Back!… to a battlefield for researchers?

A year (almost to the date) has passed since my last blog post. How did time pass so quickly?* And how in the world do I get started on this blog again? Following developments in public health science communication and social media for science communication mostly from the sideline, how will I know what’s the latest development? Am I up to speed to write about this topic?

The battlefield of Facebook

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And then this weekend as I was flipping through the latest issue of the magazine of my Danish work association DJOEF, I came across this headline: “Forskerfejde på Facebook” (trans. Researcher fight on Facebook). A short article about Facebook as a place where researchers who dare to put themselves and their research out there are bullied and criticized and how social media is a big challenge for people working in academia. Although I agree that Facebook and other social media in some ways represent a challenge for the academic world, I was sad to see that we in Denmark apparently still are at level were social media is regarded only as a challenge and not as an opportunity for science and science communication.

FullSizeRenderThe article is in Danish but the illustration of the article is universal and very much covers the focus of the article: Social media is a fora for heavy criticism, for fights, bullying, hitting each other in the head and the researcher who enters the world of Facebook need to have tough skin and be prepared to be hammered by both their peers and the public. The rules of the game of are different. Social media have altered the premises for how scientific results can be discussed, is a key message in the article.

Focusing on the negative sides

Although short, the article is supported by a few cases of scientists fighting over Facebook. There are even a couple of researchers calling out for keeping discussions to the already existing academic circles and journals. But is this really a telling picture of how social media is used and the consequences they have in the Danish academic world today. I know the answer is no. So why, do I ask myself, why did the journalist not bother to find a positive case story as well or why didn’t he broaden out the focus from just Denmark to also look at international experiences and trends in using social media? At least just make a small mention of it. Yes, conflicts and dramas make good stories, but I think it is misleading only to portray the battles and disagreement and argue that only researchers with tough skin can successfully use social media.

Compulsory science communication education

The article confirms me in the fact that we still have a long way to go in taking in social media in science communication in Denmark. Much progress has been made over the last year for sure, but still I feel a dominating skepticism towards using these open interactive media in science. As is rightly pointed out by a specialist in social media from University of Roskilde and quoted in the article, we can only expect social media to play a larger and larger role in the scientific debate. Being in agreement with this, I really hope that science communication education and training, including using social media in the research process, could be made compulsory for all university students. Social media have so much potential for science communication that it would be a shame if all researchers who do not feel their skin is ‘tough enough’ would refrain from using it.

I’m back

So with this sad reassurance that there is still a lot to do on science communication and social media and lots of experiences to harvest from the world, I am happy to take up this blog again and explore, comment, recommend, learn and share with all of you what I find.

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*answer: a lovely little girl came in the way


Some challenges of social media as a tool for public health science communication

Social media presents several advantages to public health science communication. But it would be wrong not to acknowledge that there are also challenges to the media. Below I have listed some of them. As with the advantages, I am sure there are many more challenges than those below, so please do add to the list or disagree if you think what I have put down is incorrect.

Values, opinions, feelings and politics

As with many other social sciences, research in public health exists and operates in a political context where values, opinions, and ethical considerations play a big role. In addition, health is not only owned by doctors and researchers, but is a topic and condition that is relevant to all human beings, which means that almost everyone have an opinion or personal feelings entangled into it. Health is a mayor topic in politics, economics, human development etc. The multiple number of stakeholders challenges communication of public health sciences. Few people would be outraged by a scientific debate among mathematicians, but in public health the story is another. New research projects or findings can quickly turn into debates influenced by other stakeholders in health and by non-scientific arguments. Open platforms like social media used to present and discuss public health sciences may open up for such debates with potential inputs all segments of the population. Such debates can be time-consuming, problematic both politically and scientifically and in the end not benefit neither the scientific process or the researcher.

Fear of drowning and loosing time

“I don’t have time to be on Twitter.”, “I’m already behind in reading reports and journals”. These are some of the worries many researchers and public health specialists raise when they are confronted with using social media in their academic practice. And although their fear of time consumption and information overload may be exaggerated, it is true, that especially in the beginning it does require time to get acquainted with social media for scientific purposes and to build up an online network. Since social media does provide new information, it will often be an additional information source, which requires time. Proper introduction in how to use social media for research purposes could overcome this however. And in the end I would argue that it can actually save time (and money). For example time and money saved on following a conference through Twitter rather than physically being present at the conference. In addition, social media can actually be a way to filter all the available material through its search functions and by following people who are interested in the same area as one self.

Lack of control with the media

Many research institutions have social media policies setting out rules for what kind of media can be used and for what purposes. Some of them are pretty strict and leaves it to the communication departments to be in control of what goes out on social media. Due to the openness and interactive characteristic of the media it does of course open up for risks such as scooping of research findings, false accusations and irrelevant or perhaps harmful communication. Avoiding these situation depends to a large extend on the users responsible behavior when communicating through social media and proper guidance on how to use it.