Do you tweet or blog? Are you LinkedIn? Have you been tagged in a post? In a few short years, the language of social media (SM) has become part of our daily lives, and social networking sites have never been more prevalent, with half a billion tweets sent per day on Twitter [1] and 1.06 billion monthly active users on Facebook [2]. And, at the end of 2011, the web hosted at least 181 million blogs [3]. Many of us use these sites to catch up on the latest news stories, to keep in contact with friends and family or to find others who share our interests. But more and more, scientists are finding that these SM outlets are far more than a way to pass time – they can be a powerful and fast-paced ally in the war on publicizing our scientific research.

Despite the language used above, this is not a call to arms for the use of SM. It is simply an attempt to answer two questions: Has generalist SM changed the way that scientists interact with each other or with the public? And has it had an impact on the way we carry out or assess our science?

In answering the first question, we must first ask another one: What is it that draws scientists to sites like Twitter, Facebook or Wordpress? It may partly be their informality; Twitter is credited with removing hierarchical barriers that can exist between people, and is an excellent way to start a spontaneous debate, meet new people, or spread news stories. Bloggers don’t have to tow a company line, so express opinions openly, protected by the proviso that “…these views are my own”. Both can provide an informal way to publish results and share ideas – changing the interaction between scientists and the public.

Historically, the perception of scientists has been largely based on stereotypes – just type “scientist” into Google Images! But thanks to an increase in the amount of science in print and on TV and radio, coupled with the work of hundreds of science communicators across the country, this perception may be changing. All of these interactions show the public that scientists are not only human, but also approachable and keen to talk about our research. Social media sites – especially blogs – offer yet another way for scientists to speak directly to the public, and for the public to speak to them. Just look at any of the finalists for the 2012 UK Science Blog Prize [4] – excellent science, direct from the scientists.

Most of the UK's universities and research institutes have an official Twitter account, and many also have a Facebook page where they publicize news and events. Combining this with sharing photos on Flickr or videos on YouTube, organizations are giving the public unprecedented access to their inner workings, and to their scientists. The Periodic Table of Videos from the chemists at the University of Nottingham is a great example of this [5] – the team have produced informative, humorous videos, which they promote using YouTube and Twitter. They also use Twitter as a route to encourage conversation between the team and the public.

But what about carrying out scientific research using social media? We’re all aware of many Citizen Science projects (e.g., Galaxy Zoo) which make use of the public to mine through vast quantities of data. But data produced on SM sites is “vast, noisy, distributed, unstructured and dynamic” [6]; finding something meaningful in the noise can be a challenge, but it has been done. Scientists at Cornell University used 500 million tweets and a text analyzer to measure the incidences of words that express positive and negative emotions, and so mapped how individual mood varies throughout the day and across the seasons [7].

SM is often linked to the concept of “Open Science”, where data and pre-published papers are shared in an open forum, to be discussed, analyzed and reviewed by anyone interested in the work. And here we start to cross over into part of my second question – has SM had an impact on the way we assess our science?

Many scientists agree that the traditional peer-review process is not necessarily the best way to assess our science, but it is seen as the only way. However, alternatives are starting to make their mark. A website called Faculty of 1000 was launched in 2002; it evaluates papers from the biological journals using a ‘faculty’ of more than 10,000 researchers [8]. The individual score given by each reviewer is combined using a specific formula to generate an article's F1000 factor. Organizations such as the Wellcome Trust have started to take notice of such sites, asserting that it “adds another dimension to the citation index” [9].

SM sites have also found a place in changing the interactions between scientists – most large conferences use a Twitter hashtag, and many project teams use a public blog [10] to publicize research news, with a private area to discuss data with colleagues. Others use professional groups on LinkedIn and member-only Facebook pages as an informal way to share information with collaborators.

In a world that gets smaller with every new hashtag, social media has become a key communication channel between scientists, their collaborators and the public. Its potential for use in assessing science, or as a source of meaningful data may be less well developed, but one thing's for sure – social media may feel transient, but for science, its effects are here to stay.

Further reading
[7] S.A. Golder, M.W. Macy, Science, 333 (2011), pp. 1878–1881
[9] A. Mandavilli, Nature, 469 (2011), p. 287

Read full text on ScienceDirect

DOI: 10.1016/j.mattod.2013.01.003