How to use social media for science — 3 views

Tips from science and journalism pros at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting

The Engaging with Social Media panel at the AAAS Annual Meeting drew scientists, journalists, public information officers and students. (Photos by Alison Bert)There are many ways to use social media for science – but some will serve you better than others.

Scientists and journalists can work together to bring science to a broader audience.

If you don't have a reason to be on social media, you don't have to be there.

Those were some of the messages of the presenters on a panel called Engaging with Social Media at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago last week.

The speakers talked about how and why scientists can use social media for science communication and how to find the right voice and audience, and how to define success, sharing best practices and the lessons learned from their own experiences.

The moderator was Dr. Dominique Brossard, Professor and Chair in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Maggie Koerth-Baker: 'Know what you want to do'

Maggie Koerth-BakerKoerth-Baker stressed the importance of having a goal in social media. "I think what's missing in social media is the idea of intentionality," she said. "If you really want to do social with intention, there are three things you need to know."

1. You need a goal

"There are many things you can do, but the important thing is that you know what you want to do," she said.

This can include communicating with people in real time as part of hashtag forums on Twitter, or communicating directly with people who read your work. It can involve professional collaboration or communication with the public.

Her goals include engaging the people who read her articles. "I want my audience to see me as a person, not just a byline," she said.

As a freelance writer, she also uses social media to communicate with editors, pointing out that she lives in Minneapolis while most editors live in New York.

She suggested that while many social sites enable curation – sharing other people's content – it's something a lot of people can do, and it might not be the best use of a scientist's time.

2. You need a platform

While there are many platforms scientists can use for social media, Koerth-Baker said it's important to find the one that best suits your purposes, rather than trying to be on all of them.

"It's completely reasonable for you not to be on multiple platforms; in fact, you probably don't want to be," she said.

Her own favorite is Twitter, which she described as "this giant ongoing cocktail party that I can drop in at any time."

She also recommended Wikipedia, mentioning a science professor who has been using it to educate students in an informal peer review process while helping to improve the platform. When an audience member asked whether students had the experience or training to do this kind of work effectively, she pointed out that Wikipedia is being edited anyway, since anyone can be an editor

"It is the first thing the public goes to when they want to learn about a topic," she said, and it can be a valuable resource if it "has basic information that's good and links to more in-depth articles."

She said editing Wikipedia can be productive if your field is underrepresented or negatively represented, but you have to be willing to compromise to get to a larger audience.

"It's one of those things where you kind of have to forgo perfection in favor of utility," she explained. "If something is 99 percent accurate and reaches 1,000, people, that's better than 100 percent accurate and reaches five."

She also recommended the popular bookmarking site Reddit, where people share interesting articles in sections dedicated to a wide range of topics, including specific fields of science. "It's not just curation, it's a community," she said, pointing out the discussions that take place in the comments to posts and the "Ask me Anything" section, which scientists can use to engage with the public.

3. You don't need to be there

After encouraging audience members to find their ideal platform and focus their efforts, she told them something they may not have expected to hear: "You don't actually have to be on social media."

"You don't want to force it," she said. Authenticity is the most important thing, and it will be obvious if you don't want to be there – or if you don't know why you're there.

"Honestly, if any of your bosses think you have to be," she quipped, "this is your opportunity to tell them that somebody at AAAS told you there's a perfectly good reason not to be."

Don't blur the lines

For those that do choose to use social media, she recommended keeping your public and private personas separate. "Blurring the lines ... can detract from your professionality," she said, like "if you set up as a professional account, but all you ever tweet about are rants about politics or pictures of your cats." For that reason, she recommends setting up separate accounts for private and professional.[divider]

Kim Cobb: Telling the story of your science

Kim Cobb, PhDDr. Cobb recalled the anticipation she felt on finally published a paper last year in Science called: "Highly Variable El Niño–Southern Oscillation Throughout the Holocene."

"After seven years I thought I had finally arrived," she said. "But no, wait —"

She quickly came to a realization about her paper: "It's completely inaccessible to the average American," she said. "I mean, I could read this to you and put you to sleep."

Meanwhile, as a new PopTech Science Fellow, she was encouraged to use social media to get the word out about their work, so she started thinking about "seeking a voice in the public."

Her next slide revealed the reaction she and some of her fellow scientists have had when thinking about going public:

Why are scientists uneasy using social media?

1. Discomfort/stigma associated with (non-traditional) self-promotion

  • "Shouldn't the quality of my science speak for itself?"
  • "Aren't rigor and 'flash' anti-correlated?"

2. Danger of over-selling societal relevance of results

3. Who has the time anyway?

4. Danger of over-simplifying results to the point of inaccuracy

Kim Cobb's Twitter account: Coralsncaves5. Fear of the scientist as advocate, loss of objective image

6. Who has time anyway?

With these dangers in mind, she decided to find a forum where she could take readers behind the scenes and tell them the story of her team's research.

