It’s Time to get Tweeting! The Advantages of #ScienceTwitter and Practical Tips for Getting Started

By Caroline Jansen

Social media? For professional interactions? For scientists?! Yes, indeed. Gone are the days of pseudonyms and ultra-hidden, unsearchable social media profiles! Undeniably, online communication—particularly Twitter—has become an important tool for the modern scientist. Skeptical? I was too! But the data does not lie. In fact, data shows that hiring managers use social media in guiding their searches and ranking candidates, and not just to throw candidates out for having questionable photos or poorly considered posts. Hiring decisions can often be positively influenced by the information found on social media, be it your involvement in advocacy or volunteerism or simply the authentic and professional way with which you conduct yourself digitally(1,2).

But the benefit of social communication for scientists goes beyond a personal edge in hiring decisions. Studies have shown that Twitter activity can predict highly cited articles within just days of publication, and some have even suggested that twitter activity outperforms 5-year journal impact factor in predicting the citation rate of a given publication(3,4,5). Aspects of this reality are captured in statistics titled ‘Altmetrics,’ which are designed to be a non-traditional bibliometric, used alongside traditional metrics, such as impact factor and H-index. Altmetrics capture ‘viewed’ (HTML views and PDF downloads), ‘discussed’ (journal comments, blogs, Wikipedia, Twitter, and other social media), ‘saved’ (Mendeley and other social bookmarks), ‘cited’ (citations in scholarly literature, tracked by Scopus, CrossRef, etc.), and ‘recommended’ (e.g. F1000) aspects of a publication’s impact. Indeed, many journals, including ‘big’ name journals, now include altmetric scores alongside traditional citation counts and publicize authors’ Twitter handles at the time of publication.

So, the data is solid; incorporating social communication as a tool in your scientific repertoire—alongside the usual tools of experimental design and execution, data analysis and presentation, science writing, etc.—is the way forward for modern scientists. While it can be overwhelming at first, Twitter is quickly becoming an important way to build community. The world of scientists on Twitter, aptly identified as #ScienceTwitter or #SciMedTwitter, is a uniquely rich resource—a one stop shop, if you will—for building a professional network, keeping up with literature, finding advice and support, and advancing advocacy initiatives. 

Twitter can be an excellent way to build a professional network, and this is particularly true and valuable for students or recent alumni. Twitter breaks down traditional hierarchies and power structures unlike any other communication system in science. It represents an accessible and approachable platform whereby scientists, students, advocates, and the public can interact in 240 characters or less. The character limit can challenge users to be efficient and intentional in their communication, and this necessary brevity requires users to suspend some of academia’s formality for a moment. On Twitter, trainees can interact with authors of recent publications, experts in the field, and otherwise ‘high profile’ individuals in a way that email, telephone, and other forms of communication don’t often permit. A tweet directly to the author of a recent high-profile paper may yield productive conversation, where an email may have gotten buried in the barrage of daily correspondence we all enjoy. And what’s more, this conversation, when played out on Twitter, makes room for other scientists, and those outside of science or academia, to participate as well, fostering crucial intersectional communication. 

The conversational value of Twitter usage also carries beyond discussion of recent publications, impacting how consumers attend scientific conferences. Hosts of conferences (and associated professional organizations) now often designate and curate a specific #Hashtag to spread awareness about their events. Conference attendees can tweet using this hashtag, and Twitter users can follow the hashtag to view the latest and/or most popular tweets from the conference. Not only does this ‘make big conferences smaller’, allowing attendees to see what other attendees are present and what their impressions of various presentations are, but it also allows for relative ‘virtual’ attendance of conferences. This is particularly valuable for trainees—by following along a conference’s hashtag, you can see what experts in your field are reporting from that meeting and see what important findings are presented, even if you are at the lab bench miles and miles away. 

Twitter can also be a great source of community support. Having trouble with that one tricky experiment? Curious about a particular assay or technique? Can’t find that paper your committee member mentioned last week? Ask Twitter! The community of scientists—students and faculty alike—are quick to respond, and respond accurately. Within a few hours, or even minutes, you’re likely to have a couple (or five, or ten) quality suggestions—effectively ‘crowdsourcing’ to gather valuable, experiential information that would’ve taken days or weeks to gather via email or internet searching.  

The support offered by Twitter communities goes far beyond technical tips or links to papers. In a time when the mental health of trainees is (appropriately) garnering more attention and conversation, a virtual community, which shares your struggles, celebrates your successes, and just generally relates to your experience is invaluable. Though community support is often exercised informally, support networks are able to organize formally as well. For example, many women physicians and trainees find great support, wisdom, and advice in participating in regularly scheduled #WomeninMedicine chats, hosted by @PetradMD. Graduate and professional schooling—and the careers that follow—may feel insular and isolating at times. Thriving Twitter communities provide a welcome resource for communication and connection.

So now you’re convinced—#ScienceTwitter is an important tool. But how do you get started? Here are a few practical tips and tricks:

1.    Take the plunge! Don’t be intimidated. We all felt clumsy and awkward as we first started science-tweeting, and chances are plenty of us still do. Just go for it! 

2.    Be professional… and authentic. Choose your profile photos, your handle (i.e. username), and your ‘bio’ wisely… and tweet with intention. Tweets go out in an instant, and the internet is a google-able, written record. 

3.    Find your people. Many professional groups, advocacy organizations, or academic institutions create ‘lists’ that capture relevant scholars in a certain field. This can be a great place to start when you’re looking for who to follow in your field or in other fields that interest you.

4.    Engage. Don’t just be a lurker, and don’t only retweet smart or witty things other people say. Try to engage with others, tweeting commentary or questions, not just links to papers or headlines.

5.    Get the most out of it. Use all the features of your profile. Pin your most important tweet to the top of your profile—e.g. a recent publication or information about an upcoming presentation—so that users visiting your profile see the best stuff first. Curate lists (which can be public or private) of various groups of users you follow so that you can scroll through tweets quickly that relate to a particular personal interest. 

6.    Use the 80/20 rule. Be authentic in how you represent yourself. You build real community by being your usual, relatable, genuine self, so don’t be afraid to tweet about your favorite sports team, your cute pet, or that neat vacation spot you finally got to visit. Just don’t let your personal tweets overtake your professional ones. Shoot for an 80/20 split—80% professional and 20% personal. 

7.    Meet your Twitter friends IRL (in real life). Meet up with friends from your Twitter community at conferences or meetings, and forge real friendships and professional collaborations!  

Hopefully, this has demystified #ScienceTwitter for you and given you the nudge you needed to step out and get to tweeting! Follow me @careyjans, and tweet me any questions you may have. Happy Tweeting!