Cultivating followers on social media when you want to communicate science

How do you explain why social media can be a good thing for researchers to look into? What advantages and what challenges are important to highlight? Next week, I’ll be introducing social media for science communication to the Danish Public Health Sciences Alumni (in Danish). It always helps being quite convinced yourself of what you are talking about, but reading other people’s arguments can also help. Especially, if they are in line with your own experiences.

I was therefore delighted to read a blog post on Nature’s community guest blog, Soapboxscience, by Matt Shipman, a public information officer at North Carolina State University. He writes about using social media (like Twitter and Facebook) and science blogs for taking science to the public.

Building networks takes time

Apart from the simple and convincing argumentation, what I like about the blog post is that Matt Shipman points out the fact that it takes time to build up the necessary network to get the full value of social media. This aspect is not that often acknowledged. My own experience is also that it takes time, and that you need to be patient in the beginning and that it requires some work. Just like you need to be patient when building up networks in real life. As Matt Shipman writes:

“Just because you set up a social media account doesn’t mean that anyone will know about it. You’ll need to take the time to cultivate a following.” 

And how do you do that? Matt Shipman has a few suggestions, which match very well my own experiences.

“You can start by figuring out your desired audience. Who do you want to be following you? Other scientists? Relevant science writers? Potential grad students? […] Once you’ve defined your target audience (or audiences), you can begin reaching out to friends and colleagues who are already online. They can help point people to your Twitter account, Facebook page, etc”

In my experience making searches on e.g. Twitter and looking at who pops up is also a good start for finding out who to follow. And just like looking at the references in a scientific article can give hints on where to find more knowledge, so does it help to look at who key people are following – making chain searchers so to speak.

Getting people to follow you

One thing is finding out who you should follow, getting the relevant people to follow you is also a challenge, and probably a bigger one. Without followers you are missing the whole point of social media. To get full advantage you need to have the relevant people to follow you – and not only that:

“.. if you really want people to pay attention, you need to have something to offer. Content is king, and you need to contribute something to the online conversation. In other words, why should people be listening to you?”

Social media like Facebook and Twitter are good for drawing attention to things, and communicate short messages but not always for more extensive communication:

“Social media platforms can be very limiting. For example, can you define genotype and phenotype in 140 characters or less?

“If you want to use social media to communicate effectively, you need to drive readers somewhere.”

‘Somewhere’ could be an already published article, a new report or an event, but it could also be a blog. Matt Shipman goes on to write about the blog and how it is useful for science communication. I won’t repeat that but encourage potential new science bloggers to read the blog post.

Lots of advice on how to get followers

Searching Google for tips on how to get followers on for example Twitter, lots and lots of websites pops up. For new comers to social media and science, Matt Shipman’s blog post on Nature’s community guest blog, Soapboxscience is a good starting point on why the combination of social media, blogs and science communication is not such a bad idea, but also that it requires some work.

Crowdsourcing examples of how social media can benefit downloads and citations of peer-reviewed articles

How do you persuade good old fashion researchers that social media has something to offer them too? You know, the kind who prefers having their papers published in the Lancet, British Medical Journal and Nature. The ones who like giving key-note speeches at prestigious conferences or at least an oral presentation of an abstract. And who frowns or looks completely lost when you suggest that the get a Twitter profile.

This is a challenge. But a blog post by Melissa Terras from the Department of Information Studies, University College London made me think, that using a medium these traditional oriented researchers respect, as a tool, could be a way forward. Melissa Terras’ blog post describes how starting to do small blog posts of the stories behind the research published in 26 published articles, and tweet them afterwards, increased the number of downloads of the articles substantially. In the blog posts she wrote about all the stuff that doesn’t make it into the published paper, but then of course linking and referring to the papers too and there by drawing attention to them.

It’s really interesting to read her story of how some blogging and tweeting made her articles much more downloaded than her colleagues (which said nothing of the quality of her colleagues work but more of their efforts to spread the word of their research). The blogging/tweeting strategy really seemed to work!

