Scientists on social media: are we preaching to the choir or singing from the rooftops?

I’ve just return from a very pleasant couple of days at ICPIC in Geneva. One of the sessions there was about social medial for healthcare professionals. I’ve had a question on my mind for a while about conference tweeting – it’s good fun and helps me to remember stuff, but is it effective in sharing science outside of tight professional networks? Eli P flagged this fascinating paper, which provides evidence that Twitter can be a useful tool to share science outside of your professional network (‘outreaching’), but you need a certain threshold of followers to do it effectively.

The study is published in a journal I’ve never heard of (FACETS), by authors I know nothing about, and relates to ecology and evolutionary biologists. But I think the findings are highly transferable to other scientific disciplines. It’s quite interesting to read the methods section to understand how the authors defined and identified a list of 110 tweeting academics. They ended up using an existing list created by one Twitter user – I’m not convinced that this was the best way to select a sample – and certainly created a degree of bias – but it’s not an outright crazy approach. The research group then categorised each follower into one of 10 buckets using an algorithm in R. Clearly, this is another area where inaccuracy would be introduced due to misclassification of followers – but their keywords and buckets look reasonable to me, and the team selected a sample of their classifications to review manually. This identified misclassification rates of around 5% to 40% depending on the bucket.

Figure 1: Conceptual summary of ‘inreaching’ and ‘outreaching’ on Twitter.

The profiles were analysed in to determine whether they were ‘inreaching’ or ‘outreaching’ (see Figure 1). The number of followers for the 110 profiles analysed ranged from 85 to 8,776, with 34 women and 76 men. Reassuringly, gender did not influence tweeting activity or the number of followers (after controlling for the number of months active on Twitter). Rather depressingly, scientists were the group with least reach on Twitter. The authors identified an inflection point at around ~1,000 followers, at which the accounts analysed had more non-scientist than scientist followers (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Follower accumulation on Twitter (aka the magic 1k followers!) 


So, it seems that academic scientists (and probably clinicians too) start off preaching to the choir, and end up shouting from the rooftops!


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