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Why Scientists won’t use Twitter…

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Twitter doesn’t need an introduction. The microblogging service is widely popular, and most Twitter users swear by its wonderful utility. It is a “Social Commons”, as one enthusiastic web junkie put it. But a few months into using Twitter, I realized that there are very few scientists – and I mean natural scientists, on Twitter. For instance, at the time of writing this post, the Twitter account science had 2,247 followers , while some popular individuals have followers 10-fold that number.

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It seemed perplexing – science today is collaborative, everything depends on communication and sharing ideas , it seems perfect for scientists to share information fast, on a one on one basis if required or tweet to the community. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of tech-twitter services that discuss the latest gadgetry to hit the markets, but none that discuss the fundamental subjects – the quartet now known as STEM – Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics. So I pondered on the reasons, using my own department as a small study group to try and ascertain why scientists don’t seem to use Twitter, despite the hype.

Here’s a list of reasons I came up with :

1. The Twitter Reputation : Some might say allusion to little bird sounds is cute, hip – but it also gives Twitter the image of something frivolous, not really useful , and part of the MySpace/Facebook category (collectively chided as being a narcissistic phenomenon a.k.a MyFace). Most scientists hold the impression that Twitter is a social network – a place where one wastes time, and real discussions happen only on mailing lists and forums.

2. The Social Activation Barrier : It isn’t just a stereotype. Scientists are substantially asocial – feeling more at home dwelling on the workings of their pet problem rather than interested in what other people are thinking about. Of course, scientists have a tinge of megalomania, and generally will assume that anyone who hasn’t earned credibility with brilliant ideas or research is not really worth listening to. This does not mean they are impolite to lay men, but they rarely take laymen seriously. It is not a reflection of personality , merely a result of the widespread examples of utter silliness among laymen (Intelligent design? ),  poor understanding of how the natural world works on the part of laymen and the stringent standards that scientists are used to apply to themselves and their peers (oh, is my megalomania showing here? ).

3. Email vs. Twitter : Scientists will talk of course to experts in their field , but the preferred method of communication is email. Scientific discussions tend to involve lot of fact-stating and elaboration of theories, and the 140 character limit is simply ill-suited for this purpose. Email is also private, let’s you communicate with people you know are interested and stays as a permanent record. Even if Twitter does some of those things, but it doesn’t top email when it comes to communication. So why change?

4. Privacy (read ‘Secrecy’) : The data and models a scientist generates and the insight they provide is the usually the culmination of a long arduous process. In most cases, it represents years of sacrifices, blood and sweat (of the researcher, metaphorically and his lab rats, literally). As such , the culture of Twitter , which is to openly pass out information is entirely antithetical to the culture of science. Scientists will protect their data from all eyes until it can be represented to the public through a legitimate medium. Only a peer-reviewed journal or a patent is a legitimate medium , by the way, Twitter is not. It is a vicious circle. Twitter is not a legitimate source because of Point 1-3…and Points 1-3 would be rectified if Twitter was considered a legitimate source.

5. Science Media : Speaking of legitimate publication media, the science publishing industry hasn’t quite taken to Twitter. Although some journals (Science , for example) offer podcasts and other “Web 2.0” methods of disbursing information, the core process of publishing science remains tied to the Print/Paper method. All other methods are , in the psychology of a typical scientist simply “Pop-Sci” offerings – the real technical stuff is in the ‘Paper’. Discussions and debates also proceed through a process of writing to the Corresponding Author over email or the Editor of the Journal , who then publishes it and so on. A painfully slow process , I might add, especially in this day and age.

Unfortunately, the above points are also applicable to other “Web 2.0 “ Science resources. Social Networks for scientists (see ResearchGate, Nature Networks) have received only lukewarm reception even when backed by a highly rated research journal – and the few who register are mostly graduate students. Serious scientists still don’t seem to care. I personally, the enormous potential of services like Twitter to encourage dialogue between scientists, and to act as a fast information highway. To be fair, there are isolated cases of scientists actually using these resources ( OpenWetWare ). But until the culture of science undergoes a paradigm shift, I am afraid Twitter and its brethren will remain excluded from the scientific community, to be the subject of blog posts by individuals have who taken to it, and to be ignored by the institutions.

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Written by Nash

February 15, 2009 at 1:51 am

22 Responses

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  1. agree with many of your points, twitter brings me some frustrations.
    don’t think scientists are not social, they are social collaboratively – mean if it’s not discussion about of projects or science itself and tools – they became unsocial.
    I’m planning to write a post about twitter vs friendfeed in scientific collaboration on my blog. We can continue discussion.

    you probably will be interested in reading this –
    collaborative filters online

    Alexey

    February 15, 2009 at 4:28 am

  2. Some thoughts:

    You’ve forgotten Friendfeed.

    a user called “science” != Science.
    It’s autogenerated tweets from ScienceNewsBlog.com

    So it’s not a person afaik. There are lots of other more area related RSS like tweeters, and plenty more humans, in more specific feeds. Checked omnee?

