At the 2018 conference of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, 5 friends and I put on a workshop on the use of Twitter in science. Today: slides and commentary from Alex Smith‘s piece of the #CSEETweetShop. How can you use Twitter to share the word about your own scientific publications? And how does it help?
I’m an imposter (begins Alex). I joined Twitter in September 2013 looking for a way to promote and distribute the photos and videos that I take in the field. The way I had done this in the past (individual blogs or websites) was getting views only from my family at first, and then slowly it seemed, not even them. So I joined Twitter because I thought it was the social media platform that would help me promote the work my lab does. So speaking at the CSEE 2018 symposium on Twitter and Science I felt a bit of an imposter because since October 2013, my Twitter experience has been all about learning from others. But here we go…tweeting your research, why would you want to; and then some suggestions for how to go about doing it.
Why tweet your research? Why? SO MANY REASONS! There has been a flurry of research activity in the past year (much of it from Canadian scientists on Twitter) that details some of the benefits to science and society of scientists using this social media platform. For one, you are not just preaching your message to the choir – you are reaching people outside that ivory-tower-choir (Cote and Darling 2018). This pulpit provides the opportunity for you to talk about you and your research to (potentially) a much wider audience! Lamb et al (2018) recently demonstrated that efforts put into scientific communication and outreach on Twitter and eventual citations are related. Humanising the scientific process and the scientists fortunate enough to be spend time doing it is valuable both to society at large – and also to the scientists (Yammine et al 2018). Finally, you can curate your Twitter feed to ensure that your social media ‘hallway’ looks a little more like the world at large than many academic hallways. Groups and voices that have traditionally been marginalised in many academic departments can come to the forefront via Twitter. As our co-presenter Dawn Bazley has said since the meeting, “Research is a social enterprise: it is important that we have an accurate portrait of its diverse contributors.” (Bazely 2018).
Ok, I’ll imagine that if you’re still reading, you’re convinced: participation on Twitter has value for academics and the society within which they’re embedded. Now, the pragmatic question – how to tweet your research? As scientists, we are increasingly encouraged to consider the narrative, the story, of the paper we are writing (Heard 2016). I agree strongly with this approach and I feel that it usefully extends to tweeting about your research. But since the medium within which you’re telling your story has changed – you need to consider this as you craft a re-telling of your story for Twitter. In this medium, I encourage you to tell your story while considering Visualisations, Humanisations, Amplifications and Repeat-Repeat-Repeat. I’ll deal with each suggestion in turn (and have a couple of example threads here and here.
One strategy in composing your Twitter story is to “front-load” your first tweet (your first one of several, but I’ll come back to that). What do I mean by front-load? Well, first of all, take some time to compose the whole thread with which you’ll tell your story. I’d suggest about as much time as you’d take to making a presentation of your work at a conference. Just like a conference where you will present published work, you have all the “building blocks” of the story in hand from your manuscript. And just like a presentation, you have to select the subset of those blocks that help you tell your story in this new medium. Preparing this first tweet is important, since all subsequent tweets in your story should be posted as replies to this initial tweet (ie. A thread). This creates an easy to follow thread that your followers can read, and that you can cite or return to later on. In composing that first tweet, remember that tweets with photos or videos have more hits than without. So, whatever your work is, you should make it visual here. A shot from the field, of your organism, of your lab, of a student involved in the project, or screen-grab of the pdf are all good visualisations (you’re not restricted to only one either). Also make sure to allocate character space to the DOI that gets an interested reader directly to the publication. Remember to use the DOI (a unique alphanumeric code that is a persistent link to online content) and not a URL that may be orphaned in future restructurings of the journal’s website.
Take some time to consider who you will tag and what hashtags you can use. Groups and people to tag in this initial tweet should include any co-authors on Twitter and could include funding agencies and your institution. Consider throwing in an “amplifier” (one of your followers with a large number of followers themselves – you can discover this using twitter analytics). A retweet from an amplifier could launch your tweet onto a much wider readership. My own example is that I’ve long been both surprised and proud that @MargaretAtwood follows me and so if I have a paper that may tickle her ant fancy, I’ll tag her.
Hashtags are helpful metadata tags, or keywords. Selecting or composing some for along your tweet can help you tie your tweet thread into existing threads (#ScientistsWhoSelfie) or use your thread/story to establish a new thread (like #BugsR4Girls Jackson and Spencer 2017). Taking the time to craft these tweets (especially the first) is something that you can do in applications like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck. I generally compose and post the first tweet and then reply and schedule the remainder of the thread in Tweetdeck. Scheduling a thread, a seemingly simple job, seems to be a unicorn in the twitter-verse. This strategy of posting the first tweet and then crafting and scheduling the release of your replies is as close a kludge as I’ve found.
Humanise your narrative. Science is a social process that we have to better understand and predict the world we live in. It is a process done by people, with other people. It is best done when people can describe it to other people who weren’t involved initially. Considering all this, my argument is that the entire scientific process is helped along by opening up your narrative to include the more, “human” parts of the endeavour. The where and the who of your story are key here. Who are the people doing the work? Where did your story take place? What taxa/taxon are you studying? Share photos of the places and the things that you work with and upon will help bring your audience into your story. Don’t shy away from awkward moments or failures here. Embarrassing photos of you tipped over in a bog? Here’s where to use them!
