The Science of the Tweet: The Dos and Don’ts for #SciComm on Twitter

A Guest Post by Marissa Zuckerman, American University Graduate Student, PR Expanded Blog Contest Winner

Zuckerman_HeadshotAs a science major turned public relations professional, I was groomed into believing that scientists are “bad” communicators. Through my work in science communication at Cornell University, I learned that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Scientists are always communicating: they’re writing grant proposals, presenting at conferences, networking at workshops, and peer-reviewing content for other researchers. The area where they are often dubbed ineffective is in public communication, but scientists are becoming increasingly interested in learning how to do it better.

You don’t have to win a Nobel Prize to get your research noticed (although this would be a pretty solid marketing tactic). Social media has revolutionized the way scientists are able to communicate in the public realm. The use of social media by scientists is growing and researchers are able to showcase their research to new audiences across the globe.

Twitter is one of the most promising social media platforms for science communication. I’ve met and worked with a multitude of scientists and professional communicators who swear by the use of Twitter for #scicomm. I argue that if you had to choose one social media platform, Twitter would be it (but that’s another blog post for another day).

If you are a scientist who isn’t already using Twitter, I highly encourage you to do so and take a look at resources on how to use the platform. If you’re already on the Twitter bandwagon, I will outline key dos and don’ts for using Twitter to communicate your science. While this blog will primarily focus on scientists, the principles outlined can be universally applied to a plethora of industries. 

1. DO use the power of the #hashtag.

The hashtag is one of the most powerful tools you can use on Twitter. The typing of a simple pound sign could help your research reach thousands of new followers. Because hashtags are so easy to create, it is important to use them wisely:

  • Use simple hashtags. As an example, you may find your latest paper on cyanobacterial endosymbiosis riveting. However, tweeting #bacterialendosymbiosis isn’t going to garner much attention. Choose simple hashtags relevant to your field, such as #biology or #ecology.
  • Don’t overdo it. Consider which hashtags will be the most impactful for your research or field of expertise.
  • Look for hashtags at meetings, workshops and conferences. By using hashtags at these events, you have opportunities to connect and engage with fellow scientists in real time.
  • Know some trending hashtags. Keep updated on current hashtag trends related to science. Popular hashtags within the scientific community include #scicomm, #iamscicomm, #livingbreathingscientist, #iamascientist, and #womeninSTEM.

PSA Zika Blood Donor Hashtags

2. Do focus on quality, not quantity.

You may not always have stories or exciting things to post about, as the nature of scientific research takes time and doesn’t yield results instantaneously. Do be sure that what you are posting is of quality when you do.

  • Use retweeting sparingly. When you’re feeling low on things to talk about, it can be worthwhile to share trending science stories or posts by colleagues that you see on your feed. Try to choose impactful science stories to retweet.
  • Don’t hit the share button and call it a day: Most academic publications or news outlets have automatic social share functions on new publications. It is easy to click a button and share a post with little effort, but the unfortunate truth is that most automated posts are uninspiring, dry, or just plain bad. When you use a share button, use it sparingly and personalize the language whenever possible.

3. DO be an engaged part of the #scicomm community.

Twitter is not just for talking about how great your research is to the public, but also for learning about the research of your fellow scientists. Social media provides an opportunity to network, engage with other scientists and science lovers, and build a sense of community.

  • Comment on posts by others. Provide praise, ask questions, and be open to having digital conversations with your colleagues and followers.
  • Post content that encourages others to engage with you. There are many ways that you can make your posts engaging. Propose a question you would like answers to. Host a Q and A session. Create a fun poll. Present yourself as approachable and interest in your science will follow!
  • Follow people who inspire you. When we think about “influencers” in the science community, most people can name Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson. However, there is a plethora of Twitter influencers and pages that focus on science. Follow colleagues, industry leaders, or companies and organizations that inspire you.
  • Pay attention to #scicomm hub pages. A few notable profiles include @IFLscience, @scienceIRL, @scicomm_hub, and @iamscicomm.

Hunt for Hornwarts Twitter SciComm Zuckerman Photo

4. DO put your ego to the side and be human: Scientists are often generalized as elitist, inaccessible, serious, and untrustworthy in some circumstances. Use Twitter to prove these misconceptions wrong.

  • Don’t be afraid to simplify. Scientists are often worried about misinformation and oversimplification. It can be easy for scientists to hide behind the comfort of scientific protocol and correctness when talking about their work online. The trick to Twitter is finding the right balance between accuracy and understandability. Don’t be afraid to tone down your science slightly to get your message across.
  • Be You! It’s important to not only communicate your science but communicate who you are as a person. Be willing to showcase your personality. Share a good science joke. Post a photo of your garden. Take a selfie. It is important to showcase the human side behind the scientist.

When it doubt, DO work with your Communications Department: Nearly all academic and research institutions hire designated communications professionals to communicate research on behalf of the organizations. They’re not only hired to serve the organization where you work, but to serve you as a scientist. Believe me when I say your organization’s communications team is one of the greatest resources available to you. Take advantage of their expertise and consider asking them for suggestions on how to communicate your science overall.

Marissa Zuckerman is a graduate student at American University’s School of Communication. She has a passion for science communication and has covered topics ranging from paleontology and trilobites to gene editing and GMOs. Learn more by following her on Twitter (@MarissaJaneZ).