    There’s a difference between don’t and won’t

    For many, Twitter *does* need an introduction. Heck, look at the numbers wrt Facebook – it’s growing fast, but it’s not widespread by any means, in relation to other technologies, like email.

    Would be interesting to see why you’re specifying scientists as “natural scientists”:
    “I realised that there are very few scientists – and I mean natural scientists, on Twitter.”

    If the posting is open, you can not follow, but user their RSS feed instead, and follow that way also afaik.

    Science does have problems with social networks, read up on articles already posted by @sciencebase for example – getting scientist on board on the same platform, as you need more than twitter.

    Twitter isn’t perfect for scientists to share information fast, on a on on one basis if required or tweet to the community.

    Email is a better way really currently.

    Your later points seem closer to the mark.

    Serious scientists care, but to be honest, what’s the point of being on the social networks, if no-one else will? The power of these tools, for many of them, is having other people on them.

    But i’d imagine twitter is being used in scientific communities, especially the more IT/tech related ones. Maybe the communities fly under the current radar being used. d’s are the darknet of the twitter world, as private emails are to the email world.

    Some institutions aren’t ignoring it. Depends what you mean by institutions really.

    Tom

    February 15, 2009 at 7:37 am

  3. Just a generation shift is needed, some “paradigms” (for conversation in this instance) don’t cross well over generations.

    Ashwan

    February 15, 2009 at 12:56 pm

  4. It’s all about critical mass. Among my followers and friends on twitter I logged 100 who mention science in some form in their bio or who I knew were scientists. I posted about it here – http://bit.ly/scientwists – within little more than a month that 100 has doubled to 200 scientist contacts on twitter and that’s just me!

    David Bradley

    February 18, 2009 at 8:02 pm

  5. Do you think that (natural) scientists are any different in their uptake of twitter / social software / web2.0 than other academics, say historians? My impression is that all academics, probably all professionals are just busy getting on with their day job and don’t have much interest in computers / Internet / web beyond how it affects their work. So if an application like email or arXive becomes useful for their work they will adopt it, but by and large they won’t go looking for applications that have potential.

    I have to say I disagree about scientists being asocial: I think science is a social activity which revolves around sharing ideas. So much so that the mode of sharing ideas has become so ingrained in the process of doing science that any changes are seen as potentially threatening (as well potentially beneficial).

    Phil Barker

    March 3, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    • As far as the indifference of scientists is concerned, I agree with you. I was trying to explore why this indifference might exist. I only spoke of natural scientists, because these are the people I interact with most. I would speculate that sociologists , anthropologists and other academics in the humanities to be a lot more welcoming to media such as Twitter.

      As for scientists being asocial, I might be observing a local minimum expanding over this country , my department, or even my person ( I am not hostile, but I am not well-versed with the native tongue here which most people seem to be more comfortable in, understandably.) But certainly, you’d agree that a Page 3 socialite or a salesman (People’s persons ?) are more likely to use Twitter than scientists ?

      Nash

      March 4, 2009 at 6:21 pm

  6. For instance, at the time of writing this post, the Twitter account science had 2,247 followers , while some popular individuals have followers 10-fold that number.

    In other words, science has roughly the popularity on twitter that it does on other media. Why you think this is due to scientists not using twitter enough, I can’t figure. (In any case, Phil Plait has about twice as many twitter followers as the ‘science’ account, and there are a few other individual scientists on twitter who have more followers on twitter than the ‘science’ account. Why I, a person who had never previously used twitter could find that out, and you couldn’t, I don’t know, but it bodes poorly for your article. )

    llewelly

    March 3, 2009 at 8:08 pm

  7. @Phil,

    Thats an interesting take – applicable to the academic sector – in as much as a person involved in research will be much more focussed on the set project and will no doubt use the publication of papers as the dissemination of the projects findings.

    The emergence of applications like ccbetty.com which aggregates multiple email threads to a microsite will no doubt be of use.

    One aspect of Twitter which is being overlooked is the search functionality. I would hazard a prediction that the any potential aquisition of Twitter will be related to being able to search real time conversations. Google’s purchase of Youtube for the same reason no doubt – at the time had more searches than Yahoo.

    @Calli

    March 4, 2009 at 6:03 pm

  8. Twitter search within Google can be done with a Greasemonkey script – i’d expect a less advanced way of doing it pretty soon.
    Google doesn’t need to buy Twitter to search and index them – they’d only get the dm and private stuff from that. We’ll see.

