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

FullSizeRender (1)

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


Teaching Social Media and Science Communication again

Earlier this week I had an opportunity to give a talk not on general science communication but with a zoom on social media and science communication. A field I truly feel at home in, am confident talking about and find super interesting.

The talk was in Danish and given to young researchers attending a Media course for researchers organized by the Danish newspaper Information (Informations Medieskole).

With only 45 minutes at hand I prepared a presentation of about 25 minutes, which seemed so little when there is so much to say and so many examples to share. It was a fine balance to find out whether to give a general introduction (including: what is social media?) or to give a more practical “this is how you get started” presentation. I chose to go for the first solution with a strict programme:

  1. What is social media? (5 min)
  2. How and for what can it be used? (5 min)
  3. Examples (10 min)
  4. Advantages, strengths, risks, limitations (10 min)
  5. Questions/discussion

As expected questions related to “how do I get started” popped up and so to say interrupted the flow a bit, but I guess that this, especially in new fields, is a common challenge and can really only be solved by allowing for more time or perhaps even a whole separate course on how to dive into social media as a researcher. If I was to do the later, I think I would have tried to build it around myself, and show how I got on board and started out from absolutely scratch. I could perhaps even have included a slide on my way to social media into my slides on this occasion. Perhaps I’ll do that next time.

Focusing on blogs, Facebook and Twitter

All in all the presentation went well. I decided to focus on three kinds of social media for science communication: the blog, Facebook and Twitter. Had I had more time I’d definitely included some examples of wikis too (I briefly mentioned it), but time constraints means cutting of and focusing.

blogs

As blog example I chose Rosie Redfield’s blog Rrresearch, which may be considered the executive example of a science blog and the impact it can have. It is a good case to discuss some of the advantages of science blogging including its speed compared to traditional journals, post-publication peer-review, transparency in research, getting feedback during the research process, responding to criticism as it occurs, allow for reflection and focus of thoughts and increased visibility and self-promotion. But it of course also raises questions such as validity, personal bias, time demanding, rushed and unreflected comments, violation of research ethics or institutional policies, risk of scooping etc.

twitter caseFacebook

For Facebook I took the I Fucking love Science page as an example of popularizing science and research in general, and The Center for Healthy Aging at University of Copenhagen’s Facebook page as a way of drawing attention to own research, attempting to initiate discussion and living up to donor wishes. And for Twitter I chose the Microbiology Twitter Journal Club (#microtwjc) and the tweeting done by conservator at Medical Museion in Copenhagen, Nanna Gerdes (@NaGerdes) on her work processes.

Discussion, points I tried to make and those that I thought of later

pictureAs I was ‘warned’ the students were a bunch of people with questions so the presentation of was interrupted by questions, which is great but of course also means that some questions would have been easier to answer later and makes keeping time a slippery task. Coming home after teaching I scribbled down some thoughts. Some especially targeted those students who are by definition skeptical and already think that they spend way too many hours in front of a computer screen. In bullet point format I thought I’d share some of these reflections with you.

  • A point I fear I didn’t make clear enough during my presentation: Social media are an excellent tool for communication with other researcher. Researchers on the other side of the planet, researchers in boarding fields. This has nothing to do with your communication department or with popularizing your research. This has something to do with your life as a researcher, your academic network, and your research process. It’d be a shame to miss out on an opportunity.
  • So far (at least), being on social media for research purposes is not a duty for researchers. It’s an offer, a possibility. If you actively chose to invest time in using them you have a chance of taking advantage of some their functions, which may benefit both yourself and your research. However, it does not come by itself. Social media is a give-and-take media, where you have to contribute/be active in order to benefit. It’s a matter of prioritization. (The same evening after teaching I went to visit my 92 very active grandmother who, if she wanted to, would have no problem using a computer or a mobile phone, however she has chosen not to. The same goes for using social media – it’s a choice.
  • There are pitfalls to using social media and you must use common sense as you do in any other kind of research related communication, discussions, methods, procedures etc!
  • You have to learn how to write a scientific article in order to be published in peer-reviewed journals. You have to learn how to use a smart phone to enjoy its benefits. The same applies to social media. It requires investment of time to get familiar and confident with it. That’s just how it is. But the more you use it the better you get at it. And don’t hesitate to ask people around you for advice. Just like you may ask for recommendations on what app to download to your phone when you go on vacation, ask your colleagues who they follow on Twitter, which blog they follow etc. People are willing to help.
  • On social media the person in charge is YOU. You set your own rules for how you use it, for how often you want to blog, check you twitter feed, respond to comments etc. If you don’t like the way communication people (at your university, in the press etc.) communicate your research do it yourself and supplement their work in a way you’d like to.