Last year, she created a blog for her climate change lab, which she tweets about from @coralsncaves.

She tells the story of their team's adventures, including photos and videos. In one post, she features her students drilling for fossil corals on Palmyra Island 1,000 miles south of Hawaii.

A student drills for fossil corals on Palmyra Island. Professor Cobb posted this picture on her lab's blog.

In another post, she talks about heading to Washington for Capitol Hill Climate Science Day. On the plane ride there with her 2-year-old daughter, she found herself seated next to Congressman Sanford Bishop (D-GA).

I'm flying up to DC to meet with a legion of Congressional staffers in the faint hope that one of them may put my name under their boss' nose for 2 seconds, and as it turns out a real-life Congressman is literally forced to sit down next to me for 2+ hours! Of course having my 2-yr-old there provided comic relief, spilled milk, kicked seats, and spurred a sharing of stories about kids/grandkids (he has a 5-yr-old granddaughter and I have a 5-yr-old daughter). I think our conversation started when I asked him for one of his napkins in response to the first of many liquid spills. Once we realized we could actually have a substantive, if not interrupted, conversation, we gabbed on for the rest of the flight.

My most successful posts

  • Are personal
  • Use humor
  • Tell a story
  • Photos, photos and more photos
  • Use matter-of-fact but measured messages to avoid pervasive polarization and encourage dialogue.

Source: Kim Cobb, PhD

She summed up the reasons "why I have embraced social media":

  • I think climate change should have more impact in the public sphere.
  • I want to be accessible (literally and figuratively).
  • I can tell some great stories, and I have some great photos.
  • I want to help change the culture of science regarding public engagement with climate change, and women in science.

"I try to use a measured message because social media is highly polarized on the issue of climate change," she said. "This is something I grapple with; it's a big challenge for a scientist."

In the end, she said, it's worth the effort to tell the stories of her team's work and their successes. "It's been really fun to get that aspect of the science out," she said.

Her closing message: "It doesn't matter how right you are if nobody is listening to you."[divider]

Danielle N. Lee: "There are binders and binders of diverse scholars"

Danielle N. Lee, PhDDr. Lee used bold statements, wit, and telling examples to motivate journalists and scientists to broaden their source base – and audience – to include underrepresented minorities.

Her overarching theme was that science does not stand on its own merits.

"Science is not a utopia," she said. "The value of science is not universal across every community. Different audiences perceive stories differently."

For this reason, she suggested, the role of scientist should also include communicator and educator – and scientists and journalists should work together to improve the quality and reach of science writing.

She began by pointing out that African Americans and Latinos each make up less than 7 percent of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workforce, and that despite the contributions of minorities, science-related journalism directed to minority audiences is "almost non-existent." She said almost none of the newspapers and magazines for African American and Latino audiences have science and technology sections, while mainstream media outlets often miss opportunities to feature the work of minority scientists or quote them as experts.

Caption: Minorities from African-American, Latino and Native American groups are under-represented at most any level in STEM and science communication. (Source: US Census Bureau, 2011 American Community Survey)

Dr. Lee then focused on the communication challenges that need to be bridged between the STEM and journalism communities, specifically ethnic media outlets. And she outlined some of the strategies proposed by the National Science and Technology News Service, a new media literacy project involving minority scientists, engineers, medical professionals, journalists and press outlets.

Her message to journalists: "If you need to find sources, there are binders and binders of diverse scholars. There are experts out there as well as any number of specialists. God love Neil deGrasse Tyson, but there are other black physicists out there."

In her presentation below, she lists media outlets for minority audiences, including News One, MSNBC's The Grio and American Urban Radio Networks. She suggested pitching to the online versions of these organizations to get stories out faster. "Because they don't have dedicated science desks, most of them are really open to pitches," she said. "For young journalists, there's a whole universe of outlets out there."

Scientists — 'Make yourself available'

But change doesn't have to come from journalists alone, she stressed. Scientists can play a big role by working with journalists as well using social media. "Those of us from underrepresented groups – we have to do what we can to be recognized," she said. "Using social media will help you cast the net wider."

As a scientists and author of the Scientific American blog The Urban Scientist, Dr. Lee has used social media to bring attention to these scientists.

"Those of you who know me on Twitter, I will go after you hard," she said. "What are you doing to diversify your sources?"

3 tips for journalists and scientists

1. Find ways to partner with minority journalists to co-write or co-produce news items targeted to wider audiences.

  • Share bylines. This cultivates relationships with wider professional network for minority journalists and/or those that work for smaller news organizations that often have few resources to commission original longer/deeper science pieces.
  • Working together you can craft a proper pitch and frame of a science story for diverse audiences.

