With science under siege on social media, it’s tempting to be a warrior — “fighting the good fight” and taking on anyone who posts misinformation or misguided opinions.
Of course, not everyone is comfortable with being at the center of controversy, especially with emotions on social media dialed up to 11 these days. Some researchers prefer to use social media to promote their papers and other research of interest to their peers. Of course, even then there may be challenging comments. Some people respond only to those with scientific merit, welcoming the chance to explain the nuances of their research. And others take a diplomatic approach, answering most anyone in the hopes of persuading them to give science a chance.
People differ in how much of their personality they bring to their posts – and how much of a line, if any, they draw between their personal and professional lives.
Recently, I interviewed three scientists about their approach to social media. Each has a distinct voice and reason for using social media, and each has been extremely successful at engaging their science peers as well as the general public. Here, they share their strategies and tips.
Larisa Yarovaya: sharing her research on cryptocurrency
When sharing a paper, she writes a quick summary with a few bullet points to give readers a snapshot of the main findings, as well as expressing her excitement and appreciation. For example, in this LinkedIn post, which has 110 likes and 12 comments, she mentions that her paper on the effects of COVID-19 on oil prices, the stock market and economic policy was downloaded more than 600 times on SSRN and subsequently accepted for publication in Elsevier’s journal the International Review of Financial Analysis.
She likes to keep things positive, so she avoids posting about politics and religion “because on social media, there is not room to fully address all those concerns.
“And I avoid negative emotions,” she added. “There’s so much negativity around, and I don’t want my network to be associated with something like that.”
Inevitably, however, stories about finance — or virtually any aspect of science or economics — can spark debate. That was the case with a 2018 story she co-authored for The Conversation, which was reprinted by the BBC: “Should bitcoin be used to help countries hit by disaster?” She and her fellow researcher wrote about how cryptocurrency entrepreneurs were moving to Puerto Rico, which had just been ravaged by Hurricane, to build a “crypto utopia.” Because the research focused on the broader economic implications of cryptocurrency, none of these entrepreneurs were interviewed. That prompted a few of them to criticize the researchers on Twitter.
Larisa responded by stating her point concisely without taking on a negative tone herself.
“What I’ve learned from that is you just need to be neutral – you shouldn’t respond emotionally,” Larisa said. “Anyway, all of this is visible, and it’s not the final goal to defend yourself.
“Also, if this person just wants to provoke me and engage in this confrontation for the sake of argument, I can see this is a route to nowhere.”
On the other hand, Larisa welcomes feedback “from those who are genuinely interested and have certain expertise.” For example, when she posts a manuscript on Elsevier’s preprint server, SSRN, Larisa welcomes constructive comments from her network:
For me, it's useful feedback if I see that there is merit and substance in this comment. We’re often blind to our own research – we spend months and months on it.
Although Larisa is active on Twitter, her platform of choice is LinkedIn, where shares her papers and other news and research of interest to her peers. “You need to be very, very active on Twitter to build a digital presence,” she said. “It’s a very dynamic platform. It doesn’t really match with my lifestyle as a researcher and teacher. That’s why I prefer LinkedIn.”
- Find an eye-catching image.
- Introduce your post with a positive message. Show your enthusiasm but avoid bragging or being overly emotional.
- Include a few bullet points to give your readers context but keep it concise. People won’t read a long block of text.
Bert Blocken: “a love-hate relationship” with social media
Prof Bert Blocken of Eindhoven University of Technology and KU Leuven combines his civil engineering expertise with his passion for cycling to publish revealing research into the aerodynamics of racing. Of course, even the most carefully executed science can spark debate when it deals with sports.
Bert has no problem with polite discussion, even when someone questions his research.
On this tweet by the Cycle Collective, he responds with humor about one of his older studies, pointing out its limitations.
It was a friendly exchange where Bert shared details of his research, and others weighed in with comments and questions.
If this were the norm, then perhaps he wouldn’t have a “love-hate relationship” with social media:
There's nothing wrong with a good discussion. The problem on social media is that some people are not very polite and decent, so you can get into arguments if you allow them. And because you’re not talking to a person – you’re just talking through text – things can also be easily misunderstood.