The reason why the experience of Melissa Terras could be a good case story to use in convincing other researchers that social media is not totally irrelevant is:

  1. It doesn’t criticise traditional research communication platforms such as peer-reviewed journals
  2. It shows that traditional media and social media can work together and benefit each other (by being a marketing place but also a place to say all things you couldn’t include in the published paper)
  3. It focuses on how you can spread your research to more people, which must be the aim of any scientist: to have others read, learn from and use your findings!
  4. It uses numbers and graphs – researchers like that!
  5. It uses comparisons and control groups (her colleagues and time)
  6. Its written by a researcher herself

A call for for more examples

One ‘downside’ to the case of Melissa Terras could be that her research field is electronic communication and digital humanities. One can almost assume that many of the people in her field are first-movers when it comes to using social media, and therefore blogging and tweeting is effective because her audience is there waiting at the other end of the line. It would be great to find more examples like the one of Melissa Terras, but from non-communication oriented research. Do you know of some? I would love to make a list which could be used in different academic fields to persuade colleagues that there is something in social media for them too. If nothing else its a way to boost the visibility of their published articles, but hopefully it could also help open their eyes to all the other upsides of social media in science communication.

Please do share your examples!

I’d just like to end off with Melissa Terras’ own conclusion, where she again speaks to the scientist using the scientists own language of: If (x) then (y + z = w) :

“So that would be my conclusion, really. If you want people to find and read your research, build up a digital presence in your discipline, and use it to promote your work when you have something interesting to share. It’s pretty darn obvious, really:

If (social media interaction is often) then (Open access + social media = increased downloads).”

Also deans of Schools of Public Health can blog – and master the discipline very well!

I love when I come across people, who in a public health perspective are high ranking and hold influential positions in public health – and who blogs! It proves that blogging is for all, whether you’re a public health student or the dean of a School of Public Health. This week I came across a great example of the later.

Antoine Flahault is dean of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Santé Publique (EHESP, School of Public Health, which belongs to Sorbonne Paris Cité, a confederal French university), and a regular blogger on his own University blog, which is simply called Antoine Flahault’s blog, and was started already in November 2007 (it is available in both English and French).

The content of the blog seems very much to be a reflection of the different aspects of public health which Antonie encounters both as a Dean of a School of Public Health and as a public health professional himself. He shares his thoughts and opinion on for example (and these are just a few!):

What I like about the blog, is that Antonie Flahault is not afraid to share his opinion. He argues for his points of view and thus indirectly gives a window into where he sees that a school of public health should be heading. He poses questions and invites comments (although this doesn’t seem much used), which hopefully stimulates discussion and reflection among his readers. And then something I appreciate very much: he writes as him. Not only as the dean, but as Antonie Flahault. This gives the blog a personal touch, which makes it engaging to read. There are no pictures, but lots of background links and the blog is very much alive with very regular postings of new blogs. I truely feel I have learnt something new or reflected on a topic after having read his blog posts.

I have come across other blogs run by deans of schools of public health – but not many, and this one is definitely the absolute best I have encountered so far. I just started following Antoine on Twitter and look forward to reading more of his thoughts on public health, which are very inspirering.

Other examples of blogs (not newsletters) by Deans of Schools of Public Health:

Just a little bit of background info on Antoine Flahault:

Antoine Flahault was formerly a public health intern, doctor of medicine, doctor of biomathematics, professor of public health at Université Paris Descartes – public health practitioner at Hôtel Dieu de Paris ; he was former head of the public health department at Tenon hospital, Paris. He headed the Sentinelles research team at Inserm-UPMC (UMR-S 707) and the WHO Collaborating Centre for electronic disease surveillance. He co-ordinated a research programme bringing together disease surveillance, preventive epidemiology and mathematical modelling. In collaboration with WHO, he developed the international ‘flu monitoring system (FluNet). In 2006 he was responsible for setting up an interdisciplinary unit for research into Chikungunya and since 28 November 2007 he has been responsible for a research and monitoring unit into emerging diseases in the Guyana and Caribbean region. He was appointed director of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Santé Publique (EHESP, School of Public Health, which belongs to Sorbonne Paris Cité, a confederal French university) from 1 January 2008. He has been elected as president of the Association of Schools of Public Health in the European Region (ASPHER) in 2010-2011. He has been elected as Correspondant Member at the French Academy of Medicine in December 2009.

Students minding the science gap in public health

I have previously written about the use of blogs by students and researchers at schools of public health (I called them Schools of Public Health 2.0). One example was School of Public Health at the University of British Colombia.

This week, I came across another school of Public Health Sciences that is actively using blogging in communicating with the world, and in giving students communication skills.

