Social media: changing the science communication landscape

By Natasha Sekhon (PhD, 2020) and Sam Krause (PhD, 2018)

Today's blog post was co-written by Natasha Sekhon in the JSG Department of Geological Sciences and Sam Krause in the Department of Geography and the Environment.

Social media users reached 2.46 billion people globally in 2017. To put that in perspective, 2.46 billion is approximately 6 times the US population (324 million in 2017) and about a third of the global population (7.3 billion)! A recent social report based on close to 80,000 internet users worldwide suggests that over 41% of people use social media to stay informed on current news or events and about 42% use social media to stay in touch with what friends are doing.

In a clear response to an increase of academics using social media, the last 10 years also have seen a plethora of scientific papers, news articles, blogs, and books published covering a myriad of social media topics from “A to Z guide to using social media as an academic” to “The terror of tweeting.” Given that social media plays such an integral part in our life, Sam and I wanted to explore the use of social media in academia.

Nature wrote a news feature in 2014, “Online collaboration,” that looked at why scholars use social media. The study conducted a survey indicating that ResearchGate had the largest regular visitors (1,589). However, it was Twitter, a platform known for its short bursts of only 280 characters, that turned out to be most effective for scholars to contact peers, comment on research, and discovering new collaborations. The news feature is definitely worth a read and can be found here.

This figure displays results from a 2014 Nature survey (Van Noorden, 2014) showing how scholars who "regularly visited" Twitter use the social media platform. Results from the other social media sites (see legend) can be explored via the interactive at
This graph displays results from a 2014 Nature survey (Van Noorden, 2014) showing how scholars who “regularly visited” Twitter use the social media platform. Results from the other social media sites (see legend) can be explored via the interactive here.

Social media also enables scholars to escape the confines of libraries and journals by disseminating research results to a wider audience, and doing it faster. The instantaneous access of research results makes them more accessible to the public and increases the impacts to an interdisciplinary and broader audience. Puustinen and Edwards (2012) found that by tweeting first about their new research, the paper was downloaded over 861 times in 24 hours, long before any other promotion was available. Simultaneously, the immediate ability to read publications provided by social media results in quick critical feedback. No longer are scholars confined to delivering critique and exchanging ideas on published journal article through the medium of journals. Contemporary scholarship is building a rapid rapport where keeping up with the latest research can sometimes be overwhelming. Trial by Twitter, a recent feature published by Nature, delves into this concept of immediate reaction to published research. It is an interesting read in which the author voices thoughts from both sides of the aisle. On one hand, some scholars believe that the critical onslaught of papers is no longer restricted to conferences or private correspondence. Rather the responses are very public and can sometimes feel like an attack. At the same time, the immediate conversations that are started help point out shortcomings from which future research can incorporate and advance, essentially decreasing the shelf life of research results lying untested in the scientific literature.

To get a first-hand idea of social media by a scholar, we have roped in Zack Labe who has kindly agreed to answer questions related to Twitter use in academia. Zack is a PhD candidate studying atmospheric sciences at UC Irvine and a prolific twitter user (10.6K and counting followers).


Q: Hi Zack! Thanks again for taking time out to answer questions. We’re going to start by asking about what made you want to join Twitter?

I had originally downloaded Twitter to keep in touch with friends, follow memes, and vent about school/life/etc. However, after following several scientists, I started to realize the increasing value in sharing information related to my field. Once I started graduate school, I decided to use my Twitter for professional and science communication purposes.

Q: How many hours on average do you think you spend on twitter, daily?

That’s a question I probably shouldn’t answer… It really depends. I probably spend less time on Twitter per day than I originally started out doing. I usually tweet once or twice a day (quality > quantity) and make an effort to answer any constructive questions asked on my posts.

Q: Why do you think using social media is important in academia?

While Twitter provides an avenue for networking and keeping up with the latest literature, most importantly it is a peer support system. For instance, empathizing and discussing the challenges and unexpected issues that arise in grad school (or life in general) with such a diverse audience that is available on Twitter is such a unique and rewarding outlet.

Q: With a constant supply of the newest research results being published, doesn’t Twitter become overwhelming?

I actually find Twitter as one of the most important resources for finding the latest scientific literature. Most of the major scientific journals have active Twitter profiles sharing the latest publications. There are also science “bot” accounts, which provide almost a RSS-style feed of the newest research results. It’s now increasingly common to find scientists “live” tweeting from national conferences, which is useful for keeping up-to-date with the latest in one’s field. Of course, the use of Twitter as a self-promotion and result-sharing tool also plays a role.

Q: How did you manage to get over 10K twitter followers?

I’m still not sure, although honestly, it’s a bit of a wave-effect after a certain point. I try to provide a feed that shares original content related to science education and outreach, particularly in my area of study (Arctic climate variability). I also think it’s extremely important to interact with your followers – answer (and ask) questions, provide and listen to different perspectives, etc.

Q: What would you want to change/improve about using Twitter in academia?

Online harassment is a major issue on Twitter (especially for women and other underrepresented groups in STEAM), and my hope is that more attention and education is drawn to this problem on social media.

Q: Have you seen a direct impact on your research (collaborations, conversations, networking) by using Twitter?

Twitter has indirectly (and maybe surprisingly) provided numerous opportunities to my research that I would not have found otherwise. In addition to sharing my own research, I’ve found new collaborations and friends that have helped provide me insight to my own field of study. I’ve had opportunities to speak with journalists through Twitter about science communication and the dissemination of my work. I’ve also learned about science outreach opportunities, such as giving public talks about my research or volunteering at local schools to discuss Earth science.

Q: What advice would you give to people who are on the fence of joining Twitter?

Twitter is truly a unique resource for scientists. There is an entire online science community that is willing to provide insight, advice, and friendship. It is also a powerful tool for education and learning how to properly and concisely communicate science.

Q: What kind of content do you usually tweet and/or retweet?

I really enjoy creating and sharing science visualizations that break down complex data into straightforward and aesthetically-pleasing forms. This is really useful in sharing climate science data to a broader audience. Simply put… scientists need to practice and improve communications – no jargon!

Q: For those new to Twitter, what are the three most important science related accounts to follow?

You can follow Zack (@ZLabe) and Sam (@Samanthosaurus)