Communication is at the heart of human interaction and yet science and outreach do not automatically go hand in hand. Sometimes it seems that science and medicine have forgotten how to communicate except in dense, often incredibly boring and sometimes just plain unreadable articles. We put this writing into sometimes slow-to-release journals that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to make them openly accessible. We must publish this way because we have to. It’s how we get funding and build up the necessary recognition among our peers. This ultimately lets us answer the scientific questions we and our partners think important.
Many fantastic scientists have an almost non-existent public profile. In a 2016 report, social media use was yet to be widely adopted by scientists. Today, communication and science are needed more than ever to stave off quackery, ignorance and uninformed policy decisions.
Academic organisations see the value in communicating science and they invest in it. However, some scientists feel scared by the idea of putting themselves out in front of the public. Others seem to feel that communication outside of the familiar stodge of papers and conferences won’t be valued; this can be true, but it is not a given.
This is about redistributing knowledge that has become locked up away from the community even though it’s more and more often in plain sight today than it has ever been. SoMe lets us ‘push’ accurate user-friendly content to users instead of them ‘pulling’ it  from what feels like increasingly biased and uninformed sources.
Communicating friendlier and responsive science to the public should be seen as being every bit as important as the production of scientific papers are; an essential aspect of delivering outcomes from research. To do this, researchers using public money should have access to a dedicated communication team or unit. Communication by scientists of science to the wider community can often look like an afterthought; that hurriedly constructed text thing you put at the end of your grant application, that box you have to put some text into. Some seem to think communication is that thing you are being forced to do after the paper is in print but before you start the next project.
But it need not be so. As a scientist, you can engage in outreach with a wider public audience either by speaking on behalf of your organisation or on behalf of yourself.
Speaking on behalf of others
What if you are want to speak on behalf of your organisation? You’ll need permission first. Sometimes, a lot of time can be required for a scientist or Doctor to obtain permissions. But in the long run, it may be well worth it so you can speak to the media (or directly to the public) on current topics that could really benefit from your input. The media will want to know your affiliation.
- Requests for comment should always be considered urgent and are seldom sought for a story “in the future” The media move fast and they need an “expert” for their stories. They run on a deadline system influenced by the events of the hour, not the week. That request for your expert opinion? It can evaporate just as fast if there is no reply or no sign of that you’ll help
- Work with your Organisation ahead of time to set up clear pathways so that permission can be obtained quickly and your experience and knowledge of a topic can be of use to the public when called upon
- large science organisations should have a dedicated and proactive strategy for publicising their science outputs and engaging with their clients. In Australia, science research and public health are largely funded by taxpayers; the public is our client
- a communications strategy should aim to display and explain, the work being done by the organisations’ scientists and will suitably brand the organisation into the space it intends to occupy. This brand can then be leveraged for community consultation, cooperation, raising awareness on hot topic issues and even for raising funds to do the work. If you go it alone, you need to build your own brand
- However – if you’re not the author of some shiny new study that came out last night – but a journalist has just asked you for an urgent comment – you can say no. If you haven’t read, digested and interpreted the study, even if it is within your area of expertise, pass them on to someone else
- Work with your peers – if you can’t comment, or you don’t feel you have the expertise required by the questions – make sure you have some contact details handy for someone reliable. Remember: If the person who gives a comment is not knowledgeable or even misleading, those comments can cause harm; concern, fear and bad choices. In fact, think of this as your responsibility to provide quality comment to the public and to help the media tell the most accurate story they can
- Think about equality. Are you being asked a question that is usually answered by white males but you know of other experts in the field who are not white males? Be a good human and consider passing up the opportunity this time and instead, passing along their details to the reporter. Wouldn’t it be great for kids who want to get into science to know that any gender, colour, height or religion can become an expert?
A quote from Joe Milton, Australian Science Media Centre, from a recent social media for scientists workshop at The University of Queensland seems to fit here:
Media will do science better when scientists do media better
How is broader communication good for you or science…?
If you want to talk directly to the public, not representing an organisation, think about using social media (SoMe). Most of what I will say below is for Twitter because that is my platform of choice and that often used for science and medical SoMe.
Communication using SoMe provides opportunities for science engagement with the public and with policymakers that don’t really exist through traditional science publications, conference platforms or media interviews.
