Social Media Tips for Scientists

10. October 2012

Catherine de Lange

This post is adapted from one that initially appeared on the Naturejobs blog with the kind permission of the author.

For many scientists, the thought of spending time on social media sites is distinctly unappealing. To some it’s just a question of time: Why add to your already long to-do list? For others it’s more to do with social media itself; they find the idea of sharing thoughts and ideas with the whole world pointless or self-indulgent.

If that sounds like you, it might be time to reconsider your options—social media includes much more than the usual suspects like Facebook and Twitter, and there are even sites dedicated to academics. Indeed, a vast number of scientists are using social media for tremendous gains— whether that be forming new contacts and collaborations, sharing ideas, communicating science, inspiring others or just entertaining them. Why not join them?

Starting out in the world of social media can be daunting, especially when you have a serious professional reputation to uphold. So what are the rules and where do you start? At last month's Naturejobs Career Expo in London, social media guru Nicola Osborne offered her tips on how scientists can get the best out of social media. You can find her tweeting at @suchprettyeyes if you’re already on Twitter. If you’re not, then follow her advice and you soon will be.

Why use social media?

Social media sites are go-to places for expertise and advice, so if you’re not taking part, you’re missing out. You also get much more control over your profile –you can put up what you want, which often isn’t the case for the highly formatted profiles you are used to seeing on academic websites. And social media sites give you direct access to all sorts of people, from networks of peers to potential employers, which opens the door to all manner of new opportunities.

What types of social media should I use?

Blogs are great, says Osborne, not least because they can move with you across different roles. If you’re thinking of setting up a blog, she recommends WordPress as it is straightforward to use and appears nicely on search engines. Twitter is really good for peer support, sharing resources and building up your networks. Video and audio are a bit more demanding, “but really good if you want to do public engagement, especially television, in the future,” says Osborne.  LinkedIn is a good way of sharing your CV and professional networking, as well as Academia.edu which lets you build a profile. Researchgate and Mendeley let you update your research publications.

What type of information should I share?

Share your work, and details of your research to the extent that it is acceptable, but you should certainly check any existing privacy, non-disclosure, or social media agreements that you have with your employer or the journals that publish your research. Do also share quirky or playful content around your work or research: “even the weirdest and wonderfullest of images can be a great way to link through to an interesting piece,” Osborne says.

…but don’t ever post

… commercially sensitive data, personal information that might impact on your professional reputation such as images of drunken parties. And, needless to say, don’t do anything illegal online! Watch out for automatic app updates, for example that Facebook app that shares with everyone the fact that you are reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Likewise, look out for old forgotten online discussions that could come back to haunt you.

How can I reflect my true identity online?

First things first: Google yourself. What comes up? Are your existing online presences findable and effective? When it comes to your online voice, if you aren’t sure where to start, look for role models—people who you think are doing a good job (scroll down for links to some great sites that Osborne recommends). When building your online social media profile, try to decide which tools suit your style, expertise and time availability, says Osborne. For instance, there’s no point in setting up a blog if you simply don’t have the time and motivation to update it. In which case, perhaps Twitter would be a better option. If your work generates incredible images that you’re keen to share, try Flickr, and if you simply want a more solid and static profile, try the academic sites like Mendeley.

What information should I include in my profile?

It might feel like a chore, but make sure you complete your profile carefully, and use it to connect to your other online presences. For instance, if you tweet and blog, include a link to your blog on your Twitter profile, and add a Twitter widget to your blog so visitors can easily find and follow you there.

What user name should I go for?

“I think a sensible name is useful,” says Osborne, and a name that is indicative of the content will work best. For a blog, a quirky name can age really badly, she says, although quirky content in the blog post itself can be good. Always think about who your audience is. Also, make sure you include your real name in your profile, which will help with continuity between all your accounts, and will generally be more transparent.

How can I judge the right tone?

Get a colleague to have a look and give you a second perspective when you start blogging to see if the voice is right, says Osborne. When you start, err towards the formal and loosen up later, but, “if your quirky stuff is in good taste, it should go down fairly well.”

Can I get rid of any discriminating evidence?

Even if you don’t tend to use social media, that doesn’t mean other people won’t be posting content about you, uploading pictures of you to Facebook, for instance, or blogging about a fascinating presentation you gave at a conference. In fact, that’s another reason to start using social networks—by being part of the conversation, you can see what’s being said about you.

If you Google yourself and see things you’d rather not share, there are a number of things you can do. It’s easy enough to un-tag yourself in Facebook pictures, and if you really don’t want the image up there you can always ask the person who posted it to take it down. Likewise, if there is information about you on a website that you don’t like, just get in touch with the administrator and ask them to remove it. If you don’t like what comes up in your Google search results, you can actually use social media to change them. That fan mail you wrote to your favorite fishing magazine that you didn’t know was going to be published online, for instance, will soon be replaced with your blog, Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin profiles, shunting the embarrassing search results further down the list, where people are less likely to see them.

How can I manage my social media activity?

Once you are up and running, there are a number of ways to monitor and manage your presence online, to see how people are interacting with you and responding to your content. Apart from searching for your name in search engines like Google or Bing, you can also search in Twitter to see who’s mentioning you even if they don’t use your official Twitter handle. Who Talking, Icerocket, Social Mention and Topsy let you search across several social media platforms at once. You can also set up alerts to see what people are saying about you using Google alerts, Tweetbeep or IFTTT.

For inspiration, here are some links to sites that Osborne thinks make exceptionally good use of social media to communicate science. Good luck!

• What’s on my blackboard?
• Science in the open
• A Don’s Life
• Mr. Blobby the blobfish on Facebook
• Inside science  (good use of pictures)
• Francis Rowland on Flickr
• Marta Mirazon Lahr on Academia.edu (an informative and well maintained profile)
• Prabhav Kalaghatgi on Figshare (a site which allows people to share research techniques)

Catherine de Lange (naturejobseditor@nature.com) is a science journalist and the web editor of Naturejobs. She tweets at @catdl

Nicola Osborne is social media officer for EDINA, a national academic data centre based at the University of Edinburgh which provides digital resources for staff and students in further and higher education. She tweets at @suchprettyeyes.

The Naturejobs blog is regularly updated with expert science career advice as well as news updates and events that can help you succeed in your next career move. It also runs themed series of blog posts, guest posts and podcasts. If there's something you'd like to see covered, or you’d like to pitch an idea for a blog post please email the Naturejobs web editor, Catherine de Lange, at naturejobseditor@nature.com and follow us on Twitter: @naturejobs

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