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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