For ten weeks between January and April 2012, ten Masters of Public Health students from the University of Michigan (UM), have taken on a blogging challenge. On the website Mind the Science Gap they are posting weekly articles about various public health related news, research studies etc. The aim is for the students to learn how to translate complex science into something a broad audience can understand and appreciate. The objective of this whole blogging exercise is an ambitious one:

“to help ensure that UM School of Public Health graduates are some of the best communicators around when it comes to translating scientific evidence into something that others understand, and can act on.”

As part of the initiative, readers of the blog have been encouraged to write comments, both on the content and the form. So-called mentors from all backgrounds have signed up to comment on a weekly basis (you can still sign up here). With the comments the aim is for the students to improve their communication skills though the ten weeks.

I have read a few of the blog post and also commented and my impression is so far very good. Both because the blog posts are interesting and well written, but also reading the many comments to each of the blogs is great. There are good tips from experienced science bloggers that others than the ten students can learn from. And then I do in general appreciate the ambitious tone of the blog initiative: ensuring that UM School of Public Health graduates are some of the best at translating scientific evidence into something that others understand, and can act on. Imagine if they are succesful in this. Not only will that be an advantage for the work places that will later on recruit these ten students, it could potentially put pressure on other schools of public health to make sure that their students are even better – and are they succesful in that imagine all the benefit that could be achieved to public health! Okay, maybe this is a little naive – but one can always hope…

A blogging school

In addition to Mind the Science Gap, the MU School of Public Health also has a student blog where students blog about life as students of Public Health, and a long list of blogs from several SPH faculty, alums, and student groups. For example: Rackham Graduate School blogs, run by two Ph.D. students, a Risk Science Center blog, a Public Health Library blog, a UM SPH Epidemiology Student Organization blog, the blog 2020 Science about emerging science and technology and many more (see the complete list here).

Communicating the doubtfulness of Public Health Sciences

Asbestos causes lung cancer. Smoking is responsible to the majority of lung cancers. A specific genotype increases your risk of breast cancer, and measles is a virus that if not prevented can cause brain damage or in sever cases death.

All the above statements are scientifically supported facts, identified through public health research. Unfortunately, the world of Public Health Sciences is not all facts. Lots of possible connections, probably associations and complex causal structures determine our wellbeing, health and life span. Read any peer-reviewed health journal and many of the articles will have titles such as ‘indication of…’, ‘probable…’, ‘likely association…’ and the conclusions will be full of reservations and expression of the need for further research. In many ways it illustrates the premises of science: that answering one questions gives rise to a whole bunch of new ones.

The complexity and uncertainty in much health research is one of the reasons that headlines on news papers may change between “Chocolate can kill you”, “Or this is how chocolates saves your life”. In addition, public health is not ‘owned’ only by scientific researchers. Public health is exactly public health and the public may contribute to the picture with their own experiences, such as “Soya milk cured my child from chronic ear infections” or “My child became autistic shortly after it had its first measles immunization.” All of which may contribute to confusion on what is true and what is false.

Research studies are only very rarely 100% conclusive and it is therefore practically impossible for researchers to make clear-cut statements about health risks of various exposures. And this can be used to the advantage of industries or people for whom doubt is enough to sell a product or an idea. This is very well illustrated in this small video called “Doubt” made by The Climate Reality Project. The video shows how scientists inability to draw unambiguous conclusions can be turned to the advantage of for example tobacco companies and climate change sceptics. Add to that a lot of propaganda and the scientific community are up against a tremendous challenge, illustrated by this short quote from the film:

If doctors smoke – are the scientists wrong?

They [the tobacco companies] realised that the science doesn’t need to be disproven – it was enough to create doubt in the minds of the public to keep them from recognising the truth”.

The video, which takes the case of smoking as an example of how disagreement among scientists or their inability to make non-debatable conclusions (at least in the early stages of research), illustrates that public scepticism towards and doubt in what scientists argue has existed and flourished long before social media came into existence. In this case it is the damaging effects of smoking, but acid rain or nuclear risks are other examples.

