Not many scientists have produced manuscripts as a direct result of participating in discussions on social media. Fewer still support their research programs in full by funds obtained in the same way. But, respectively speaking, Emily Darling, Ph.D., and Karthik Ram, Ph.D., attribute these outcomes to their activities on Twitter.
Drs. Darling and Ram, both postdocs, are among a growing group of scientists using social media to move their work forward. Among the many platforms, Twitter stands out for more than its character-limiting format. For reasons not altogether known, it is the social media platform of choice among many scientists who are active online.
Twitter, says Aaron Darling, Ph.D., “is an exceptionally efficient way to communicate about science, whether it’s carefully vetted results or wild ideas.” Dr. Aaron Darling, who is not related to Dr. Emily Darling, is an associate professor at University of Technology Sydney’s ithree institute. He says the social media platform keeps him current on the literature, exposing him “to useful ideas that I would otherwise miss entirely.”
For many, Twitter functions as a virtual table of contents. By following investigators working in their own or related fields, researchers can access a curated compilation of published papers and conference correspondence, which is constantly updated in real-time.
Some researchers use Twitter to quickly source solutions for day-to-day issues, such as tracking down citations or finding a full-text article (#icanhazpdf). Others are using it as a means of networking, expanding their access to colleagues outside of their own departments.
“For me, I just feel so much more connected to colleagues that are interested in the same things I am, even if I haven’t met them,” says Dr. Emily Darling, a coral reef ecologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “The thing about Twitter that’s really neat is you have access to a much larger community.”
Much larger, indeed. According to a study Dr. Darling and her colleagues have submitted to Ideas in Ecology and Evolution (IEE), the average scientist on Twitter has seven times more followers there than departmental peers.
The story behind the Twitter study is one borne of the site itself. The University of Massachusetts Boston’s Jarrett Byrnes, Ph.D., was soliciting a submission for a special section of IEE he edits: “Anyone interested in writing a paper on Twitter and the future of publication in EEB for a special section of IEE?” he asked.
“I thought that was kind of cool, so I did end up direct messaging him,” Dr. Emily Darling says.
Turns out, she wasn’t the only one. And so, over the course of two months, Dr. Emily Darling and her graduate supervisor from Simon Fraser University, Isabelle Côté, Ph.D., worked alongside the University of Miami’s David Shiffman, Ph.D., and Columbia University’s Joshua Drew, Ph.D., virtually—via Twitter, Google Hangouts, and email, among other things. Having never met altogether in person, the researchers put their paper together entirely online.
“It was really a tweet that inspired us to start thinking about how Twitter can influence research and the research workflow,” Dr. Emily Darling says.
“By sending these very small science soundbites, you’re never quite sure where an idea will go,” she adds. “Jarrett Byrnes tweeted this idea about a paper, and a couple of months later we actually have written the paper, which is pretty cool.”
Another IEE editor reports having similar success. Dr. Ram, a quantitative ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, says he often finds peer reviewers online.
“Usually, you tap into the same people you know, but by the time you figure out who they are, they’ve published something [on a given topic] two years ago, so it’s very hard to know who’s working on that now,” he says. By making use of his Twitter feed, “when I am looking to name reviewers I can automatically think of scientists who are really into this topic right now and could probably give a fantastic review,” Dr. Ram adds.
Arguably, Dr. Ram has made the most profitable use of social media a scientist can, at least fiscally speaking—his research is currently funded by a two-year, $200,000 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant he landed through an introduction by way of Twitter. “I’ve been lucky,” he says.
Dr. Ram contacted a researcher he was following but had never met to discuss her work. Over the course of a Skype conversation and subsequent email exchanges, he learned that this researcher’s program officer at the foundation had been interested in expanding the scope of funding to include his line of work—food web ecology. This researcher Dr. Ram reached out to “made the introduction last fall,” he says. “I just got funded last month.”