My colleagues and I recently argued that scientists-in-training would benefit from developing an individual science communication strategy. We’re not the first to suggest this, and we recommend reading Practical science communication strategies for graduate students (Kuehne & colleagues, 2014) and Considerations for effective science communication (Cooke & colleagues, 2017) to help early-career and in-training scientists start to
create such a strategy. But I’m feeling like it needs to be said again: scientists would benefit from developing an individual science communication strategy.
I’m a little troubled by workshops and resources that teach scientists how to do #scicomm (that is, web 2.0, social media heavy science communication) without any consideration or even a brief mention as to whether this is a fitting strategy. By jumping immediately to how to build a personal brand, choose a hashtag, and decide how often to post on 7 different social media platforms, the assumption is made that developing your own social media brand is the best strategy.
Building a lively and energized following on multiple platforms is an effective strategy for many scientists, and it may also be a valuable strategy for you. But, have you given enough attention to other possible modes of science communication that may be a better fit with your goals, available energy, and personal strengths?
I do understand the appeal of diving head first in to #SciComm – it’s instantly gratifying and there’s a low barrier to entry. In 30 seconds you have a twitter account set up. In 5 minutes you’ve described your favourite algae (everyone has one!) on instagram. But the amount of time and effort it takes to build and maintain a presence on social media is significant. So, it begs the question:
Will you achieve your science communication goals by using social media?
Consider a few priming questions:
- What kind of audience do you want to reach? Why?
- What kind of interaction do you want to have?
- What do you actually want to share?
- What’s your timeline for getting the word out about your work?
- What are your strengths as a communicator? What do you need to work on?
- What kinds of communication do you find most engaging?
You can probably already think of some cases where another approach to sharing your work and engaging in dialogue may be more appropriate. Let’s look at some generic examples:
If you’re looking to reach a cross-section of the public and a lot of other scientists, and are interested in sharing about your scientific areas of interest on a day-to-day basis, then building a presence on twitter may be right for you.
If you have an exciting paper coming out in a month or two (don’t downplay it, it’s great!), and are hoping to share what you’ve found with a cross-section of the public, then contacting your institution’s P.R. office to collaborate on a well-timed press-release may appropriate.
If you do work that has policy implications and you want to engage in a dialogue with local government, then you may benefit from reaching out to individuals directly.
If you think kids should care about your field of research, you may wish to collaborate on creating a lesson plan like those found on Science Education Resource Centre at Carleton College, or get in touch with local schools and do some outreach directly.
If you occasionally get inspired to write about topics that you think people would enjoy reading, you might like to start a blog. But, keep in mind that personal blogs are a dime a dozen. The occasionally inspired popular science writer can also leverage one of many existing blogs and news sites that accept guest science writers.
So wait, do or don’t use social media for #scicomm?
Do #scicomm on social media. Or don’t. Or, go halfway. Just think it through – and think it through often – your needs may change.
In my short science career, I’ve written a guest blog, tweeted my work, and had a couple of press releases that resulted in a news article and a radio interview. Sharing on twitter was reasonably effective but it’s only one part of my science communication strategy. I don’t have any other social media accounts that I use for communicating my work.
My most recent concerted effort to share research was for our aforementioned science communication research. My co-authors and I knew from the get-go (in 2014) that we wanted to pay considerable attention to how we would share our work. We wanted to (1) engage in dialogue with those already interested in #scicomm and (2) reach folks who are involved in delivering graduate curriculum and designing grad programs.
To reach the #scicomm community, sharing on my personal twitter made sense – the #scicomm community, unsurprisingly, is active on twitter. I had the added benefit of 12 co-authors, so we weren’t limited by my few followers. To further our reach and to engage in more dialogue around our work, I also reached out to the curator of a rocur (rotating curation) twitter account (@iamscicomm) and was able to schedule a week in late March 2017 to tweet to the already lively 9000 followers of that account.
Neither of these avenues is likely to be particularly effective at engaging those responsible for graduate curriculum (chairs, faculty members, provosts, and deans). So, in addition, we reached out via email to those at our home institutions who we thought would benefit from considering our work. We have pitched article ideas to existing higher education blogs, and have booked workshops, panels, discussion groups, and presentations at our home institutions.
I’ll continue to share links to my work on twitter and occasionally tweet about my science, but so far my personal twitter hasn’t been my main strategy for communication. The level of science communication I am engaged in also has not warranted the time and focus necessary to build a strong following. My strategy also takes into account that engaging in any type of science communication is all on my own time, so I focus more on proximal goals (i.e., a paper coming out soon) rather than a longer term goal (and ongoing effort) of slowly and steadily building an awesome social media presence. At the moment there is little added value for adding other social media platforms to my part-time scientist world.
Protect your valuable time. Engage in #scicomm in social media, but do so because you enjoy it and because it helps you fulfill your short-term or longer-term science communication goals.