How Social Media Is Changing the Way We Talk About Science

Five Questions With UCSF Neuroscientist Bradley Voytek

Brad Voytek, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, makes use of big data, mapping, and mathematics to discover how brain regions work together and give rise to cognition. In his work as a researcher, science teacher, and outreach advocate, he regularly uses social media such as his blog Oscillatory ThoughtsTwitter, and Quora. In 2006, he split the Time magazine Person of the Year award.

Bradley Voytek

Brad Voytek, PhD

Q: You’re interested in leveraging data to modernize science. Do you see a role for social media in changing research? 

Social media already is changing research. In many ways! First, there’s a direct effect wherein scientists are beginning to use data collected by social media organizations to analyze behavioral patterns, such as a study from 2011 that looked at millions of tweets to analyze fluctuations in mood.

The way we conduct and communicate research is also changing. Since the 1600s, scientists have communicated findings through peer review. But these results are static, and conversations regarding specific study details, methods, etc. were private. Now, scientific publishing organizations like Nature Network or SciVerse and professional sites such as Mendeley and ResearchGate are providing platforms for open communication and ongoing conversations about research projects.

Q: You’re using social media to promote your work. What motivates you to do that, and what do you see as the benefit?

While in a sense the first statement is correct, “promotion” is a loaded term. Science is an opaque process, and scientific publications are jargon-laden, dense documents that are inaccessible to all but the field-specific experts. These publications give an idealized view of the scientific process–from clear hypothesis to statistically significant result. The reality is a world messier and less certain than that, and I use my blog to communicate that.

Having students just jump in and read these artificially-refined and specialized manuscripts and Social media quote_Bradley Voytekexpecting them to learn from it is like trying to teach English by having someone read Shakespeare: it’s technically correct but the end result will be a mess.

I get a sense that many of my blog’s readers are undergraduate and graduate students, and I aim to communicate the real difficulties and uncertainties of science with them. I remember being there feeling confused, and feeling really dumb because I didn’t “get” scientific papers and could never imagine myself coming up with a novel idea, running an experiment to test it, and writing a paper. I remember looking at the CVs of really smart post-docs and professors and seeing page after page of amazing compliments and thinking I was inadequate.

My goal is to demystify the scientific process, to make it more real, to show how hard everything is, but also that it’s doable. I’ve got a whole section of my CV titled “Rejections & Failures” outlining every grant or award I was not given, every paper not published. I believe that listing those failures shows fledgling scientists that the process is hard, but not because it requires super-intelligence, but rather super-diligence.

Q: You recently made an offer on Twitter inviting people to ask you questions about neuroscience. Can you tell us about that?

This exemplifies another reason I blog, use Twitter, etc. When teaching, I took to heart the idea that if you can’t explain something clearly, then you truly have not internalized it and don’t really understand it.

Social media is a way for me to continue sharpening my understanding of difficult concepts. The time investment isn’t important to me–my job is to learn and discover, and this is another aspect of that. And if in the process I make something more clear and accessible to a possible future scientist, all the better. No scientist achieved their breakthroughs because they communicated less.

As for the offer on Twitter, I got quite a number of excellent questions, but a few stood out that really made me think. Specifically, there were three that are directly relevant to my research and that got me digging around the literature some more to figure out the answer. The questions essentially boiled down to two ideas: First, how plastic is a mature brain? And second, how many neurons can you lose before you (or someone else) notices?

Ultimately I wrote a blog post on what I’d found and rolled some of that writing and those ideas into peer-reviewed papers I’m still working on. This kind of challenge, discussion, and ideation exchange is extremely valuable for me, and it’s part of the reason that I make offers such as the one on Twitter or use Q&A sites such as Quora.

Quora is a particularly interesting example. It’s a site populated by very intelligent people, but given the kinds of neuroscience-related questions that appear there, it’s clear that there are still some pervasive misconceptions about how the brain works. On a site such as that, the feedback and discussions seem to flow a bit more easily than they do on my own personal blog, but they’re not limited in scope as on Twitter. It’s a nicer platform for the level of discussion I’m seeking.

