek’s blog is that he consistently shares content with his audience.  In order to build a great following, you have to make sure you write posts and share content regularly. Your audience will come to expect it at a certain frequency and time, like their favorite TV show.

5. Set Up Google Authorship (rel=author tag)

This is relatively new feature Google has launched.  Google now allows you to display author information in search results to help users discover great content.  This rel=author tag is used to rank web content that is written by real people, while also helping Google determine the authenticity of the content by verifying that it was written by someone who has credible expertise in the subject. 

The scientific community needs to understand that trust is not about information; it’s about dialogue and transparency.  Google Authorship helps you build this transparency.  To identify the author of a blog or article, Google checks for a connection between the content page (such as an article), an author page, and a Google Profile.  For those who produce regular content on a blog or website, the Google Authorship program allows you to claim your hard work as your own and build a solid reputation around your name and image as being an expert in your industry.

6. Get a Twitter Account

Get a Twitter handle as simple and as close to your name as possible. Refrain from names like Tommy9373, because no one will remember it.  Have a relevant 140-character bio that catches the eye of your target audience and use a great picture of yourself for your profile.  Here are some tips you should follow on Twitter:

  • Be polite. Don’t just blast out information. Twitter is a place for all of us to share, listen, chat together, and engage with one another. Remember: The words “please” and “thank you” are just as welcome in this space.

  • Listen to your target audience first.  Get comfortable with the application, then talk.  Start by re-tweeting posts from your topics of interest and give credit where credit is due when citing other people’s content.

  • Share interesting articles, blog posts, links, photos and videos.  Even on Twitter, a picture is worth a thousand words.

  • Be yourself.  It builds trust and credibility.  You are probably very personable and entertaining as it is so keeping it real is important.

  • Keep down any chatter about the latest celebrity gossip just to post content.  This will help and maintain that golden professional image of yours and your followers will appreciate that.  If they want celebrity gossip, there are so many other sources they can follow, that they don’t need you to do it.

  • When others follow you, return the favor and follow back.

Wading into the social media world can be an overwhelming concept to those in the scientific community who value empirical truths and peer review, and rebel against quick judgments and opinions on social media.  However, science increasingly depends on digital technologies to communicate, convey its scientific advancements and collaborate with other researchers and stakeholders.  Social media is here to stay.

Tags: blogging, Social Media