I enjoyed very much getting to talk about social media for research purposes, and just realized how much there is to say (making 25 minutes + 20 minutes discussion way too short time). It triggered me to revisit my own Twitter feed (which I have been neglecting lately) and to get blogging again. All in all great side effects.

Literature distributed in advance

In advance the students had been given three texts to read:


Teaching Marie Curie PhD students

I might worry a bit excessively before and be afraid that I won’t be able to give an interesting talk or teach students anything, but then while I’m doing it and afterwards I realize that I really enjoy it. Teaching.

Its been a year now since the public health masters course in Public Health Science Communication at University of Copenhagen took off. Since it finished in December 2012 I have only taught science communication a few times. Last week I got a new dosage of interaction with students to discuss the communication of science.

MariecurieactionsI was invited to give an introduction to science communication to a group of 14 PhD students under the Marie Curie Actions Initial Training Networks (ITN)The students all had a background in biology (or similar) and were just into the second year of their PhD. Most of them (if not all) were deep into lab science and were working at the smallest possible scale of the human cell and genetic materials. In my experience lab scientists often represents one of the most challenging group of researchers when it comes to arguing for why the should communicate science. Not because they don’t recognize it as necessary and useful, but primarily because they find it almost impossible to explain what it is they do. Overall these students were not much different.

Focus on you!

Why botherI had three hours at hand on what was equal to a Friday afternoon for the 14 students who after two weeks of presentations, social events and classes where looking forward to returning to their labs and weekends. Combined with the premises that this was an introduction to science communication I decided to try to make the class as fun and as interactive as possible and centered around the students themselves. My four main headlines around which the class was structured were therefore:

  • Why is it relevant to communicate your research?
  • Who would be interested in hearing about what you do?
  • How can you benefit from communicating your research?
  • Are there any tricks to making science communication easier for you?

We did a lot of common brain storming of why one should communicate science, who is involved in science communication and where it takes place. The students were actually pretty good at this at a general level, but when it came down to their own research it seemed like they ran into the barrier that their research field is just so difficult to explain… I hope that at the end of the session the students had gotten some new perspectives on how you can approach communication of your research. For example that research is not just about the facts, theories, hypotheses and results but just as much about curiosity, frustrations, hope, processes, challenges, dreams and collaboration. All things that can be easier to explain than the genetic description of what determines the structure of a receptor protein on a cell involved in the development of fat cells. Or at least easier for the outsider to relate to.

Practical writing tips

abstraction ladderI chose also to allocate some time to some practical communication (mostly writing) tips. Little things that can make writing a little easier, which I learned in School of Journalism. I tried to include some fun examples with little YouTube clips (e.g. The Great Sperm Race as an example of the power of comparison) and sound clips (e.g. Radiolab’s podcasts and experimenting with sounds). And then of course I tried to open their eyes to social media as something that is not only useful in their private life but could play a role in their research and research communication! When I mentioned the word ‘blog’, I saw many rolling eyes, but arguing that even peer viewed journals like Nature uses blogs seemed to legitimize the blog just a tiny bit.

All in all it was great being back in my teaching mode and I hope that the students got something out of it too. I look forward to my next teaching job which is in Copenhagen at Informations medieskole, where I’ll talking to Danish researchers about social media’s role in research and science communication. More on that to follow.


ScienceOnline CLIMATE

scienceonlineclimateI am really not a climate expert or anything close but I am a fan of the ScienceOnline non-conference format, so I thought I’d just promote a bit the ScienceOnline Climate which runs today and tomorrow (15-16 August 2013) in Washington DC, USA.

ScienceOnline is about science communication using social media and other new media to communicate research and science understood in its broadest term. It’s mission is to cultivate the ways science is conducted, shared, and communicated online. It brings together a diverse group of researchers, science writers, artists, programmers, and educators who conduct or communicate science online. The goal is better science communication within the science community, with the public, and with policymakers.

