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Social media use is sporadic among researchers

Montreal conference assesses science’s presence on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks.

by Marie Lambert-Chan

Blogging, tweeting and posting photos on Instagram do not come naturally to researchers, who are more comfortable communicating the results of their labours in scientific journals, seminars, conferences and traditional media.

This insight emerged from the presentation “#Science in #Social Media: Love it, or : ) 404 Error?” at the 82nd Conference of the Association francophone pour le savoir (ACFAS) held this year in Montreal. ACFAS is a not-for-profit organization that contributes to the advancement of science in Quebec and other French-speaking areas of Canada.

“While every university has a social media account, very few researchers use them to engage directly with the public,” noted conference participant Pierre Barthélémy, a scientific journalist and author of Passeur de sciences, a blog hosted on the website of renowned French daily newspaper Le Monde.

This standoffish attitude toward Web 2.0 is particularly prevalent within the French-language scientific community, added Pascal Lapointe, a science writer and blogger at Agence Science-Presse. “The English scientific blogosphere has exploded over the past 10 years. There are many excellent blogs, with regular inputs by researchers from every discipline who are skilled at popularizing their topics. Unfortunately, there is no such equivalent in French.”

While the public’s appetite for scientific information is significant, it is rarely sated by traditional media, which dedicates little to no space to scientific matters, said Mr. Barthélémy. He admitted that this public interest came as a surprise. “I created my blog in 2011. One year later, it had over nine million page views!” he exclaimed.

Faced with this demand, researchers should no longer be content to publish their findings in specialized journals inaccessible to the general public, noted Alireza Jalali, professor at the University of Ottawa’s faculty of medicine and a social media enthusiast. “We must reach out to people on their own turf, and that is on social media. We must be present to defend our research and sometimes to set the record straight when false information and half-truths begin to circulate, as we have seen in recent years with the debate on vaccination.”

According to Dr. Jalali, social media also constitutes a marvellous tool for teaching students born in the digital generation. “The days of lecturing are over,” he said. “The same is true for email. I see no point in sending email reminders to students who never check their inboxes. I prefer to create a dedicated Facebook page for my course.”

As tech-savvy as young people might be, however, Dr. Jalali believes they still have a long way to go when it comes to leveraging social media for academic and even professional purposes. “Some of my students don’t realize they can use hashtags for conferences,” Dr. Jalali noted. “They also don’t understand how to establish a professional presence online. As a result, I’ve started teaching a seminar on this subject for first-year medical students.”

To develop a social media culture within universities, Dr. Jalali believes that each faculty or department must have a “champion.” “I don’t mean an individual who will simply promote WhatsApp or Snapchat because it’s trendy. Ideally, this should be a professor who, through practical, concrete examples, will be able to quantify social media’s relevance to teaching and to research. We’re still scientists after all.”

Nevertheless, Dr. Jalali warns that social networks are not for everyone. William Raillant-Clark, international press attaché for the Université de Montréal, agrees. “It all depends on the researcher’s personality, his or her interest in social media, the target audience and most importantly, the desired objective,” he explained. “This is particularly true of social networks because a certain authenticity is required when sharing with other users.” Thus, a pediatric researcher might leverage Twitter to offer practical tips for parents. However, could a nanotechnology expert, wishing to publicize his results once a year, do the same? “This is perhaps not the best tool,” Mr. Raillant-Clark said.

Finally, there is also the issue of the outrageous time commitment required for a sustained social media presence. For maximum reach, one must publish assiduously – and then there is the time required to moderate comments, which may be virulent depending on the topic. Just ask any climatologist: “Some scientists want to respond to every single comment,” noted Mr. Raillant-Clark. “While commendable, this is not the best use of their time. They are researchers; their main task should be to focus on research. Social media must come second.”

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