By Elizabeth Ensink
It’s difficult to fully explain cellular respiration, CRISPR, or the latest discoveries in pancreatic cancer diagnosis with 140 characters or less. However, scientists are proving that 140 characters are enough to share ideas, collaborate, and educate. With its limit on characters and unlimited access to information, Twitter is changing how science is communicated.
A new kind of peer review
All researchers review scientific literature to understand the research already done in a field and to uncover new approaches and information being discovered. Although Twitter won’t replace an in-depth literature review, it can deliver a stream of recent publications to quickly update any scientist on the current state of scientific research. Most scientific research journals have accounts which regularly tweet recent publications. For example, you can follow Nature (@nature), Science (@sciencemagazine), or PLOS Biology (@PLOSBiology) and receive an update on recent publications by simply checking your Twitter feed. It’s also easy to search for certain topics using hashtags. Search #CRISPR to learn about the latest genome editing technology. If you want to learn about antibiotic resistance, search #antibiotics. Today you’ll find a study suggesting that antibiotics can replace an appendectomy. In a few months, the result could be an entirely new discovery.
The real power of Twitter shows when it comes to journal reviews. It’s not a static publication of information, but a constantly updated feed that also includes the re-tweets and comments regarding these articles by other followers on Twitter. By following a community of engaged scientists, you can immediately learn about the research that the scientific community is excited about. Getting this curated overview of current research is a time-saving advantage for science journalists, researchers, or anyone else interested in new discoveries.
Twitter is also an excellent platform for informal discussion, especially during scientific conferences. Conferences provide a place for scientists in a particular field or area to gather to share their research and collaborate on future endeavors. Yet these conferences are often inaccessible to many scientists because of cost or location. Twitter opens up these seminars and discussions occurring at these conferences to the world of social media. Many conferences now choose an official hashtag that attendees can use to mark their comments about the information being presented. Hashtags allow others to follow important discussion points throughout the conference.
The annual SEA Phages symposium was held this month at the Janelia Research Campus. Although I was not able to attend, I could follow the hashtag #SEAsymp2015 to see photos of research posters and comments on the seminars as they occurred. You can follow #acsBoston to learn about speakers and follow news at the upcoming 250th national meeting and exposition of the American Chemical Society this August. Twitter brings scientists together for collaboration on ideas in a way that would not be possible anywhere else.
One of the biggest advantages of Twitter is not the opportunity for communication amongst scientists, but the outreach and accessibility of real science to the general public. You don’t need a job in a laboratory to follow scientific journals, conferences, or to engage with the scientific community through retweets and replies. Many scientists are taking advantage of this fact to bring awareness to important research. Dr. Alistair Dove (@AlistairDove), senior scientist at the Georgia Aquarium Research Center, uses Twitter to promote and share news about deep-sea research. In an article on PLOSBlogs he says, “If you have, say, a thousand followers on Twitter, that’s like talking to a large auditorium every time you tweet something about your science: a powerful tool indeed. A direct line like that means the scientist can ensure that their science is accurately portrayed and that they have an opportunity to share with the public the personal passion that drives them to science in the first place.” Twitter gives scientists a personal voice that people can connect with more than a name on an author list of a journal article.
A word of caution
Despite all these advantages, the use of Twitter for science communication does raise some valid concerns. Twitter doesn’t have a fact-checker and since Twitter is open to everyone, anyone can claim to be posting scientific facts when it may just be an opinion or information based on an unreliable source. Even if information is true, the character limit requires simplification of concepts which could be misinterpreted at a glance. Twitter can actually become an engine for misinformation if enough people re-tweet a misrepresentation of scientific information without getting the facts or considering multiple perspectives before sharing. For this reason, it is more important than ever for scientists to engage with the general public to help make social media a place for accurate scientific information.
Whether you are pursuing a PhD, attending medical school, or are simply someone interested in science, it only takes a few minutes to create a Twitter account and join the science community on Twitter. If you’re looking for a place to start, check out this list of the “Top 50 Science Stars of Twitter” by Science Magazine, or this list from the Business Insider spanning multiple social media types. You can also follow award winning science writers who make a living promoting science to the public. Try Ed Yong (@edyong209) , Carl Zimmer (@carlzimmer), or Jennifer Ouellete (@JenLucPiquant). Once you start following scientists, Twitter will suggest other individuals to follow based on your choices, allowing you to develop your own network of science communication. You never know where those connections may lead.