I have only had the opportunity to participate in an ScienceOnline event in-person once, but have followed more online, and I must say I love the concept. ScienceOnline Climate narrows down the focus of science communication to looking at communication of climate related research. According to the planners the event “will explore the intersection of climate science, communication, and the web. Complex scientific concepts will be interwoven with creative communications approaches through the connective power of the internet. It will be an energizing experience for scientists, journalists, artists, policymakers, and attendees from all nodes of the climate communications ecosystem.”

Some sessions will be live-streamed and there will be lots of tweeting too on the hashtag #scioclimate. Take a look at the schedule for the conference to see if anything is of interest to you.


A perfect place to pick-up arguments for why scientists should be on social media

An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists‘. I have wanted to mention this article published in PLOS Biology ever since it came out in April 2013, but somehow never got around to it. But as I reread it earlier this week, I was reminded how this article must be mentioned on a blog like mine.

An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists is written by Holly M. Bik and Miriam C. Goldstein from University of California Davis and University of California San Diego and is an excellent place to start for researchers considering trying out social media or for enthusiasts of social media for science communication who are in search of good arguments they can use to persuade others of why they must set up a Twitter account, start blogging or establish some other form of online presence.

Research Benefits and flowcharts

Supported by lots of examples (with links provided to many of them!) the authors list a number of ways in which social media can benefit both the scientist and the scientific work. In short form these are:

  • How online tools can help improve research efficiency;
  • How being visible on social media helps track and improve scientific metrics;
  • How social media enhances professional networking; and
  • How online interactions have the potential to enhance ‘‘broader impacts’’ by improving communication between scientists and the general public.

flowchart

They go on to address different kinds of social media and how they can be used, and provide advice to new users on how to get started. A useful (and fun) feature of the article is a flowchart that can help newcomers find out which media might be most relevant for them to try out and solution to common online communication fears.

Acknowledging the stigma

Throughout the article the authors mention the stigma which is often attached to online activities. They acknowledge how many researchers are skeptical towards the media and regards it as a waste of time and a distraction from true scientific work. In a response to this the authors have set out to address some of the many misconceptions and misinterpretations of what social media can contribute with. And in my opinion it works. One could argue that they don’t spend much energy on the risks or disadvantages of social media for science communication (of which there are of course several), but they are plenty to be found elsewhere.

Need for formal training

Social media among scientists is quickly growing and will eventually become more and more natural for scientists to use (if not sooner than as the younger generation whom have grown up with social media enter the research arena). But until then there is a need to train on researchers and scholars on the potential of social media in academic work. Both to address the many misconception and skepticism but also to avoid researchers use it inefficiently or inappropriately. I could therefore not agree more with the authors:

“Social media and internet-based resources are increasingly ubiquitous. Thus, there is a pressing need for scientific institutions to offer formalized training opportunities for graduate students and tenured faculty alike to learn how to effectively use this new technology”.


What does Britain’s Science Media Centre (SMC) think of social media for science communication?

smcMost people working with science communication will probably have heard about Britain’s Science Media Centre (SMC) and perhaps also about its front woman Fiona Fox. In case you’ve never heard of it or can’t really remember what it is about the scientific journal ‘Nature’ recently published a news feature on SMC and Fiona Fox which gives a good overview of the centre, its concept and the critic it faces.

Science Media Centre (SMC) is an independent press office that works to get scientific voices into media coverage and policy debates. By doing so the aim is to improve the accuracy with which science is presented to the public. The Centre works with:

  • journalists by providing them with information about science and its related disciplines; and putting them in contact with relevant scientists
  • scientists, engineers and other experts by supporting them in engaging with the media and by creating more opportunities for them to get their voices.
  • Press officers by supporting them when they are working on complex science, health and environment stories.

In addition, the SMC provides expert advice and evidence on issues relating to science in the media.

I won’t repeat the background or work of SMC further on this blog but instead refer to the Nature article or their Science Media Centre website. 

Social media and SMC?

Reading the Nature article with the interview with Fiona Fox and looking at SMC’s website it strikes me how reflections on the use of social media for science communication seems completely absent. It is not mentioned once in the article and on the website they link to their own Twitter account and Fiona Fox’s blog, but other than that there is no reference to social media as a tool or as medium for science communication.