It also doesn’t hurt my motivation when I get comments from people such as, “I’m a grown man with a family and a career and [Brad] made me want to become a neuroscientist!” or “I accidentally started liking science stuff thanks to you!”

Q: Lots of scientists are not using social media. When asked why, many say they don’t think people will care about their scientific work. What do you think about that perspective?

People who say such things underestimate the interest level and intelligence of the non-scientist public. When I hear this, in my head it translates to either, “I don’t care about what I’m doing,” or, “I’m not confident enough in what I’m doing to explain it to anyone who may ask really simple questions that undermine what I do.” The former is fine; not everyone needs to “love” their job or work to be excellent at it. The latter is emblematic of unclear thinking.

Q: What tips can you give researchers who are thinking about using social media but don’t know where to start?

Generally the tips I’ve seen from a lot of bloggers are “write consistently” and “be engaging”, but that’s like saying to be a good scientist you need to “work harder and be smarter”: technically true but not very useful. I wish I had some magic formula for how to be successful at using social media for science, but I don’t have such a thing.

Broadly speaking, knowing how to communicate complex ideas effectively is critical, but just as important is knowing how to network, how to spread your ideas, and how to write something other people want to read. You’ve got maybe a few seconds to capture peoples’ attention online, and getting them to read a 1000-2000 word article is hard. Time and attention are premium commodities in people’s lives, and what you’re asking them to do is sacrifice that commodity to you. You have to keep that in mind. When you write, don’t think “this will only be read by a half dozen of my friends who read my blog.” Instead, think, “this might get picked up and read by tens of thousands of people. Is this worth the time of thousands of people?”

I find social media helpful to clarify my thinking, but other people may have other methods of accomplishing the same result. The only remaining advice I have is to seriously consider the reasons for not using social media: are you not blogging/tweeting/whatever because you honestly think it’s a waste of time and can see no return-on-investment for you? Or, are you not doing it because simplifying your ideas is too challenging?

This Q&A is part of “Digital Media & Science: A Perspectives Series from CTSI at UCSF” and was originally published on the UCSF CTSI website. This series explores how digital media and communications can be used to advance science and support academia.

Related posts by Bradley Voytek

Brad is also interested in leveraging data to modernize research. He’s one of the creators of brainSCANr, an online resource that uses existing publication data to show the probability of relationships between neuroscience topics and ultimately support the discovery of novel research ideas. He is also a fan of zombies, and has devoted some of his time to mapping brain damage that would be caused by zombification.


Describing the Difference Research Has Made to the World

Here is an interesting new blog post by Heather Piwowar about the different ways research can impact the world and the importance of telling them apart. Good food for thought as we think about ways to help researchers analyze how people are reading, bookmarking, sharing, discussing, and citing research online.

I think Anirvan made a great point to think about ways how we can integrate “altmetrics” data with UCSF Profiles. Some of the metrics mentioned below may be a great starting point.

Here’s what Heather writes:

Figuring out the flavors of science impact. CC-BY-NC by maniacyak on flickr

We have clustered all PLoS ONE papers published before 2010 using five metrics that are fairly distinct from one another: HTML article page views, number of Mendeley reader bookmarks, Faculty of 1000 score, Web of Science citation counts as of 2011, and a combo count of twitter, Facebook, delicious, and blog discussion.

We normalized the metrics to account for differences due to publication date and service popularity, transformed them, and standardized to a common scale. We tried lots of cluster possibilities; it seems that five clusters fit this particular sample the best.

Here is a taste of the clusters we found.  Bright blue in the figure below means that the metric has high values in that cluster, dark grey means the metric doesn’t have much activity.  For example, papers in “flavour E” in the first column have fairly low scores on all five metrics, whereas papers in “flavour C” on the far right have a lot of HTML page views and Sharing (blog posts, tweeting, facebook clicking, etc) activity. View image and read on

Further reading:

“From Twitter To Tenure”: MD Shares How Twitter Can Be A Valuable Tool For Academics

Credit: Jason Archer, http://www.academictechnology.org

There is still considerable resistance to embracing social media tools for academic purposes, but if you are reading this blog post on FutureDocs by Vineet Arora, MD,  you are probably willing to consider their positive effects. And the list of academic tweeters is growing.

