How do scientists use social media?

How do scientists use social media?

Choosing the right social network to communicate our scientific work is not easy: there are many options, from generic services like Twitter or Linkedin, to specialized in the academia like Research Gate or Mendeley, and each of them has specific functions and publics. This article explores the main characteristics of each social network and discusses data from two surveys regarding the actual uses of social media by researchers. The first survey, with over 3500 responses, was published by Nature in August 2014 and provides information about global trends. The second survey was conducted among the 68 participants of the workshop « Comment communiquer sa recherche » organised at ULB in September 2014.

Publishing content related to our research work on the Internet is not a widespread practice, but: among the ULB respondents only 10% publish weekly and 35% occasionaly. Only 12% had a blog. The most common content that ULB scientists shared online was scientific articles, followed by photos and reflections on current events

Figure 1: Types of content shared online by ULB researchers participating in the workshop (N=68)

Survey ULB 1

The main reasons to use social media among ULB researchers are also similar to the responses of the Nature survey: more than half of the respondents had a profile to help others contact them, and used the networks to find other peers. But each service is not used for the same purposes, as detailed below.

Generic social networks

Linkedin: A network for professionals of all fields, it was the one most regularly used by researchers at the workshop. It is specially useful to find the CV of a colleague, job offers and discussion groups, even if there are not many very active focusing on science.

Twitter: The favorite network for debates about current events and sharing links to new publications. Most researchers use it for personal purposes, rather than professional, but still 34% at ULB would use it to communicate about science. Besides discussing with other researchers, this is the most evident space to reach out to the general public.

Facebook: In the Nature survey almost all respondents using the biggest social network say they do not post professional content. However, among the ULB respondents 40% used it to share scientific content.

Google+: This was the least known and least used for professional purposes of all generic social networks.

Specialized social networks

Google Scholar: This service is not presented as a social network, but is actually the most used tool to find other colleagues and publications and keep track of references to our own research.

Research Gate: The second best known in both surveys (53% use it at ULB), probably because of their very aggressive marketing strategy (they send emails to colleagues in your name after you register), but mostly used to be there and find other colleagues and their publications, even if it has discussion groups. With 11 millions users it is the biggest network of researchers and publications, but in both surveys it was less known than Research Gate. A good space to publish papers.

Mendeley: Initially designed to manage your bibliography, it has become more and more a social network, but it is only used by 20% of the ULB survey respondents.

To decide what are the best spaces to be present as a researcher, the key is thinking to whom you want to communicate (you won’t find the general public in the specialized networks) and what do you want do communicate: if you want to engage in debates, both scientific and public, Twitter could be the place to be, specially if you combine it with a blog. Specialized networks have hardly managed to move beyond the « I am here » phase so far.