If you are on the fence about becoming more active on SoMe, perhaps something in the list of positives might help tip you over.
- We can provide clear and digestible background information on complex everyday health-related issues. For example:
- why do I need to get the flu vaccine every year (the strains change – but not always – so why then?)
- why doesn’t water have a memory of something that was in it (without shouting)
- how do I know the world isn’t flat? (without spitting)
- are asthma and allergy related? (everyday issues that can be hard to find reliable information about)
- where does my blood get tested for that thing? (opportunity for insights and background)
- Using SoMe makes new contacts, links, friends and collaborations. This helps you (and science) to broaden your reach and impact.
- SoMe can promote, help demystify or just increase discussion of new scientific publications outside the niche and often pay-walled (not freely accessible) scientific literature
- it’s a good idea to follow those who follow you – although check them out first. Stay away from bot (software-run) accounts – they usually have few or zero followers, may have porn images and use text makes little to no sense
- use your handle in your presentations, blog or email
- SoMe promotion of scientific publications can be captured as “Altmetrics”. These can add considerably to an organisation’s profile, indicating how well publications impact beyond traditional measures of citation by their peers
- scientific articles that are published using an open access model attract “clicks” (assumed reads) probably because they can be freely read as full-length pieces. The number of SoMe-promoted clicks will often far outstrip the number of peer citations making much better use of the extensive resources involved in producing the data that is at the core of each publication
- studies (also my own experience) have found Twitter propagation can boost scientific article downloads – a better estimate of article reads.[6,10] “Twimpact” can also be boosted by promotion of scientific articles via the popular press and by using press releases can also result in more citations (tweetations).[7,9,11] A number of factors are at work here including whether the topic is of interest (duh), the user of the SoMe (are they an influencer?) and whether the source (e.g. journal, book, magazine) of the science being disseminated is openly accessible or tweets its own content 
- one recent randomized controlled study did not find an increase in downloads or citations with use of SoMe for articles in its journal. The study tweeted the test articles three times. It’s unclear what role the number of followers (403-1845 over the study period) or the limited number of open access articles may have had. Also, whether 3 tweets captured enough attention and timezones to reflect realistic SoMe exposure levels
- reach (people reading a piece) or whether a piece ‘goes viral’ does not equate to impact or influence. The number of reads or views does not always seem to correlate with scientific citations and measuring if reach creates a change in scientific or clinical practice is probably impossible 
- It can be great fun to use SoMe – but only if you don’t take yourself too seriously. SoMe can also be used to put a human face on what might be thought of as a stern entity. For example, the Queensland Police Twitter profile in 2015 was expert at messaging risk in the context of appropriate levels of humour, a strategy that may have grown their audience which in turn helped get their messages across, building a relationship
- You can give others insights when you live-tweet from conferences and meetings (read the conference policy on use of SoMe, beforehand)
- check out my post, “Conference tweets: what’s your aim here?“
- SoMe can reach far beyond relatively tiny scientific meetings and can amplify the signal from such meetings to great effect.
