Social Media – The Scientists’ Perspective

Social Media – The Scientists’ Perspective

We have written a lot about how medical affairs professionals, as well as life science marketing and sales professionals can use Twitter data for professional purposes (for a full list of articles please see Further Reading below) to identify digital influencers, external experts and prospects. But this is just one side of the story. There is another perspective, that of the experts who are active on Twitter: the perspective of the digital influencers themselves.

To find out what motivates scientific experts to open a Twitter account and start tweeting, whom they are trying to reach and how social media has shaped their professional lives we spoke to two experts.

Ken Buetow a professor in the School of Life Sciences and the Center for Evolution and Medicine at Arizona State University.. He served as a Founding Director of the Center for Biomedical Informatics and Information Technology within the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute. He has authored more than 200 publications and just recently set up a Twitter account.

Melissa Wilson is recently tenured Associate Professor in the School of Life Sciences, the Center for Evolution and Medicine, and the Center for Mechanisms of Evolution in The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University. She is an evolutionary and computational biologist whose main research interests include sex-biased biology. She has been active on Twitter since 2009 and has more than 10,000 followers (@sexchrlab).

The two experts are colleagues at Arizona State where they work together and co-author scientific publications (1).

What motivated Twitter adoption

Melissa started tweeting in 2009 during the Biology of Genomes Cold Spring Harbor Conference. A graduate student then, she learned that she could tweet questions and get answers and insights in real time from people that probably wouldn’t pay her any attention otherwise. She continued to engage on the platform and steadily increased her Twitter footprint.

Ken, on the other hand, is new to Twitter. He set up his account recently and is using it almost exclusively to listen rather than to share. The reason for his slow adoption lies in his prior work for the federal government where, in the early days, employees were prohibited from using social media. Even when things opened up, social media posts had to go through the lengthy standard government review processes that made real-time conversations impossible.

Another aspect contributed to his late adoption of Twitter: he didn’t need it. As a prominent researcher he had enough established channels of communication available to him and not being on Twitter didn’t feel like a deficiency.

He has become an avid Twitter user now because of the real-time flow of information. Twitter has become his preferred one-stop-information-shop: he can follow key scientific thought-leaders and journals but also seamlessly integrate his scientific career with other topics of interest to him. If the information on Twitter is not substantial enough, he digs deeper by reading the relevant paper or magazine article.

To engage or not to engage

On the listening to active engagement spectrum Ken is on the extreme end of “listening only”. He is what’s known as a “lurker” (Google Dictionary definition: “a person who lurks, in particular a user of an Internet message board or chat room who does not participate”). Listening addresses his need for real-time information without the investment of time and effort that is required to create an active presence. Given his position and career he doesn’t have to actively promote his opinion on Twitter and doubts that the ROI of active engagement is worth it.

Another consideration is that active engagement comes with risks. Twitter is a potentially dangerous place if users don’t engage with followers who react to their tweets. One can get into serious trouble from a casual tweet one posts without properly considering the wide distribution and heterogeneity of the audience.

Melissa is located at the other end of the spectrum: the opportunity to engage in meaningful exchange with followers is the most important aspect of Twitter for her. This is how her career as digital influencer started – by asking questions and receiving valuable information from the “Twitterverse”.

On social media platforms loud and divisive voices tend to pick up followers quickly. Melissa consciously choose the opposite approach: she consistently puts out information focused on her field of specialty. In addition, she values and actively seeks out opportunities to mentor young researchers and seek mentorship herself. Her experience shows that being active on Twitter makes people reach out to her because she appears accessible and approachable.

It is difficult for people to find mentors in a specific specialty. On Twitter you can connect with people all over the world and provide feedback that they might otherwise not get at their institution or even in their country.

Melissa Wilson, associate professor at Arizona State University

Asked whether she considers herself a digital influencer she wonders how much influence she really has and mentions others who started tweeting around the same time she did and have many more followers. A quick look in Monocl Professional however shows that with her 10.2K followers she is among only 891 scientific and medical experts out of over 4.3 million in the database who have more than 10,000 followers.

Translating Twitter engagement into real-life collaborations

Science is a team sport, collaborative work across groups, institutions and countries is the norm. We were wondering whether Twitter engagement has actually led to real-life collaborative research for either of our interviewees.

Most of the virtual relationships stay online but in Melissa’s case some have turned into real-life collaborations. Tweets let to emails and eventually to joint work. While Ken himself hasn’t merged the online and offline world, he knows of several colleagues and team members whose online engagement resulted collaborations.

The peer-review issue

For a senior researcher with over 200 publications to his name the peer-review process has played a major role in Ken’s career and success as scientist. Does the lack of even a semblance of peer-review on Twitter bother him? “Not at all” is his spontaneous answer. He views Twitter exchanges as conversations much like the ones you would have in the hallway or a break-out session during a meeting. These conversations are not peer-reviewed either but can still result in valuable insights. The virtual and asynchronous nature of Twitter exchanges is empowering in his opinion, because people from all over the world can participate for free.

Here he picks up on the experience that got Melissa started tweeting: Twitter is non-hierarchical, you can tweet anybody and actually get an answer. The barriers to entry are virtually removed. Asked whether he recommends younger team members engage on Twitter he again doesn’t hesitate “Very much so, Twitter is a powerful and valuable crowd-sourcing tool to get opinions on topics and answers to questions.”

In conclusion

Ken Buetow and Melissa Wilson present an interesting case study for Twitter use by scientists: same area of study, different generations and completely different use of the medium befitting their career stage. Melissa came of age as a scientist with Twitter and actively using the platform is part of who she is and how she communicates as a scientist. She shares knowledge, learns from others and puts herself out there as a resource for young scientists looking for help and mentorship. Hers is a quiet but consistent voice providing objective scientific information about her field of study, sex-based biology, which can elicit strong reactions from a wide audience if not presented with extreme care.

Ken Buetow came to Twitter later in his career partially because the restrictions his job placed on him and partially because he had no compelling need to adopt yet another channel to disseminate his research with the established ones easily available to him. Now he has become an avid listener who gets a lot of scientific and other news from Twitter. Because he is not posting on Twitter, he won’t show up on anybody’s radar screen as a digital influencer, yet he is part of the scientific Twitterverse and information, insights and opinions he finds there shape his scientific voice that gets heard through more traditional channels.

Twitter as a platform for scientific exchange is here to stay. Different people use if differently but there is no denying that scientific discussions online as well as off-line get shaped by what a growing number of scientists tweet or read on Twitter.

  1. Wilson MA, Buetow KH. Novel Mechanisms of Cancer Emerge When Accounting for Sex as a Biological Variable. Cancer Res. 2020;80(1):27-29. doi:10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-19-2634
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