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Using Social Media in Science: Are you plugged in?

Posted By Connections Editor, Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Using Social Media in Science: Are you plugged in? 

Stephen Sykes and the NIC members

If you have ever used a computer, tablet, mobile phone or any device that connects to the Internet you are undoubtedly familiar with the term “social media” and moreover, you have probably participated in some form of social media. The term social media, which is now found in many major English dictionaries, encompasses any virtual community that allows members to share information, ideas and other electronic content. I personally associate the words social media with Internet sites such as Facebook and Twitter or with meaningless celebrity comments.
In truth though, I am what you might call a social media troglodyte. For example, I have a Facebook page that I just opened for the first time in months and then promptly closed upon seeing a message that told me I have some ungodly number of new notifications. I have a LinkedIn page that I check once a month (at best) and I have a ResearchGate account for which I lost the password just days after joining. Though my minimalist approach to social media could be construed as curmudgeon it is more a result of not knowing what or how to maximize the benefits of social media, particularly those related to academic science. Therefore, I sought out my fellow NIC comrades and other colleagues to learn more about how social media can benefit the Academic Scientist and pass it on to you, the ISEH Connections readership.

Do you use Social Media outlets in your Research Life?
Every single person I interviewed participated in at least one form of social media in a professional capacity, however, the degree of use varied widely. Dr. Mick Milsom of the HI-STEM institute at the German Cancer Research Center (Heidelberg, Germany) states “it is good to have some kind of presence on social media to improve the exposure of the work of my group, to help with recruiting, and to advertise scientific events”. However, Dr. Milsom is reluctant to invest too much time in social media because “I don’t really have any solid evidence that this works very well and that it is any more effective than my laboratory web sites.” Though Dr. Daniel Lucas of the Department of Cell & Developmental Biology at the University of Michigan Medical School (Ann Arbor, US) maintains ResearchGate and LinkedIn accounts, he rarely uses them citing “social media takes a huge amount of time”. At the other end of the spectrum, Dr. Edna Cukierman of the Cancer Biology Program at the Fox Chase Cancer Center (Philadelphia, US) uses “ResearchGate, LinkedIn, Facebook (very little), Twitter, and Biowebspin” for a variety of purposes ranging from networking to technical advice.

What types of outlets do you use?
Almost everyone I corresponded with mentioned using Facebook, LinkedIn and/or ResearchGate. Other sites that came up in conversation were Twitter, Biowebspin,, ScienceAlert and IFLS (this is a PG-rated publication so you’ll have to translate the acronym yourself). Though all of these sites fall under the umbrella of social media there are subtle nuances that distinguish them. For example, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Biowebspin are primarily networking sites aimed at getting users/members to connect, however, LinkedIn and Biowebspin are more business-oriented whereas Facebook and Twitter are largely social networking sites.
ResearchGate and are both venues for sharing scientific publications, however, ResearchGate is also a virtual gathering for asking questions and finding collaborators. Finally, ScienceAlert and IFLS are social media websites that discuss exciting and sometimes unusual and under-the-radar scientific studies and allow subscribers to interact through other social media venues such as Facebook and Twitter.

What types of activities do you use each of these social media outlets for?
1. Networking
Many of those who I corresponded with use sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn in their purest form: Networking. In addition to Dr. Cukierman, Dr. Konstantinos Kokkaliaris of the Cell Systems Dynamics Research Group at ETH Zürich (Basel, Switzerland) primarily uses sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and ResearchGate for networking. Dr. Tiago Luis of the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine and John Radcliffe Hospital at the University of Oxford (Oxford, UK) prefers using LinkedIn to stay connected with other researchers. Though Dr. Milsom does not consider himself an avid social media-lite, he does “definitely find [social media] useful for keeping in contact with colleagues”. Dr. Sofie Singbrant-Söderberg of the Department of Molecular Medicine and Gene Therapy at the Lund Stem Cell Center of Lund University (Lund, Sweden) also uses “LinkedIn and to a certain degree Facebook to stay in touch with international colleagues and collaborators”.
2. Follow Trending Science
Dr. Singbrant-Söderberg also utilizes Facebook to get a scientific pulse: “Through different scientific Facebook groups I also share and get updated on the latest articles and other science related things that are happening.” Dr. Peter Van Galen of the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard (Boston, US) utilizes Facebook to stay in touch with the experimental hematology community: “The ISEH Facebook group is great to keep in touch with the ISEH community, share recent papers of interest, participate in journal clubs, read interviews with experts etc.” Dr. Van Galen added: “I also follow Facebook pages like the LLS [Leukemia Lymphoma Society], Science Alert and IFLS, which frequently post interesting stories that I might not encounter otherwise”.
3. Technical Advice
Social media sites are also great arenas for asking and answering technical questions. For example, Dr. Cukierman uses sites such as ResearchGate “to ask and provide technical information”. Dr. Luis uses Google Group forums to learn about emerging technologies: “A good example is the CRISPR group where I have found many answers that helped me in my work. When CRISPR appeared as a new tool for gene targeting everybody got very excited but very few people really knew how to use it. I was very impressed with the collaborative environment I found there with many people willing to help, share experiences and provide guidance on the projects of other researchers they did not even know.”
4. Metrics
Sites such as ResearchGate and are also useful for tracking the impact of manuscripts you have published or to follow researchers whose work interests you. Dr. Singbrant-Söderberg says she uses ResearchGate for several purposes: “to spread and keep track on what happens to my own publications, as well as answer scientific questions within my field of expertise.” Dr. Cukierman also uses such sites to “highlight papers (or authors) of interest; identify investigators that have similar scientific interest (even if they are not in my field); promote scientific points of view that are being discussed in the field”. Dr. Luis also uses ResearchGate “to get updated on publications from researchers whose work I like to follow”.
5. Conferencing.
One area where I have actually witnessed the social media merging with science is at conferences. While I had heard of other scientific meetings using social media the first time I saw it in action was at the 2014 ISEH meeting in Montreal where audience members used Twitter to ask questions of the speakers. Drs. Van Galen and Cukierman also mentioned using Twitter and other social media outlets at conferences for questioning but also to highlight interesting oral and poster abstracts.
Social media can also be used as a mechanism for organizing meetings. Dr. Luis recalls a recent success he had organizing a meeting via social media: “I have been previously involved in the organization of a conference and the advertising was entirely done using social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Eventbrite). The approach was very successful, in the end we managed to bring over 100 people together coming from all over the UK.”
6. Advertising.
A possible application for social media that I had not previously considered was advertising. Dr. Cukierman points out that social media outlets can be great venues for promoting your lab/institution, advertise or search for job openings, as well as learning more about potential job candidates. In retrospect, I realized that LinkedIn allows companies/academic institutes to post job openings. Esteban Martinez of Fox Chase Cancer Center also points out “You could also think of this as a good venue to bridge the gap between science and the laymen, such as potential donors”.
The feedback I received from the interviewees provided me with a new perspective on the numerous benefits of social media: networking/touching base with collaborators, keeping up with the scientific Jones’, forums of new technologies and technical advice, understanding the impact of mine and others’ work, as well as tools for organizing conferences and meetings. While I will not become a social media maven any day soon, I am now more inclined to dabble in the world of social media. I hope that this segment was useful and I encourage readers to let us know about alternative social media sites/uses that were not discussed.

The NIC would like to thank all those interviewees for their participation.

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