Today, social media surely plays an important role in the scepticism towards eg. vaccines and climate change. And it enables it to spread quickly. What is the solution to that? That we close our eyes and say that social media is dangerous because it spreads non-scientific ideas? That seems a bit naive. Social media is unlikely to disappear, and so are all the blog posts, Twitter discussions and Facebook postings warning against measles vaccines etc. From my perspective the solution is for scientists, research institutions and others representing the scientific community ALSO to get out there, and make their view, knowledge and opinion head. Just like social media is a platform to quickly spread incorrect knowledge, it is equally good for spreading correct (in the eyes of science) knowledge and not let the allegations go unanswered. Of course social media would or could never stand alone, but it is an important communication channel not to overlook or rule out because of fear. If fear of misunderstandings of researchers blogging or tweeting or doubt in the credibility of social media rules the science community’s use of social media then the researchers are no better than the public who responds to doubt and fear…

Dear students: In this class you will have to have your mobiles turned ON

Do term papers have to be written with pen and paper? No, luckily not anymore. Is it necessary to hand in a printed version of your exam paper? No, universities (at least in Denmark) now let you submit online. Would most people use programmes like Word etc for writing their assignments? Probably yes. But how about putting it all online? And making it public. By using a blog format?

The idea seems very relevant in a course on Public Health Science Communication, which will also cover how social media can play a role in communicating science. At least the idea is very inviting to me. And several universities have already tried out the concept. For example the University of British Colombia used student blogging for their course on Social Media in Health and Medicine.

Since I myself have no experience with using blogs in teaching situations, I was happy to learn that Science Online 2012 had several sessions relating to using the blog as a tool in lecturing. Unfortunately, I only managed to make it to one of the four sessions that circled around the topic. Blogging in the Undergraduate Classroom. As with other sessions at #scio12 there was no ‘fixed’ agenda or presentation, but more an informal sharing of experiences, ideas and questions, led by two moderators (Jason Goldman and John Hawks), who both have used blogs in their teaching.

I have tried to but together a small Storify of the tweets from the session. A link to the Storify is here and at the end of this post. I’m not sure that I managed to capture all tweets, so apologies to those who feel their tweets have been overlooked).

In summary some of my main take-home-messages were:


  • The goal of having the students blog is to teach them to communicate themselves – it is as simple as that!
  • Blogging can also be a tool for teaching students how to read papers! By asking them to blog about the papers they read it teaches them not just about writing but also about reading papers and commenting on them.
  • Students are much more aware of their audience (their peers and others who had access) and therefore work harder at their writing. (As someone commented: Their mothers might be reading along!)
  • Using blogs, Twitter etc in the classroom makes you the teacher where it’s OK use mobile devices during class – you’re the cool teacher and may create a new classroom culture, which in return can be inspiring/motivating for the students.


  • Consider the privacy issue carefully. Should the blogs be public or restricted? Should the students blog under their own name etc.
  • One of the risks of introducing blogs is that you may end up spending all your time training to use platform, become technical support. Take this into consideration and choose your platform carefully
  • In grading it is important to be sensitive to the students technical skills, internet access, time frame for assignment etc.
  • The blog may invite to more informal, loose behavior. Make sure to make deadlines for “handing in” assignments – and stick to them.

Suggestions for how to use the blog

  • Forming student blogging teams can be an advantage. Eg. in teams of three where on student posts a blog, one person edits it and, one person comments on the final product. It can also be a way of involving the more shy students and give them room to express themselves
  • Let the students choose a topic of interest to blog about. They write much better if it is something they have an interest in and care about. Highlight that If they wouldn’t want to read it no one else would!
  • Blogs can be used to assign readings and students may be required to post and comment
  • Start out with a scaffolding the process, eg. Reading & commenting, later on write blogposts
  • Wiki-entries is a good alternative to blogs.

Other experiences

Doing a Google search of using blogs in the classroom, reveals that there are lots of experiences to learn from and also tools made available. (as with any Google search it can be a little chaotic to find out what is useful and what is not). One thing that looks useful that I just came across is something called, which is an educational blogging services. Will have to explore that some more. There seems to be many ideas and services. And should any of you have experiences, lessons learned etc. you’d like to share they’ll be more than welcome!

Before I end I thought I’d also just share this SketchNote that, one of the participants in the #scio12 bloggin session (Lali DeRosier) did the below SketchNote:

Link to the Storify (Collection of tweets from the Session Blogging in the Classroom)

[View the story “Blogging in the classroom” on Storify]

Update 6. February 2012: Andrea Novicki, from Duke Center for Instructional Technology wrote his conclusions from the session here – very useful overview