Movement helps unpack the detail of your story. While you might initially think that figures from your original paper may be too detailed for your Twitter-narrative, I wouldn’t necessarily shy away from that detail. In fact, figures from your original paper can often be helpfully transformed into a gif. This simple video format allows you to give your reader a small number of steps into a figure that tells your story. For example, one figure from a paper by a student in my lab group was transformed into a gif that lays out the story without the legend of the paper that unpacks that detail in that original medium. Click the link in the tweet below to see how the static figure gets set in motion.
He found no support for cophylogenetic relationships where both aphids and plants cospeciate to form congruent phylogenetic trees (evidence of coadaptation through an ongoing arms race). The association was a “jungle”. pic.twitter.com/XHWeobpjUF
— Alex Smith (@Alex_Smith_Ants) November 28, 2017
A word about pop-culture references. Avoid or include? Sometimes I hear sage advisors counsel people to avoid pop-culture in presentations or on social media as it may misfire or make your message too flippant. While misfires are certainly important to consider I disagree with the blanket prohibition. I think that using pop-culture references to tell your story is potentially a very powerful way to insert and include your audience in the story. I have a couple of “go to” that I use for transitions that indicate my confusion with what the data was telling me. However, it is worth keeping yourself open to new trends/visuals than the ones that your cohort references (colour me generation Princess Bride). You don’t want to be Steve Buscemi’s private detective in 30 Rock!
In the end, I feel that the benefits associated with pop-culture references (bringing people into the story via analogy or metaphor) outweigh the cons (alienating your audience with references that miss or are too focused). Use with your own discretion and comfort for the voice you’re creating for yourself on social media.
So, you’ve woven a narrative thread together on Twitter where you tell the story about your paper. You’ve used visuals to tell this story, woven figures into gifs, tagged amplifiers and humanised your science and you the scientist. Now what? Well repeat it! We know that citations lag behind social media efforts for #SciComm and so re-upping your story can only help this process. Furthermore, I think it’s worth shedding the worry that we scientists seem to feel about self-promotion or bragging. Science is busy, scientists are busy. There were more than 3 million papers published last year! It is an unavoidable fact that you have to sell your research. Repeating your story, re-telling it (perhaps as a student co-author graduates), re-upping it (perhaps on an anniversary) are all useful ways to get your story to a wide audience. For one example, consider the hashtag that Emilio Bruna (@BrunaLab) started called #PleaseCiteMe where he encouraged authors to talk about their favorite paper that they felt the literature had overlooked. “It’s tempting to think that your good science will speak for itself, and readers will know why it’s important. But few will invest the effort to read through a paper unless its importance is established explicitly right up front.” (Heard 2016, p. 71). Use your tweets and re-tweets to sell this importance to a wide audience.
Now that you’ve made your thread(s) – remember to save the URL for the original tweet (perhaps you’ll want to reference the thread in the future. You can also use an application like Wakelet to make a page of your threads. I use Wakelet to fill the gap that Storify’s closing created. I’ve used this for a couple of the papers about which I’ve published threads that I liked (e.g., for example, here and here. These pages are easy to submit to your tenure and promotion committee (or equivalent) as a non-peer-reviewed publication. If you’ve already sent out some tweets that weren’t threaded, Wakelet is a good way of linking together these disparate posts into a “thread”.
In closing, a BIG thank you to Shoshanah Jacobs for organising the CSEE 2018 symposium on Twitter and science. I really enjoyed taking part and learned (and continue to learn) a lot from my fellow presenters. A big thank you also to Stephen Heard and Scientist Sees Squirrel for hosting these thoughts for posterity!
© Alex Smith October 16, 2018
Previously, in this series:
- Me on “Tweeting to the Science Community: Audience, Content, and Voice”
- Shoshanah Jacobs on “Twitter considerations and tips at conferences”
- Dawn Bazely on “Tweeting science to policymakers”
Bazely, D. (2018). Why Nobel Winner Donna Strickland didn’t have a Wikipedia page. Washington Post, October 9, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/10/08/why-nobel-winner-donna-strickland-didnt-have-wikipedia-page/
Côté, Isabelle M., and Emily S. Darling. “Scientists on Twitter: Preaching to the choir or singing from the rooftops?.” FACETS 3.1 (2018): 682-694. https://doi.org/10.1139/facets-2018-0002
Edmonds, Bruce, et al. “Simulating the social processes of science.” Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation 14.4 (2011): 14. https://doi.org/10.18564/jasss.1842
Lamb, Clayton T., Sophie L. Gilbert, and Adam T. Ford. “Tweet success? Scientific communication correlates with increased citations in Ecology and Conservation.” PeerJ 6 (2018): e4564. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.4564
Jackson, Morgan D. Jackson, Sophia Spencer; Engaging for a Good Cause: Sophia’s Story and Why #BugsR4Girls, Annals of the Entomological Society of America (2017), 111: 439–448, https://doi.org/10.1093/aesa/sax055
Yammine, Samantha Z., et al. “Social media for social change in science.” Science 360.6385 (2018): 162-163. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aat7303