20 July 2011

Why should scientists use Twitter?

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I have been teaching science communication workshops for scientists for over two years, and not much from those seminars is met with more skepticism than when I say Twitter can be a great tool for science outreach, even for professional development. “Oh Twitter. Why should I waste my time with that?”, their raised eyebrows seem to say. For starters, I tell them, Twitter removes the gatekeepers (i.e., journalists) and lets you communicate your science directly to the public. It also requires less time dedication than other kinds of online outreach, such as blogging.

But rather than enumerating all the reasons to use Twitter myself, I thought I would ask the scientists following our AGU account to explain how they use Twitter in 140 characters or less.

My question was: “Why should scientists use Twitter /what should researchers use Twitter for?” Here are the answers I got:

Kea Giles, managing editor at the Geological Society of America, tweets: “Scientists can use Twitter to create/develop new collegial relationships, foster interdisciplinary research & generate ideas.” Furthermore, she points to this infographic, which represents the amazing growth of Twitter over the past five years.

Mika McKinnon, a geophysicist who also works as a science consultant for sci-fi TV shows, agrees with Giles, saying that “Twitter expands my collection of ’trusted experts’ to ask for advice/help/knowledge/collaboration.” She adds that the micro-blogging site helps her in achieving “cross-disciplinary synergy: news & new concepts from not-my-field & occasionally share solutions for problems fixed-in-my-field.”

Many scientists-tweeps use Twitter to get input from other researchers: hydrologist and blogger Anne Jefferson says she finds it very useful “for getting quick answers & links to references from peers. (e.g., me asking volcano questions),” while sedimentologist and blogger Brian Roman thinks that the main “value of Twitter for researchers = mostly link sharing (new journal articles, science news reports, researcher/lab websites, etc),” And he also uses this tool to “ask other researchers about lab/field/computing equipment.”

Twitter is one of the fastest ways to keep up with breaking events and follow science news. Eric Fielding, a geophysicist, tweets:  “Twitter is excellent method for getting and giving info on breaking geo-events as quakes, floods, [volcanic] eruptions.” Others agree: “Twitter is fastest way to track breaking geoevents + an efficient way to keep up with/report science news, stories” (David Pyle, volcanologist); “Rapid news, collaboration, and division of labour during crises-response; ability to address misunderstandings before they spread” (Mika McKinnon, again);  “For me it is the fastest means to breaking information and the quickest way to forward that news” (Scott A. Mandia, a climate science and meteorology professor); “I follow and rebroadcast science news from a bunch of Science-Journals/Journalists” (Joseph Andersen, an atmospheric physicist); and “Twitter is useful for keeping up with current events/research more broadly than possible by journals (esp. useful for teaching)” (Anne Jefferson).

On the benefits of Twitter as an educational tool, Del Fitzsimons tweets “I’m not a scientist but I learn so much from the links and blogs that you guys provide. Twitter can be a great tool for education if used correctly.”  From Japan, geomorphologist Yuichi Hayakawa says Twitter can be used “As a supportive tool for education and outreach, as well as for touching wide variety of information on science.” Nahum Chazarra, a Spanish geology student, says: “As researcher[s] and scientist[s], we should use Twitter in order to contribute to distribute … scientific knowledge.” Zane Jobe, a sedimentologist, agrees: “For teaching (attracting people to a topic/blog), learning (follow different geo types and learn about diff things) and networking.”

Yes, networking and socializing are some of the most popular uses of Twitter among researchers: Matt Hall, a geophysicist and blogger, tweets “Facebook: social network, LinkedIn: professional network, Twitter: awesome-people-you-may-never-meet network,” to which  Cian Dawson, a geoscientist, replies “I disagree re: never meeting geotweeps: I’ve met in person at conferences & geo-tweetups — great connections!” Lockwood DeWitt, a science bloggercomments “I don’t expect I will ever meet most geotweeps [in real life], but I’ve met 3, even more engaging in person.”

Maitri Erwin, a geoscientist and blogger, says that “Twitter use increases readership & discussion, hence higher engagement with public & scientists in other disciplines.” Abby Kavner, a mineral physicist, agrees that Twitter connects and mobilizes people around science topics, and mentions as an example that “last year’s saving of California’s state rock serpentinite was definitely a Twitter-dependent victory” (more on the social media campaign on serpentinite here).

Richard Betts, a climate researcher, thinks that “climate scientists in particular should use Twitter because too much misquoting by 3rd parties with political agendas on both sides”.

A group of astronomy researchers and bloggers points to a very practical use of Twitter: “Scientists use Twitter to follow conferences they can’t get to in person, e.g., #Gal2011 #nam2011 #dotastro“.

And physicist Mary Z. Fuka seems to be using Twitter for many purposes (“Virtual watercooler, blow off steam, try out ideas, make the professional personal, brainstorm, feedback, start conversations…”), but specifically mentions one use in particular: “Funny, important, but not most significant use for me…it’s the people themselves who are precious.”

Which reminds me: if you want suggestions of great people to follow, AGU has compiled not one, but two lists of Earth, space, and ocean scientist who are already using Twitter for all the purposes mentioned above, and more.

— Maria-José Viñas, AGU science writer