- helps you to cement key messages from talks
- feedback may signal a need for more research or even a blog to better explain that cool new advance
- can link you to delegates and the speaker while at the meeting potentially making new friends and collaborators
- use of SoMe can dramatically increase exposure of the conference, its presenters, activity of its website, and the content when compared to not using SoMe [3,4]
- SoMe breaks down the post-grad/post-doc/Prof barriers, that exist in the ‘real’ world
- You can be a greater part of the big debates that go on every day in the community
- If not you, then who? Someone else will talk about our science if you don’t and they may get it wrong, or do it badly (as discussed above)
- Taxpayers often pay for this stuff – they deserve every opportunity to understand what their (our) dollars are paying for and how your results fit into the bigger picture you had in mind when you wrote that grant
- Science and medical writers and journalists use SoMe for story ideas and sources. They may get some ideas from you. This may not be measurable but it is an impact
- information placed into the public domain by experts in a field can often find its way into media articles, either with or without an interview or specific attribution. This should be considered a good thing. We do not always need to be attributed to be good and useful communicators for society. That can be a hard concept to grasp in some corners of academia. An unmeasurable, unquantifiable output. >Shiver<
- indirect engagement with the community is not currently quantifiable. It is citable for your CV and it should nonetheless be considered as an important contribution to communicating science to your community and to the highly interconnected world of which your community is a part
- Sometimes experts need to step up to debunk potentially dangerous or damaging science & medicine, lies or falsehoods being reported or tweeted or posted
- in the absence of trustworthy logical and science-based voices, all manner of misinformation, hysteria, self-serving ego, conspiracy theory (tinfoil hats) and mysticism (woo) may fill the information void driving confusion and anger and shattering any evidence-based reassurance
- in my area, there are outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics that create fear. The public looks for trustworthy voices that speak using a language they can quickly and easily understand
- it is important to establish trustworthiness as well as a range of ways to communicate pitched at appropriate levels…all ahead of an urgent need. Doing so after the need arises means delaying getting the message out
- building trust is every bit as important as any long-term investment you make in life whether as an organisation or an individual
- plan to engage the community, don’t just run at it but remember to be flexible and adaptable
- establishing trust takes time, requires a strategy but above all else, it requires a user-friendly and very human and long-term presence in the community
- lack of scientist engagement underutilizes those who know what the narrative should be and that ultimately fails the community
- standing back may potentially lead to more real work for those in some science and medical roles. For example, an increased load of doctor visits during public concern stirred up by poor media reporting which can also translate to more medical laboratory work
- poorly researched or informed reporting can spark a fearful community which can, in turn, drive reactive and expensive political decision making
- there can be real-world fallout from failing to speak up as a scientist but also from failing to seek out a scientist
- Inspiring new ideas – someone completely unexpected may drop into your thread/comments with a fantastic suggestion for future research
- Finding out about the latest science news and discoveries
- Support others on SoMe; it’s a nice thing to do. It’s also fine to lurk before you leap.
- watch how others do things.
- retweet and favourite them or link to their stories
- follow some people
- retweet some things
- inch forward until you feel ready to type
- chat and encourage or congratulate others on their efforts
- Support comments with favourites
- this also helps you build your own network
- Learning to speak science in ways that the public and politicians can understand, be informed and better appreciate science
- avoid jargon
- explain things to children whenever you can, they make a great test audience and can be as forgiving as an internet troll so they help thicken your skin as well!
- stick to one or two points
Twitter is a fast-paced and volatile form of GreyLit but using it can help scientists and Doctors think more clearly about how they research and deliver health benefits (they say nothing teaches like teaching) and that may help them to bring the community along with them when something new or exciting or scary is the news of the moment .
Things to be wary of if want to publish personal content and opinions for the public…
Keep something in mind – you will potentially be talking to the whole world. In reality, unless you said something or wrote something that went viral, you will mostly be talking to those who are already in the habit of reading, learning and understanding. Don’t assume you’ll be changing hearts and minds at every turn. It’s more likely you’ll just be generating nods of agreement. Anything more is a bonus.
Using SoMe isn’t risk-free nor is it the devil’s chosen form of communication.
The list below covers a few different things to be prepared for.
- Make it clear you represent your own opinions and not those endorsed by any workplace or organisation you are affiliated with nor do they represent medical advice
- Add this to every one of your SoMe biographies
- You’re shouting from the rooftops so don’t ruin your career by complaining about your boss or organisation. Don’t be afraid of that – just don’t do it. Be sensible. Be careful. Be comfortable with seeing what you wrote on the front page of a newspaper
- Safe internet practices
- don’t give out a personal address, phone or payment details
- turn off geolocation on photos when using your own camera
- remember: what you say can be screen-captured so even if you delete it, it may last forever
- think about whether you want to broadcast that you are away from home
- backup your blog and twitter now and again
- think about leaving a legal document that describes to your family what you want to have done with your internet presence when you die and make sure it accounts for expenses if you pay for a blogging platform or domain name
- don’t give strangers your trust. For example, just because there is offline direct messaging, don’t put into writing anything sensitive, derogatory, defamatory etc that you would not be happy seeing taken and put into the public domain. And remember, deleting your DMs does not remove their DMs (both parties need to delete).
- Sometimes you’ll find yourself talking to multiple people at once about a topic. This can get distracting and confusing.
