Expanding the boundaries of your research using social media: Stand-up and be counted

How to cite: M. Jagadesh Kumar, “Expanding the Boundaries of Your Research Using Social Media: Stand-Up and Be Counted”, IETE Technical Review, Vol.31 (4), pp.255-257, July-August  2014.

When Archimedes faced the task of finding if a fraudulent goldsmith mixed silver in the golden crown made for the king, he designed a simple experiment. He immersed the crown in water and measured the volume of water displaced. He then obtained the density of the crown metal as a ratio of mass of the crown and the volume of the water displaced. He proved that if the goldsmith used any metal other than pure gold for making the crown, this ratio would be different. The story goes that overwhelmed by this realization, a completely naked Archimedes ran into the street to announce his scientific discovery shouting ‘Eureka!’  This unconfirmed anecdote tells us how scientists in medieval times could have drawn the attention of the public to their discoveries.

Fortunately, in this digital age, we have other effective means to spread our research – the online presence in social media. Facebook and twitter alone are not the social media. There are other serious options such as blogs and wikis. Unlike the personal website provided to me by my organization, I personally like blogs largely because they not only provide me the freedom to write on various topics but also ‘pop-up’ effectively on search engines [1].

We all know that science is changing very fast. Even educated Indians who are no longer part of the structured learning cycle surely would like to know what the faculty in our higher educational institutions, such as IITs, are doing. Ask a common person about research done at IITs. You will draw a blank. In fact, we ourselves as colleagues of these active scientists, often do not know what exciting work they are doing other than looking at their list of publications through ‘Web of science’ or ‘Scopus’ or some other means. The blame comes squarely on us for our failure to create awareness about our work particularly among the non-scientists. It is time that we made use of social networks to disseminate information about our research. We need to “bridge the gap between the rigor of science and the curiosity of non-scientists” [2].

Many scientists are unenthusiastic to self-promote their work. However, a scientist also needs to be a good communicator and an educator. While faculty in higher educational institutions work on cutting-edge research problems, they are regrettably behind the curve when it comes to their presence on social media. How many faculty from IITs do you see writing on social media? Just a handful. This situation should change. We should effectively use the social media to describe our work to a wider audience, particularly the youngsters. Our online presence can influence not only public perception about our research but also motivate the youngsters who would like to take up scientific research as their career.

We typically spend a couple of years working on a research problem and publish the outcome as a research paper. Disappointingly, only a few specialists can comprehend such a paper. How can non-scientists get access to your research and discern the gist of your work? On the other hand, summarizing your specialized work using a simple narrative and attention-grabbing illustrations has no substitute as a tool for popularizing your research. When you rewrite your research work at a level comprehensible to non-experts, you may perhaps loose some accuracy. Nevertheless, your story will reach a larger number of readers.  If the general-public, whose tax money funds our research, do not know about what we are doing, how do they care about us? Do we not have an obligation to communicate with them to increase their confidence in us? Unfortunately, while scientists are very rigorous in their research, they often seem to be lacking the flair to communicate an interesting narrative about what they do.

Maintaining a blog and writing frequently can spread your group’s research results to a large audience. You may get feedback, even ideas and new collaborators [3]. A usual tendency of scientists is of course to keep away from such social media because either they perceive it to be an unproductive activity or simply they are untrained to communicate with the non-scientific community. Scientists should learn to appreciate how important social media is to the popularization of science. However, convincing them to be on social media is never easy.

How can we improve public appreciation of science that we pursue? Why cannot we write simpler versions of our research and post on social media? What prevents us to learn to be good communicators using the available technology? There are several things that a scientist can do using social media such as a blog. You can not only write general articles on cutting-edge research progress but also express opinions on scientific developments. By doing this, you can be a scientist who cares to communicate with the ordinary people and not live in an ivory tower of self-inflicted isolation.

When a large number of scientists actively participate in providing information on scientific topics that public can read and appreciate, it is bound to encourage journalists from popular media too to pick up your stories for a wider distribution through their columns. Journalists, who are not necessarily science experts, often gather stories from limited sources. If each scientist uses a social platform to explain their work, journalists will have multiple sources, often authentic, since scientists themselves make this information available in a comprehensible language.

Cornelia Dean, a senior writer in the science department of The New York Times once said, “…if we journalists were going to improve the coverage of science, scientists would have to help us. But two problems existed. First, many scientists are not good at talking about their work in ways ordinary people—and journalists—can understand. Second, many scientists do not believe they have any reason, still less obligation, to do so. This belief is by far the more serious problem”[4].

Unlike publishing their work in professional journals locked behind subscription fire walls, when scientists write on social media, “ideas that were previously unarticulated or hidden ……become visible, interlinked, and searchable” for the public [5]. One of the biggest advantages of writing on social media is the “visibility” it provides for drawing the attention of the audiences without the need for running ‘naked’ as Archimedes did. Our presence on social media will also provide ‘meta-knowledge’ about individual scientists and their contributions in an organization. This is bound to change how ordinary individuals appreciate the role of scientists in society and the importance of their work towards the general progress of the country. Writing about our own work may appear to be an overt self-presentation or being selfish, but others will come to know of the the potential of our research work and its influence [6].

