Saturday, August 6, 2016

Social Media-users or Not, Scientists Must Be Communicators

Yesterday, The Guardian published an essay entitled “I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer.”  The writer, a PhD student, laments the pressure placed on academics to be active users of social media. I feel for this student, but fear for them as well. Today, all scientists need to be—and are—communicators. 

Throughout their careers, academics must convey the “So what?” of their work to a range of audiences, including administrators, funders, journalists, and policy-makers.  

I appreciate that the writer of the Guardian story is not comfortable using social media for professional purposes. It’s true that social media is not everyone’s ideal communication vehicle. What troubles me most about this essay is disdain on the part of the writer for the need to communicate what they do.

The essay concludes with:

But surely the dedication I show in the lab, and the subsequent data I collect, should speak for itself. I do not – and should not – have to parade myself online to please my employer or to stake my claim as a good researcher. Can’t we save the showing off for where it’s really needed, in the dreaded grant applications?

There’s a fair amount of baggage in that paragraph, including some of the “ivory tower” attitude for which academia has been criticized.  Focusing only on the last sentence, “dreaded” is a good adjective for the process of preparing grant applications. But thinking of grant applications as “showing off” misses a key responsibility of all scientists—communicating the relevance of what they do.

Just because an academic cares about their own subject matter, doesn’t mean others automatically will.  To get funding—and even to connect with other academics—scientists need to communicate why what they’re doing matters. I’m an advocate for scientists sharing their expertise as widely as possible, because when scientists communicate directly to audiences, the information comes through with accuracy as well as personality and enthusiasm.

I empathize with this student, who clearly feels pressure from other students and from higher-ups at their institution.  It’s demoralizing to feel out-of-step with one’s peers in a graduate program.  With respect to communication, degree-granting institutions and academic advisors have a responsibility as well—to help their graduate students understand the importance of communicating about their work. This includes crafting clear messages, as well as identifying the best channels through which to deliver them. For some students, this won’t be social media. Thankfully, insightful post-graduate science programs are starting to build communication training into their programs.

While my main message to scientists is to be communicators as well as researchers, I’m going to take a moment to defend Twitter, which was particularly disparaged by the writer of the Guardian essay. I happen to be a big fan of Twitter, especially for scientists; I’ve laid out reasons in previous posts on this blog, on June 29 and July 19, 2016.  I also championed Twitter as a channel to communicate science in a presentation at the recent North American Congress for Conservation Biology in Madison, WI.  

As for live-tweeting at conferences, heads bowed over cell phones during a talk does make it appear as if these people aren’t paying attention (noted as a strike against Twitter by the Guardian essayist). But the tweets show otherwise. I often find that live tweets from a conference share something I missed or frame the information in a way I hadn’t considered.  Personally, I’m not skilled at live-tweeting and I’m impressed by people who produce clear, compelling live tweets. When I try to compose tweets during a presentation, my attention is diverted and I miss short segments of the talk.  But I value seeing what others are tweeting, in particular about sessions that I’m not able to attend.

Despite being a Twitter enthusiast, I'm annoyed by the "my conference is better than your conference"  attitude conveyed by some because the conference has generated more tweets. That's taking it a little far in my view. But I feel that live-tweeting a conference has more pros than cons. So I’m working to hone my live-tweeting style; what seems to work best for me is to take notes by hand or computer, then pull from these a thought to tweet at the end of the talk.  Tweeting is practice in crafting concise messages. Distilling an idea clearly into 140 characters exercises the skills to give a good elevator pitch to almost anyone.

Throughout their careers, scientists have need to communicate their work to many audiences: Administrators at their institutions, potential donors, journalists, policy-makers, citizen scientists, educators, and not infrequently the general public. Whether by tweeting, blogging, or chatting with their grandmothers, scientists need to learn how to communicate beyond their laboratory walls. To #seriousacademic I say, if social media isn’t your thing, that’s okay. But if you feel that being a communicator isn’t necessary for an academic, you probably should reconsider your career path.

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