- keep that conversational thread on track – try not to splinter you twitter thread, it makes it much harder to track what is being said, by whome and in what context
- stick to the initial point of a conversation and see it through before chasing tangents off into the distance.
- SoMe can be a quagmire of misinterpretation, misunderstanding and people who come preloaded for a fight. Stick to your point until you are ready to move on
- Be careful not to unintentionally offend others. This can easily happen because writing, especially 240 character micro-blogging (tweeting), doesn’t convey any of the physical cues that speaking face-to-face does.
- facial expressions, body positioning, movements and hand-waving all help get our intended meaning across in real-life
- through a screen, we need to either use more words or employ memes or emoji to help emphasize the meaning and intent. For example, grumpy 😠, silly 😜, sarcastic 😉😏, grimace 😏, or humourous 😀
- just as in real-life, you will come across petty and angry SoMe personas who will misinterpret you or try and lash out at you, your message or your organisation (even if you are speaking for yourself) and you need to be mentally (and organisationally) prepared and supported for that to come from anywhere at anytime
- the easiest and least stressful thing to do here is to block the person or people
- create a list of reasons to block people before you need one – then you have your triggers written down and it makes it easier to apply. Things can get very messy in the midst of aggression when you might start questioning what to do or whether you should. A list helps
- If you do create a problem through an honest mistake – apologise. Don’t delete the original content – explain how you stuffed up, own it and address it. Make it a teaching moment. We all make mistakes – don’t be scared of SoMe because you might be human. You make mistakes in real-life too! Don’t use possible future mistakes s a reason to avoid making comments in the first place or for not engaging with the public or for failing to build an exciting, strong and useful brand. If that all fails, stop tweeting on the topic. If you get piled on because of it then I’d recommend you take a break from SoMe and talk to your organisation about what happened. Also, seek out friends because pile-ons can be pretty stressful
- scientists I talk to are often concerned that if they make public comments, they may sometimes contain mistakes
- to err is human; to forgive divine (…this may not apply when you write online)
- mistakes, missteps, unintended meaning – these are all part of a normal human day-to-day conversation, not unique to SoMe
- mistakes can be corrected and should
- If you intentionally created a problem, then this blog is not for you
- Be aware of copyright – don’t go stealing images
- pexels, unsplash and flickr are good for blog post imagery. Look out for science imagery that is from open access publications and acknowledge the source
- think about lodging your own science imagery onto figshare before you submit your manuscript. You can cite it from there later on when you want to use it in your SoMe
- Blogging and curating your SoMe presence takes time, how do I make time?
- if you don’t have any time for this, that’s your answer. You can’t. You still need time for life outside of work for yourself and friends and family
- spaces into which you can fit micro-blogging include transit, food times, walking to or from a meeting or to and from your car, the gym or the toilet (not in the toilet though – never there please!!)
- blogging takes much more time. You can think about blogging as part of your role – but do this in consultation with your manager and your organisation. If they okay it – think about how not to blur the lines between using your blog for work purposes and for personal opinion – the latter should not happen on work time. I write at night or on weekends because this is my hobby
- Remember that SoMe is an open forum – don’t blast people if and when they chime in – encourage them too
- Be polite. Be humble. Be a good human. Losing your temper, being arrogant or constantly crass is not all that attractive in this sphere. Or any sphere actually. Think of this as respectively communicating stuff to your kids. And by the way, you’re leaving yourself on the interwebs forever. Being a boring blow-hard will just reinforce rubbish stereotypes about scientists and Doctors. Being an angry twerp may not be the way you’d like your kids to remember you. Be a good human being
Ready to give it a go? Here are some things that help
- Be active. Yes, it can feel like you are sitting on the park bench talking out loud to yourself and the passers-by but if you have something interesting to say, it will draw a crowd. If you sit there saying nothing, no-one will notice you sitting there. If you only say mean or angry things, you’ll attract attention, but not for long and probably not the kind you want. Being useful in the SoMe space takes a lot of time and hard work and a lot of research
- Write for the public – The Conversation (in Australia, the UK, Canada and the US) is a great platform because it has reach, it’s written with a much more publicly relevant vocabulary and academics get a ton of help from the Editors to make that happen. Pitch a relevant newsworthy science story idea to them. Or if you get asked to write for them, say yes. Buckle in though, because it can be a very fast-paced ride; usually a fun one. And if your subject is timely you can rack up 10s of thousands of reads. That is some pretty exhilarating stuff for a scientist. Also, see if you can contribute to guest editorials for online newspapers.