In our scientific work, we often use specialized terminology or complex mathematics making it almost difficult to grasp for the general-public. However, all scientific approaches are based on common principles that we experience in our everyday life. Therefore, it should not be hard for a scientist to turn his ‘boring’ exposition into an interesting short story.  Our ability to communicate successfully requires a variety of skills and an aptitude. Nevertheless, one can acquire these attributes with a little effort. Apparently, Albert Einstein has once said: If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

It is foolish to think that public cannot understand our research because they are non-experts. It is like a professor asserting: “I am a great teacher. It is the fault of the students if they do not understand me”. The fact is that we are simply denying the public the information on our research by being lazy about writing it in a plain language. Facing this truth may hurt our ego. However, we need to confront it. We often feel that governments do not recognize our research well enough and fail to fund us sufficiently. Do not expect politicians and government administrators to read our journal papers and appreciate our research. It is up to us to tell an interesting story about our research by frequently writing about it and posting it online.

Assuming there are ~500 faculty in each higher educational institute and if each faculty writes at least two exciting stories about their research each year that will escalate into a repository of thousands of articles. This will ensure diffusion of knowledge about our research among a large cross-section of population. Higher educational institutes should encourage their faculty to take up this task of going public about their research on a massive scale. These institutes should mandatorily provide a page on their websites where public could visit to learn about their faculty’s research. This page should contain links to the blogs maintained by the individual professors.

In a recent experiment using squirrel monkeys, it was demonstrated how “social networks may shape the diffusion of socially learned foraging techniques” [7]. Scientists trained a dominant male in a group about opening an artificial fruit in a particular way. They trained another dominant male in a second group a different way of opening the same artificial fruit. Soon squirrel monkeys rapidly learnt these two techniques preferentially in the groups in which they were initially seeded. The association patterns of monkeys to each group influenced their learning pattern. This experimental outcome is a clear first demonstration of how social networks may shape the diffusion of information through a population [7].

A six-time Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award winner, actor and writer Alan Alda once wrote, “Every scientist reading this has a deep passion for science. I implore you: let your passion out. Share it with us. Warmly, with stories, imagination, even with humor. But most of all, in your own voice“[8].

As a scientist, are you ready to be a dominant monkey in social networks to spread scientific knowledge to the non-scientific general-public? Stand up and be counted.


[1] https://mamidala.wordpress.com

[2] https://www.amacad.org/content/publications/pubContent.aspx?d=1091

[3] H. M. Bik and M. C. Goldstein,  “An introduction to social media for scientists”, PLoS Biology, Vol.11(4), e1001535, 2013.

[4] http://2020science.org/2010/10/16/science-and-the-media-a-collection-of-essays-from-the-american-academy-of-arts-sciences/#ixzz36cRCbANv

[5] L. Efimova and J. Grudin, “Crossing boundaries: Digital literacy in enterprises”, In C. Lankshear and M. Knobel (Eds.), Digital literacies, pp. 203–226, New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2008.

[6] J.W. Treem and P. M. Leonardi, “Social Media Use in Organizations: Exploring the Affordances of Visibility, Editability, Persistence, and Association”, Communication Yearbook, Vol.36, pp.143-189, 2012.

[7] N. Claidière, E.J.E. Messer, W. Hoppitt and A. Whiten, “Diffusion Dynamics of Socially Learned Foraging Techniques in Squirrel Monkeys”, Current Biology, Vol.23, No. 13, pp.1251–1255,  July 2013.

[8] D. Kennedy and G. Overholser, “Science and the Media”, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, MA 02138, 2010.

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3 Responses to Expanding the boundaries of your research using social media: Stand-up and be counted

  1. Arun says:

    I like this artilce.
    I used researchgate.

    • Suhail Ahmad says:

      As you wrote,
      ” These institutes should mandatorily provide a page on their websites where public could visit to learn about their faculty’s research. This page should contain links to the blogs maintained by the individual professors “.
      Provision of a page and an effective persuasion may give encouraging results.
      Can we provide access to our bright students who, in most of the cases, are part of our research.

  2. Uday says:

    Very interesting article and I agree wholeheartedly with the philosophy of talking about research at levels more accessible than a journal/conference paper. A few thoughts follow. I think that there at least two distinct levels at which such blogs should be written; the first, targeting a general lay-audience. This lays out the problem one has worked out in simple terms, along with real-world connections and its context in the scheme of things already worked out.

    The second level needs to be pitched at the general scientific audience, an elaborate but a much more informal version of the introductory section of a journal paper, if you will. Here, one talks about high level connections that were key to the current result(s), some of the mis-steps that were made on the way to the result, future trends in this research area and what others are doing, and finally, the more human story of the authors, and how they came to be interested in the problem.

    I also think that we as scientists don’t talk much about *how* we do science, about all the blind alleys we’ve been through, and often end up giving the wrong impression that science follows the following linear path: problem formulation -> cold logic of science -> publication! We need to talk much more about this, and show science in a much more humane light. In this context, I’d recommend the following TED talk by Uri Alon: http://www.ted.com/talks/uri_alon_why_truly_innovative_science_demands_a_leap_into_the_unknown

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