    There are groups and hubs of scientists – just as you’d see on facebook, on email etc, if you plotted the socail graph. sciencebase’s list can show a few of these hubs – with a decent twitter search tool, and a way to implement search terms to restrict seeing further followers/followees, you could find these pretty quickly. Any scientist’s follow list and following list will show this – they’ll be showing exactly those scientists who’re on. Do serious scientists not care? Maybe, but then they’re potentially missing out on some of it’s uses. It’s using it as a tool effectively.

    Tom

    March 4, 2009 at 8:17 pm

  9. and this is why you dont get invited to parties

    Steve Firth

    March 5, 2009 at 4:16 pm

  10. Hello!
    I don’t think it is just life scientists who are holding back from twitter. There are few academic researchers of any discipline on twitter. This may reflect ‘busyness’ but os more likely to reflect the culture around research and peer-review that you describe above.
    140 characters is not enough to conduct a conversation on any topic. But it is a useful way of drawing attention to other places where more meaningful dialogue can occur, such as blogs.
    But researchers are not going to start using social media to discuss their work whilst institutions, journals and funders are antithetical to the concept.

    Anne Marie Cunningham

    March 5, 2009 at 5:08 pm

  11. As a scientist, I just have to tell you that you are whole heartedly wrong: just to look at the top users, Nasa has a great communication thanks to Twitter; scientists studying the Internet have a unique insight in how Web services are being conceived thanks to the service. If you care for science, just follow scientific users: it’s more then a fulltime job to do so. Young scientists took opportunity of blogs like no other technology, and I can’t count how many great research questions I’ve seen so far around micro-blogging. If anything, active e-mailers are keen twitterers too.

    Bertil

    March 9, 2009 at 2:55 am

    • I sincerely hope to be wrong, in this case. But just take a look at the comments, and it isn’t hard to see that most agree with the fact that Twitter penetration among scientists is very low. A scan of services that index Twitter such as Twitscoop and so on will also show the same. People disagree about the reasons why this might be, but not the observation.

      As web technologies go, I will be very happy to note perhaps next year that indeed mainstream scientists have adopted Twitter and use its potential. I was already happy to note that simply posting this has increased the number of scientist follows on my Twitter account.

      Nash

      March 9, 2009 at 4:48 am

  12. Maybe friendfeed links are a gateway tool?
    Having to sign up to use can discourage some – if twitter and FF can be shown to be uaeul they’ll percolate into society (eg in a not so great example – entertaieny sites/ papers using celebrity twitters. For an editor they’re short messages and could easily be incorporated into a more informal section of a website for more broad science areas.

    Tom

    March 9, 2009 at 5:08 am

  13. But just how many social networking sites does a person need? I keep an eye on Facebook and LinkedIn occasionally, but I stopped using Myspace, and I can’t be bothered with Plaxo or Nature Networks. Academia.edu keeps freezing on me. I have Facebook for my Blackberry come to that and LinkedIn works on it pretty well too. So why have more? I’m not going to log into over a half a dozen sites a day just to check if perhaps someone somewhere has done something interesting. Ultimately you can have too much (or too many) of a good thing. Which is I why I, personally, don’t need Twitter as well.

    Oliver de Peyer

    March 13, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    • Regarding all the other social networks , I agree with you. One doesn’t want to be on too many of them. But Twitter is something different, it is not a social network. It doesn’t function so much for the purpose of connecting people , but rather as a sort of “hive mind”. Connections on Twitter are simply a means to an end.

      Nash

      March 13, 2009 at 9:21 pm

  14. Perhaps Blackberries and other smartphones spoil us. An email is as easy as a txt message – but can potentially be much longer and contain other media.

    Oliver de Peyer

    March 13, 2009 at 9:50 pm

  15. It’s such a stereotype to think of scientists as lonely individualists hunched over their Bunsen burners into the wee small hours and never seeing another soul until the experiment is complete. Have you never been to a scientific conference?

    David Bradley

    March 20, 2009 at 1:42 pm

  16. I think the best thing to happen to twitter is the potential onslaught of scientists that will eventually be utilizing this social media resource. We are going to tweet about all of our Popular Products on Twitter, including our New Molecules, General API Products, Compounding Products & TEVA API Products!

    Steve Sicherman

    November 4, 2009 at 2:31 am

  17. [...] are pointing to the way scientific communication will be carried out in future, or, as argued in this post, an unrepresentative group of techies, open science proponents and bloggers who will always be [...]

  18. [...] Apps for Scientists Posted on October 21, 2010 by Linda Perhaps because Twitter has not been especially popular with scientists, it is difficult to find apps which are specifically advertised for use by scientists. However if [...]


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