- Use multiple platforms – I started with a blog, then used Twitter to advertise it, then used Pinterest to catalogue “captured” pictures, then spoke more on Twitter and I also use LinkedIn. Facebook is everywhere – I set up a Virology Down Under Page for posts and links to my blog. It hangs off the main Facebook page which I’ve locked down
- My can’t do without tools: I used to write on Blogspot but switched to WordPress and love it. I use Tweetdeck on any browser. I bought my own domain name – which doesn’t cost the earth. I try and make my own graphs in Excel and graphics using Adobe Illustrator. I pay for cloud storage to keep all my files for my blog accessible wherever I might be.
- Images are important – add them often. Take a photo of something you are doing once per week and try and make that into a teaching moment. Take a shot of your city, the weather, or, of course, pets! Scientists are human too. Don’t limit your reach on SoMe by seeming like an old-fashioned scientist meme
- Humour – people like to laugh and laughing helps create an environment people want to return to. They may learn something in the process – by accident. Remember: people coming back is kind of the point of communicating science well
- If you’re an academic – forget about being that academic. Step outside the CV, the self-promotion and the verbiage. Learn to write with more space and don’t look for metrics all the time.
- try to communicate in shorter, less dense clips.
- use plain English, not Scienglish. 280 characters is an excellent self-teaching tool for communicating in a confined space.
- don’t just use SoMe to dump your latest paper or conference abstract then walk away as if that is a job well done. You won’t grow your followers/audience/minions that way.
- You get back what you pour into SoMe. In that way, it’s a bit like friendships in real life.
- If SoMe isn’t emotionally self-sustaining, then you have the approach or the balance wrong (or you’ve run afoul of bullies – in which case, fight back or take a break). For me, SoMe has often been incredibly uplifting. That alone has been worth the time and effort.
- Typos – embrace them. Learn to correct them. But if you change or correct your writing – own up to it and explain it on your blog or in a new Tweet. Deleting stuff without a trail breeds mistrust
- If you choose to write, an academic carry-over that is well worth retaining is the reference. For the love of Pete, make sure you don’t deliver facts without references to underpin them. People like to do their own reading. They like to check up on you before they invest their trust. Give them proof that others have done actual work that leads to that conclusion you just made. It’s science. It’s data-driven. It’s respect.
Lastly, few people are fantastic writers or great with people or fantastic at graphics. That’s okay. You don’t have to do any of this.
These lists should tell you whether you will enjoy using SoMe for science and outreach, or not. If not then you can still communicate by partnering with someone else to co-write stuff, edit stuff, have ideas about stuff or you can just chip in on SoMe conversations – everyone can communicate.
If you want to chat further about any of this you can contact your organisation’s communications team. I’m also happy to chat if I can help.
- Australian Science Media Centre
- Most journalists now get story ideas from social media sources, survey says
- Follow #eHealth2011: Measuring the Role and Effectiveness of Online and Social Media in Increasing the Outreach of a Scientific Conference.
- If You Are Not on Social Media, Here’s What You’re Missing! #DoTheThing
- If I tweet will you cite? The effect of social media exposure of articles on downloads and citations.
- Social Media Release Increases Dissemination of Original Articles in the Clinical Pain Sciences
- Promotion of research articles to the lay press: a summary of a three-year project
- How Are Scientists Using Social Media in the Workplace?
- Importance of the Lay Press in the Transmission of Medical Knowledge to the Scientific Community
- How the Scientific Community Reacts to Newly Submitted Preprints: Article Downloads, Twitter Mentions, and Citations
- Can Tweets Predict Citations? Metrics of Social Impact Based on Twitter and Correlation with Traditional Metrics of Scientific Impact
- The presence of academic journals on Twitter and its relationship with dissemination (tweets) and research impact (citations)
- This post from 21APR2016 originally posted on my old blog platform virologydownunder.blogspot.com.au and has now been moved to here and heavily updated
- The post was updated on Blogspot 03APR2017