2. Proactively share science news stories and leads with journalists at smaller or neighboring outlets for under-served communities. "Signal boost" the pieces – science or not – to help raise the profile of these journalists.

3. Practice old-fashioned networking. Build it before you need it. Establish rapport and trust with new communities.

Some scientists from underrepresented minority groups are on the research teams of the studies being reported, she said, while others can comment in hashtag discussions to dispel myths and misleading claims in the media.

In some instances, she uses social media to call out sloppy reporting. Last year, she convinced an editor of Ebony magazine to change a headline that was misleading because the writer did not have a background in science journalism.

In another example, Dr. Lee described a poorly reported account of two studies that appeared in many news outlets for minorities, leading readers to believe that hair relaxers caused uterine fibroids – even though the scientists themselves did not make that claim.

She wrote about it on her Urban Scientist post Black Women, perms and uterine fibroids: A call for authentic science journalism in the Black Media.

"When science news does appear in black newspapers, magazines or radio programs, it is not in-depth and is often re-published versions of news items produced by others," she said. "Moreover, media outlets that are founded by or designed to target these groups have historically low incidences of science news in general, and the deeper levels of science journalisms such as narrative, investigative, and features are rare."

To bring quality science to broader audiences, she said, scientists and engineers should communicate directly with the public. And they should work together with journalists to create content and attract readers.

She also urged audience members to "signal boost" articles with good science by retweeting and sharing them to bring them to a broader audience. "Those retweets mean a lot," she said, mentioning the time she was retweeted by New York Times science columnist Carl Zimmer.

It's also important to consider how audiences get their news. "Focus on social media that can be easily shared and consumed on mobile devices since it's been demonstrated that Black and Latino individuals are high adopters of mobile technology and more likely to consume news from these devices," she said.  For example, present your story in quick tidbits with links to more information.

Dr. Lee uses Facebook to interact directly with people in underserved communities, linking to the stories she writes about and having conversations about science on her own thread. "I do blur the lines between personal and professional," she said.

Resources for journalists and scientists

Dr. Danielle N. Lee listed resources in her presentation:

Diversify your sources

Pitch wider

Connect to under-served audiences

Source: "STEM News among underserved and under-represented audiences," by Danielle N. Lee, PhD, for AAAS 2014.


Elsevier Connect Contributor

Alison Bert, DMAAlison Bert (@AlisonBert) is Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier Connect. She joined Elsevier five years ago from the world of journalism, where she was a business reporter and blogger for The Journal News, a Gannett daily newspaper in New York. In the previous century, she was a classical guitarist on the music faculty of Syracuse University. She holds a doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, was a Fulbright scholar in Spain and performed in the 1986 international master class of Andrés Segovia.

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2 Archived Comments

Tim McCormick February 27, 2014 at 11:02 pm

Great panel and excellen writeup. I followed parts of #AAASmtg via Twitter remotely, but wish I'd been there in person.

The panel seems to have focused on ways & reasons scientists might post on social media, which perhaps was implied by the panel title "Engaging with Social Media." However, I'd like to pose the question, is it possible that the most important potential use of social media, at least for most scientists is not for posting, but for reading, discovery, and more indirect use?

There are various reasons to think that even on most "social" media networks, interaction is quite asymmetrical, with users receiving messages much more than sending them. To some extent this is implied by the basic structure of the networks, in which a post is sent to a network of followers, so the normal case is that reads significantly outnumber posts.

Also, research such as Jon Bruner's "Tweets loud and quiet" (O'Reilly Radar, 18 December 2013) suggest that on Twitter, for example, most users have very few followers, while a small percentage of well-known users produce a large portion of all posts and views. This follows a pattern long observed in almost all online interactive environments, the "1% rule" or "90–9–1 principle" that passive use typically far outweighs active use. Our newer social media may revise this pattern somewhat, but aren't likely to fully overcome it, especially in "interest graph" networks such as Twitter which support and have widespread use of 1-way following, ie there is often no reciprocal tie between follower and followed.

This is not, by any means, to discount the many laudable outreach and active-engagement activities discussed by the AAAS panelists, which I fully support. Rather, it is to suggest that for many scientists and use cases, there may be much potential value lying in a somewhat different direction: in tools/practices for better social-media listening, filtering, and following, rather than speaking.

In my own scicomm work, I focus on this angle, for example exploring new ways to sort and filter Twitter streams, and prototyping an alternate Twitter-like interest/social network for science and scholarship. As they say in civic circles, we need followership as well as leadership; or as Stephen Covey said: we might seek first to understand, then to be understood.


Tim McCormick


Palo Alto, California


Tim McCormick February 28, 2014 at 1:52 pm

oh dear, the comment system removed all line breaks. For a more readable version, see:

A.SRIDHAR March 3, 2014 at 9:07 am