Even in their Top tips for media work to help scientists to work with the media social media is not mentioned with a word, despite the fact that social media provides an excellent opportunity for scientists to communicate their research. Neither is it mentioned in their 10 best practice guidelines for reporting science & health stories. Of course these two guidelines are meant to be a tool on how to prepare for meeting the scientist/journalist and interpret correctly what information they are looking for or sit with, but none the less social media is only growing in influence also among scientists, so advice on checking out if the researcher is blogging about his or her field or using other social media could be worth including. As could advice to scientists on using social media to communicate themselves and use this communication channel as a resource to guide journalists too.

In the Nature article, Fiona Fox says that the part of her job in which she takes the most pride, is convincing once-timid scientists to join the SMC database and speak out. “A real triumph for us is getting a scientist who has worked for 30 years on a really controversial issue and has never spoken to the media,” she says. I wonder if she also encourages them to take communication into their own hands and start communicating through social media as well or if she mainly thinks of them talking to journalists who then do the communication or sign up on the SMC scientist roster….. All in all, I guess I’m quite unclear about what SMC and Fiona Fox thinks of social media for science communication.


Trends in making a career in German science communication

Internships, coincidences, childbearing and passion for communicating seems to be key themes in making a career in science communication in Germany. At least those are some of the conclusions I made when attending Science Communication Career Day at Heidelberg University last week.

scicomcareerdayThe Career Day was all in all a good experience. Logistically well organised and with an interesting bunch of speakers. There was even ‘fancy new media’ involved. A hashtag (#scicomcareerday) had been assigned and it was enthusiastically noted when 20 tweets had been reached and later on 50 tweets! Being beginners in using this it worked remarkably well.

The day was organised with a first session focused on Press and Corporate Communication. The presenters were in general at the level of Head of Communication etc. They all came from a scientific background (predominately in biology and with a ph.d.) but had moved into communication. 5 of 6 speakers were women, and in presenting their road from science to communication they all mentioned “and then I had children…” as one of the reasons for leaving their academic field and getting into science communication, which granted more flexibility. Although many did say that they found communicating to be fun and through internships had found a passion for exactly communicating, I was surprised to find that none of the speakers of the session seemed to have a passion for their scientific area, and that it wasn’t a desire to communicate their knowledge which was of interest to them. My impression was, putting it a bit roughly, that their science background had basically just proved to be an advantage in getting jobs in communication… Perhaps one of the reason I got this impression was that the presenters where at Head of Communication level, and thus had gone on to much more than science communication and also (or primarily) worked crisis communication, corporate communication etc.

The second session made up for the tendency of working with communication in general and not specifically science communication. Especially inspiring were three communication officers from EMBL (European Molecular Biology Laboratory) who with enthusiasm talked about the joy of communicating science. Again, it was clear that internships seems to be the thing in Germany if you want to get into science communication. When asked by the participants (who were primarily ph.d. students at University of Heidelberg) if they should go for getting an internship or take an extra degree in communication or journalism the response was either that it didn’t matter or that they should definitely go for the internships! Not being so well acquainted with how things work in Germany, to me it seemed at bit surprising that this was their main recommendation. I guess however it could be translated into: get practical experience! and that internships is one way of getting this.

All in all, it was a good day and it was fun to get into some German Science Communication. The round table lunch idea, where you could have lunch with a speaker was a good idea and worked okay. Being a career day the objective was of course to inspire to and show how you can also take your science career into a communication direction. This meant that at least the round table I participated in became very focused on the internship discussion and concrete questions about how these internships work.

For me personally, corporate communication took up a little bit too much of the day and I wonder if the participants, being mainly ph.d. students, wouldn’t have found it interesting also to hear about how getting into science communication doesn’t have to mean saying goodbye to your scientific career and how science communication can help your scientific career – but perhaps that could be a whole theme for another career day…

In asking around for science communication networks in Germany it was my impression that there is not formal network and few of the presenters had knowledge about formal science communication training programmes at university (see below), but were much more practice based. As in many other places the science communication community seemed much more to be a personal network thing. Many of the presenters had either worked or done internships with DKFZ (German Cancer Research Center), who was also one of the main organisers of the day, and knew each other from there.

Three study programmes in Science Communication in Germany were mentioned. The all seem to be in German, but none the less I thought I’d share them here on this blog:

Science Communication M.A. (Wissenschaftskommunikation) at Hochschule Bremen – University of Applied Sciences

Science Journalism B.A and M.A. (Wissenschaftjournalismus) at the Technical University of Dortmund

Science Journalism B.A. (Wissenschaftjournalismus) at Darmstadt University