by @f_d_schneider, 27 December 2014
That is, at the joint meeting of the British Ecological Society and the Société Française d’Ecologie. During that meeting, I was actively using the Twitter account that I had created earlier this year for the first time. I followed the tweets of others and was amazed by the interactions that occurred: I interacted with people that were on the conference without meeting them in real. I met friends and colleagues that were not attending the conference. I even got a question on my talk from somebody I did not know and who was not even on the conference. How weird is that?
Well, not all of my real life colleagues understood the importance of that. Especially many of the french and german colleagues were curious but certain that this Twitter thing was not for them. They were sceptical as I had been: “How can we allow questions via Twitter only?” “Twitter is a proprietary third-party service! What about ownership and privacy?” “Why can’t I just send an e-mail to the chair?” “The limited format is not able to capture the complex question I have.” “Everybody is just staring at their phones during the presentations!” “Those twenty-something people tweeting actively during the conference are not a representative subset!” That’s more or less the essence. Some of this critique might not be straightforward to understand from a non-european cultural background (the privacy issue, or the third-party concerns for instance), but most of it should be of universal concern (exclusiveness of Twitter; distraction from real-life interactions; beware the Twitter-bubble!).
But, after all, it seems that the use of social media, and Twitter being the primus inter pares here, for promoting the reach of the own work is justified. There is actual research on that1. On the conference @GrrlScientist gave an invited plenary talk that listed the many pros for the use of Twitter and blogging in research. She pointed out how it can help to increase your reach and visibility. Simon Leather, who documented his own throughout positive experience and success with blogging and tweeting2, or the famous and excellent Dynamic Ecology blog of Jeremy Fox, Meghan Duffy and Brian McGill3 are just the tip of an iceberg (follow the blog-roll!). @GrrlScientist concluded that blogging requires a huge amount of time and commitment to successfully build a community of followers, but it is absolutely worth the effort. Journalists and the public will start following your work, feature your papers and invite you as an expert2. Even the eminent British Ecological Society now has become a huge fan of Twitter and promotes the use of it in their recent Bulletin4.
So, what’s the problem, actually? Well,
It occurred to me that we keep reciting the awesomeness of social media, without discussing the downsides sufficiently. The criticism on social media might not be well founded on research, but neither is the euphoria! In fact, it seems to be acceptable to claim in a prominent place that
lack of an online presence can severely limit a researcher’s visibility, and runs the risk that undesirable search results appear before desirable ones5
That is to say, we are okay with the view that in this new opening of social media, those who do not play along will be punished by invisibility. Those who do not play along will be losers in the harsh competition. Those who do not play along are the ones to blame if the scientific knowledge aquisition takes a wrong turn because of bias. It is an aggressive “Join social media, now!” and an unspoken “…or you will regret it!”.
Why is that acceptable? We are scientists and should not take the the optimism of those currently pioneering the ground, and apparently have benefited from that bravery, as a general truth. Of course for those who are active on social media on a regular basis with the aim of promoting their own work it seems to pay off. But the disadvantages are not only the work time you have to invest, the self-discipline in separating private use from work. The lack of objectivity and sometimes responsibility leads to misinformation and hypes that are not justified. Most importantly in my opinion, using social media might be considered cheating by those who decide not to make use of them. It might be considered short-circuiting the scrupulous way of the scientific community in evaluating what we value to be desirable research.
To be clear: I personally think that this can be a good thing! We have to revolt against traditional structures of powerful publishing houses and scientific patriarchs defining what is important research. Social media can counterbalance this power by giving an equally loud voice to the young researchers and PostDocs who are actually doing the largest part of research and who breed the most novel ideas in their minds. Social media re-organise hierarchies, opinion-formation and bring scientists and the public closer together. In combination with crowdfunding it liberates us from the dictatorship of national funding distribution mechanisms6. Even our definition of scientific productivity might change due to a broadened assessments of scientific impact7. It seems to bring an anarchist drive into traditional societies. And I like that a lot!
However, a new bias is arising. Twitter and scientific blogging is dominated by native english speaking users8 who had a long head-start in the usage and exposure to these kinds of media. Most likely for the scientific community english will be the only language that counts. While academic writing uses a simplified and well constrained subset of the actual english language, scientific blogging is much more difficult to learn for non-natives: It uses spoken language, is more informal and less objective.
Thus, the community that is active on social media will be biased towards english natives for years to come. That implies that this is also where all the benefit that I was praising in the previous paragraph will wind up. Public and media attention, citation boosts and finally funding would be more and more retracted from the rest of the scientific world.
“But,” you might say, “you could blog in french, too!” You could and probably should, since national media attention is important, too. But even the english speaking communities struggle to form a humming blog-o-sphere9. So how could a french sub-community ever achieve that? How can we expect from researchers who are not english-natives to be active and successful bloggers and tweeters? We can’t! And more importantly, we must not!
We must not ask anybody to join social media and blame those who refuse for the misinformation that arises from it. For the sake of the entire scientific enterprise: It is wrong to put our bets on the current Twitter-bubble, blog-o-spheres or even Facebook which are not at all representative for the richness of international scientific community!
How should we deal with social media, then? It is certainly not an easy question to answer. But to me it seems certain that we must have a much more critical discourse than we have right now.
I have just these suggestions to start with: First, to avoid the impact of unjustified hypes over real life issues the social media bubble must become self-critical and self-aware10. It must discuss the problems that arise with concentrating our attention through the social-media lens. We must be full of scepticism and identify the bias of opinion that comes with it. As publishers, journalists and decisionmakers about funding we need to be aware of this bias. We have to strive basing our decisionmaking on objective, unbiased information, as we always did. We must not accept social media unquestioned just out of convenience.
Don’t get me wrong! I am amazed by the possibilities that come with social media for science. But I also advise caution: There is a risk that we are creating just another kind of bias in scientific leadership without being aware of it.
reference needed ↩
Richard English 2014 The Bulletin (of the BES) “Why you should be on Twitter”, vol 45:4 December 2014 p.22 ↩
@GrrlScientist gave two examples on how crowdfunding worked out for some researchers in her talk at #BESSfe: Tim Birkheads long term study of guillemots; Beth Roberts Philippine Duck Project. A crowdfunding platform specialised only on scientific projects is experiment.com. ↩
e.g. through Altmetrics that include how often an article is read on Mendeley or mentioned on social media, or by quantifying the reach of our presentations, posters, or blog posts on Impactstory and thereby including it into our publication record. ↩