Vineet shares the various ways social media has impacted her academic career including finding grant opportunities, disseminating research results, and being found as an expert for media interviews and lectures. Here is her list:

  • Media interviews – I was interviewed by Dr Pauline Chen through the New York Times who located me through – you guessed it Twitter!  She actually approached me for the interview by direct messaging me through Twitter.  She was following me and noticed my interests in handoffs on my Google profile which is linked to my Twitter account.  She was also very encouraging when I started the blog which was exciting!
  • Workshop presentations– I presented a workshop on social media in medical education (#SMIME as we like to call it), at 2 major medical meetings with 3 others (including @MotherInMed who encouraged me to start a blog and also is my copresenter at SGIM).  The idea was borne on Twitter…and the first time I actually met one of the workshop presenters (who I knew on Twitter) was at the workshop.
  • Acquired new skills  – My workshop co-presenter who I only knew through Twitter ended up being Carrie Saarinen, an instructional technologist (a very cool job and every school needs one!).  She is an amazing resource and taught me how to do a wiki.  After my period of ‘lurking’, I started my own ‘course’ wiki  dedicated to helping students do research and scholarly work which we are launching in a week.
  • Lecture invitations – Several of my lecture invitations come through social media.  Most notably, I was invited to speak for an AMSA webinar on handoffs and also speak to the Committee of Interns and Residents on teaching trainees about cost conscious medicine.  Both invitations started with a reference to finding me through Twitter or the blog.
  • Committee invitations – I am now on the SGIM communications task force as a result of my interest in social media.  Our most recent effort was a piece about‘tweeting the meeting’ with @medrants and an older piece focused on the top Twitter Myths and Tips.
  • Grant opportunities – I recently submitted a grant with an organization that I learned of on Twitter – Initially, I had contacted Neel Shah from Costs of Careasking him if they had a curriculum on healthcare costs.  They did not, but were interested in writing a grant to develop a curriculum so they brought my team on board and we submitted together (fingers crossed).
  • Dissemination – One of the defining features of scholarship (the currency of promotion in academic medical centers) is that it has to be shared.   Well, social media is one of the most powerful ways to share information.   In a recent example, we entered a social media contest media video contest on the media sharing site Slideshare.  Using social media, we were able to obtain the most number of ‘shares’ on Facebook on Twitter which led to the most number of views and ultimately won ‘Best Professional Video.’  To date, this video, has received over 13,000 views, which I was able to highlight as a form of ‘dissemination’ in a recent meeting with our Chairman about medical education scholarship.    While digital scholarship is still under investigation with vocal critics and enthusiasticproponents debating the value of digital scholarship in academia, digital scholarship does appear to have a place for spreading nontraditional media that cannot be shared via peer review.

Further reading:

Why Do Americans Use Social Media?

These days, “66%, two-thirds of online adults, use social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace or LinkedIn,” states the latest  PEW Research report.  And while we are thinking about how we can leverage social media at academic institutions to support research, for example to foster internal communication and knowledge sharing, the report adds numbers to some of the known reasons that motivate people to use social media.

(The 66%) say that connections with family members and friends (both new and old) are a primary consideration in their adoption of social media tools. Roughly two thirds of social media users say that staying in touch with current friends and family members is a major reason they use these sites, while half say that connecting with old friends they’ve lost touch with is a major reason behind their use of these technologies.

Other factors play a much smaller role: 14% of users say that connecting around a shared hobby or interest is a major reason they use social media and 9% say that making new friends is equally important. Reading comments by public figures and finding potential romantic partners are cited as major factors by just 5% and 3% of social media users, respectively.

See the full report for more details, including differences among age and ethnic groups when it comes to what they value most in social media.