Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Social media and science (Part 1)

The world of scientific research has been rapidly changing in the way it disseminates scientific information, with decreased reliance on print journals and a dramatic increase in the usage of online resources.  In addition to supplying articles online, publishers have turned to social media, defined as websites and applications amenable for interaction and communication amongst users, to actively entice the scientific audience.  Various science journals as well as organizations have been assessed for how they use social media and their effectiveness. 

The Science and PLoS series of journals illustrate this recent foray into social media, with the latter being arguably more creative at using it.  A perusal of the Science website reveals links to Facebook and Twitter, where the use of these social media sites focuses on news, articles, and job listings.  On Facebook, the majority of space is dedicated to posts with links to new issues of Science that are out or various interesting articles.  These updates should entice more people to read or be aware of the articles, but one can say that the information on Facebook is no more than what one would have gotten by scanning the Science website say, once a week, and a better job could have been done on Facebook for it to complement the main website.  On Twitter, there are also links to articles, many of which are the same as the content on Facebook.  Additionally, there are quick news updates of more general science as well as a few posts of other information related to the magazine or publisher, such as a mention of proposal submission for an AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) symposium, job listings related to the magazine, and contests for publication of an essay in the magazine.  

Upon analysis, it is clear that PLoS (Public Library of Science), the publisher of the PLoS journals, utilizes social media mainly to increase its visibility and self-promote.  Like the Science journals, it also uses Facebook and Twitter.  Its posts on Facebook and Twitter overlap in content, namely quick mentions of new blog stories, podcasts, or journal articles.  It is clever that PLoS uses Facebook and Twitter to promote its other social media outlets, namely its blogs and podcasts, because people who have already embraced the Facebook and Twitter trends are probably the most likely to check out additional social media content.  There are also re-tweets of news stories from magazines such as Wired that cite PLoS articles, another way to self-promote.  Additionally, there are a number of tweets touching on open access, such as how people could help the Federal Research Public Access Act, links to blogs not connected to PLoS that advocate for open access, etc.  As everything PLoS publishes is open-access, it is not a surprise to see the passionate support for the sharing of research on social media sites, which have been built on user interaction and communication.  PLoS also uses LinkedIn.  An interesting resource on this site is a helpful subgroup called "Meet PLoS," which is for those who want to connect with PLoS at conferences. 

Journals such as the Science and PLoS series have made admirable effort in trying to connect with the audience by social media, but are anything that they are doing working?  Discussing this topic amongst colleagues at Washington University reveals the consensus that if students are not already on social media, then they are generally unaware of journals' use of Facebook and Twitter.  If they do know of it, they still would not choose to keep up with journals through these social media outlets because it would be too much of a hassle to set up an account and learn how to use the websites just for updates from journals, most of them about new issues being released.  Perhaps new graduate students would be curious enough to sign up for updates, but older students who have been in a field long enough to know which handful of journals are relevant to their work and know when new issues of them are released simply do not need these updates.  For those casually interested in science but not in the field, the Facebook and Twitter updates would be helpful to keep up with the headlines and read snippets of research.  What would be much more helpful for students actually in the field would be updates about conferences and job opportunities, which are not the focus of what the journals are promoting on their social media sites.  If journals want to be a resource and a reason for students to follow them, then this is an avenue they should pursue.

Besides journals, there are organizations that could fill this hole and provide information about conferences or jobs.  Two of them were assessed for their use of social media to disseminate this information: FASEB and AAI.  FASEB (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology) is a coalition of biomedical societies and researchers that advocates for science progress and education.  Their role in sponsoring scientific conferences is directly relevant for graduate students.  FASEB utilizes Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.  Its Facebook and Twitter updates complement each other with links to its job center as well as job posts by other companies (Procter and Gamble for instance) in additional to interesting polls and news snippets.  On LinkedIn, one can send InMail to employees with job titles students are interested in for job inquiries and career questions, all in all making FASEB's use of social media very helpful for students seeking jobs.  AAI (American Association of Immunologists) is an association of scientists in the immunology field that publishes the Journal of Immunology as well as organizes scientific meetings, all activities that are directly relevant to students hoping to publish well and attend conferences to learn and network.  Its use of Facebook has benefits for students who pay attention; for instance there are notices about travel grants, links to apply for the AAI Public Policy Fellows Program, and mentions of speakers attending the AAI conference. 

Use of social media allows scientists all over the world to obtain information from other scientists and connect instantaneously.  While browsing Facebook looking at friends' profiles, we can at the same time see links to interesting science articles and discuss them with people from a different country, or notice local job postings and follow up on them.  Getting updates from Twitter can even be instructive, allowing us to not only get updates from friends we know, but to also keep up with our favorite science blogs written by people we have never met.  MIDSCI is contributing towards this social media revolution, actively promoting networking and connectivity in science.  For instance, MIDSCI uses Facebook to post stories from The New York Times or NPR to facilitate comments and discussions from scientists worldwide.  It offers people the chance to test new products from vendors supplying free trial kits to connect curious customers with companies manufacturing revolutionary products.  It sees the importance of doing all this in order to ultimately make it easier for science to progress; we are no longer limited to seeking help or discussing science with labs down the hall or across campus but rather, global resources are at our fingertips.

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