Then some people are also on social media just to pick fights. In the past months and years, I’ve really had to block several people – quite a lot actually. Sometimes things get out of control.
Still, he finds the benefits are worth it: “You reach a lot of people that you wouldn't reach in other ways,” he said.
“We write scientific articles, yet I think it's just a tiny minority of people on this planet that are really drawn to ScienceDirect, he explained, referring to the world’s largest platform for peer reviewed literature.
I think is a great platform – I use it every day and look for what articles have been written in a certain area. But when we also post the cycling studies on social media with a link to ScienceDirect, we see that this paper is actually downloaded many more times. And that is something that I find to be a positive thing – that people who are not scientists, or not working in academics, start reading scientific papers.
Bert said his papers average from 100 to 150 download per month. However, the cycling papers are downloaded much more. Soon after its publication in 2018, his paper “Aerodynamic Drag in Cycling Pelotons” in the Journal of Wind Engineering and Industrial Aerodynamics was downloaded about 20,000 times a month. Below, you can see views of PlumX Metrics, which show how people interact with research articles on social media, blogs, news stories and more.
Having a wider audience has also led to interesting collaborations with professional cycling team, Bert said:
The performance managers of cycling athletes are on social media all the time. They tell me that, yeah, they've seen my papers, and they have also been reading papers by others. They keep up to date this way.
This is how he came to know Dr Fred Grappe (@fredgrappe), Performance Director of the Groupama-FDJ professional cycling team in France and Associate Professor in the Department of Sport & Health at the University de Franche-Comté. Since 2016, they’ve done two projects together, most recently assisting in the design of new bicycles for the team with bicycle manufacturer Lapierre:
We have an excellent mutual understanding and relationship, and it all started by my tweets about my work and his very knowledgeable and precise and constructive reactions on those.
Bert’s advice: “Seduce people” with your images
Bert seeks out high-quality images to accompany his papers and social media posts, and he urges his students to do the same:
In terms of nice figures and photos, I always tell my students that they should consider these as seductive items – seducing people to read their work. And that the quality of figures often says a lot about the care with which the research work has been performed.
Rodney Rohde: expertise with the personal touch
Authenticity in communication seems to come naturally to Prof Rodney E. Rohde, Elsevier author and Chair of the Clinical Laboratory Science program at Texas State University. With a passion for public health education, he writes about infectious disease and is frequently interviewed by local, national and international media. He posts often on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and is quick to answer people’s questions, whether they are researchers or lay people.
And here, in posting about the misinformation people were spreading about the cause of the recent Texas power outages, he shared his own family’s experience to give perspective to his point of view:
Rodney’s advice: rein in the warrior!
Rodney — or "Doc R" as his students call him — writes:
“My social media persona has evolved over the past several years. If we are honest, I think anyone who is an expert (scientist or other) wants to be the WARRIOR! But I learned early on that NOISE and angry responses do not get heard.
“I believe in being open, sharing stories, acknowledging that we may not agree on everything, but let’s try to find the middle ground if possible. I’ve had some negative comments over the years, but not ongoing, horrible trolling. I do think relating stories and trying to appeal to everyone’s kindness and humanity can work – of course, not 100 percent of the time but most of the time. People seem to be able to disagree with me without being mean and hateful when I treat them with respect.
“My parents and other mentors have instilled in me the Golden Rule – and we should all try to follow the Public Health Golden Rule: ‘Do no harm to others.’ Likewise, being a professor, husband and father has given me perspective, patience and listening skills. And my wife has been my sounding board so many times before I post something.
“Lastly, when and if I do receive a negative comment. Sometimes I just ignore it even though instinct tells me to POUNCE on it! Or I may thank them for the comment in an attempt to disarm them and say ‘we can agree to disagree’ without going down a negative and hateful rabbit hole. Ultimately, I am trying to leverage clear science communication to raise their health literacy while hopefully helping them find answers to public health or healthcare questions. I have definitely learned to not engage a “troll” on my feeds. It is just not worth my time or energy and it is rarely, if ever, going to change their minds.”
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