Today, I sat in an all-day orientation program for new faculty at my university. I kept waiting for campus administrators to mention social media or other university-supported avenues for us to communicate our research more broadly than traditional academic mediums. But that discussion never came. I thought the orientation was a missed opportunity to talk to us about how important it is for academic scientists to communicate their science broadly.
"So you would tell me I should be blogging, right?" one new faculty member in geosciences asked me today. I gave her an emphatic nod! But academics are tack sharp, and they won't often just take your word for it. This new faculty member immediately started to ask me questions that don't have easy answers. What is the value of putting the information I have out there, anyway? How do I know my knowledge is the ‘right’ knowledge? What if people misinterpret it? How do I know I'm not just adding to the noise?
What I didn’t have the instantaneous wisdom to tell this new faculty member was this: Just the fact that she asks these questions is what would make her contributions to the social media universe so incredibly valuable. Most of the people creating misinformation about science online aren’t stopping to question their own knowledge. Most of the people creating misinformation about science online don’t admit that the more they learn, the more they realize they don’t know. Most people creating misinformation about science online aren’t stopping to consider how people might misinterpret their claims. Most people creating misinformation about science online aren’t pausing to consider whether they are adding value with their content or just creating noise. If you are a scientist asking yourself serious questions about the true value of your knowledge to the world around you, you are the type of person we need talking about science online.
Just as scientific knowledge is built incrementally over time through peer-reviewed publications, so even our small contributions to the science media ecosystem may make a difference. As a scientist, when you put your scientific knowledge out there via social media, you aren’t just increasing the likelihood that your academic work will be cited by other academics (more on that here), or attracting talented graduate students who want to work with you. You are incrementally enhancing public engagement with science, especially if you engage with non-scientists users of social media.
Because social networking sites such as Facebook clearly provide good opportunities for individuals to be exposed to information they would otherwise not encounter or look for, online science communication researchers should make investigating these settings a priority. – Dominique Brossard
Public trust in media is pretty dang low these days. But guess what? Americans “overwhelming trust scientists,” and that trend in consistent across a number of recent national surveys. And I’ve written before about how readers are actually skeptical of assertive or powerful language in popular science media reports and more receptive to media reports that acknowledge uncertainty. So uncertainty is not a reason to shy away from communicating science or your research broadly.
Not every scientist could or should blog. There are many different considerations for what type of social media to engage in as a scientist communicating one’s work, such as time available, goals and desired audience. (For great tips on how to select a social media platform for your research communication work, see Matt Shipman’s new Handbook for Science PIOs. He is also a blogger for SciLogs.com). But I am adamant that all scientists should in some way contribute their knowledge and expertise to the science media landscape, especially online. More and more people are getting most of their information and news about science online, and in informal and new media contexts.
So whether you tweet about your science, Facebook about your research, contribute guest posts to another science blog or a site such as The Conversation, create videos of your science lab or field work, or even just comment and add your knowledge to other sites and media articles, your contributions are far from being “noise.” And you might just enjoy it.