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:


Tweet your science!

I have several times thought about putting together a list of resources about social media for science communication, that would be handy to refer others to and useful for myself. I figured it should include published literature and blog posts about social media for science communication and guides on how to use it. But with new things published almost every day and life in general it has never really happened.

tweet your scienceBUT luckily someone else have been working on such a database, focusing mainly on Twitter! Lunched just a few days ago Tweet your Science sets out to diffuse scientists’ hesitation of getting on board social media by providing a guide, reviews, evidence and a database of scientists who are already on Twitter – everything the average scientist needs to start tweeting their science!

The person behind the website is Kimberley Collins who has created it as part of her Master’s in Science Communication at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

The website is extremely simple. Focus has thus far definitely been on content and not layout, and a first glance can send you off a bit confused. It’s not always clear where to click to get to the database, guideline or resources and intuitive links are missing here and there (for example it’s not possible to link directly to the guide but only to individual chapters of the guide). But when you dig into the resource pages it reveals itself to be quite comprehensive, and super useful.

A nice little feature in the resource section is that next to every linked article is a Twitter button so that you can directly share the article with your followers on Twitter. Very much in the spirit of tweeting science.

The Guide to Twitter provides step by step guidelines from how you create an account, edit your profile, start tweeting and start to follow others. It also explains Twitter abbreviations such as MT, RT and HT. Even the least IT savvy person should be able to get on Twitter following this guide.

Tweet your Science is of course also on Twitter (@tweetyoursci) and Facebook.

As part of the launch festivities, an official launch and panel discussion will be held on Friday the 2nd of August 2013 at the Centre for Science Communication in Dunedin, New Zealand – it will of course be streamed live and participation in the form of questions and comments from around the world is encouraged by tweeting to @tweetyoursci.

I look forward to going through the resource list and to following the further development of this great initiative.


Systematic review: Social media for health communication

JMIRBack to the real world after two weeks in amazing Japan, I found in my Twitter profile a link to a recently published article in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. It didn’t take more than reading the title to know that this article could be interesting – at least for someone like me:

“A New Dimension of Health Care: Systematic Review of the Uses, Benefits, and Limitations of Social Media for Health Communication”

Based on 98 original research studies the authors have set out to review published literature on social media for health communication in order to identify the uses, benefits, and limitations of social media for health communication among the general public, patients, and health professionals. Secondly, they aim to identify current gaps in the literature and provide recommendations for future health communication research.

The paper gives a comprehensive overview of the topic and the reference section is a great resource list.

If you’re not up for reading the paper in its entirety, three of the tables gives a great summary of the findings. Follow the link to the paper above or check out the tables at the end of this post.

What about science communication?

One thing that strikes me is that if you take a look at table 3, which lists the different uses of social media for health communication, the use of social media for communicating science and research in health is not on it. Neither when it comes to research communication between health professionals nor communicating health related research to the public is mentioned. An interesting and slightly surprising find I would say. Granted, it could to some extend figure under the categories ‘Providing health information’, ‘Proving answers to medical questions’ and ‘Facilitate dialogue between patients and health professionals’, but none the less it is not a category in it self. Whether this is because it has not be the focus of any research studies, or doesn’t take place at all is hard to tell. I believe (and hope) however, that it is the later.

None the less, the article underscores the growing role and importance of social media in health and in health communication, and shows that it cannot and should not be ignored.

Table 3 – Uses of social media for health communication 

Table 3 - JMIR

Table 4 – Benefits of using social media for health communication –

Table 4 - JMIR

Table 5 – Limitations of social media for health communicationTable 5 - JMIR


Public health science communication – an 8th goal for public health training in the 21st century

European journal of public healthIn the latest issue of the European Journal of Public Health, a wish list for what public health training should look like in the 21st century is giving by Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine: Seven goals for public health training in the 21st century

Having a bachelor and masters degree in public health sciences from University of Copenhagen, I know for a fact that at least in a Danish context public health science communication has not been part of the curriculum for public health students in the later part of the 20th or the first part of the 21st century. None the less, when I saw the headline of Martin McKee’s article, I was hoping that science communication would be an ambition for modern public health training.

Martin McKee article2

Unfortunately, I was to be a bit disappointed. The article starts out well, stating the need to “prepare people to engage actively in a complex and changing world in ways that improve the health of the population”. So how do you prepare people to engage actively in ways that improves their health? Well, in my world that will require that you as a public health professional and public health scholar can actually communicate what you are doing, what your theories are and what findings come out of your hard work. And that you can engage into conversation and discussion with the public and subgroups of the public (e.g. policy makers, researchers in other fields). In short, that you can communicate public health sciences.

Public health science communication is not mentioned directly as one of the 7 goals. In short that goals Martin McKee lists are:

  1. Stimulate curiosity
  2. Encourage social entrepreneurs who are willing to take the initiative
  3. Make epidemiological connections and understand the biological mechanisms behind
  4. Convey the big picture, expanding Koch’s postulates or Bradford Hill’s criteria of causality with mathematical models to provide evidence of links
  5. Make public health students literate about what (and who) they are up against
  6. Engage with key decision makers at all levels and be confident to speak up.
  7. Ground human rights into public health approaches

For all seven goals, science communication plays a key role, but is only partly mentioned under goal 6, articulating the need for public health people to be confident to speak up and share their knowledge. The only other time communication is touched upon is as an encouragement for public health professionals to not just stay updated on public health news but go beyond the scientific literature:

More than ever, the public health professional needs to read the Economist, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal.”

No suggestion is however broad forward about also contributing and communicating public health through these channels. Shouldn’t public health people aim to let their voice, knowledge and opinions be heard outside the ‘traditional’ public health media?

Another element missing in Martin McKee’s list is the IT reality of the 21st century and how Web2.0 already have and is still changing public health research and practice. He mentions the need for public health people to acquire a great deal more self-confidence and points out how:

with a fast internet connection, most students could do a much better job of understanding the topics they [politicians and social commentators] addressed”.

But the potential for new ways of communicating and engaging with the public broad forward by social media and other technologies is not mentioned at all.

Make public health science communication the 8th goal

Communication is almost a precondition for all other 7 goals, which is why I would argue that it deserves to be a goal in itself. Public health students should be given competences in communicating what they do, why they do it and taught how communication can benefit not only the people they are trying to help but also their own work (which then again will come to the benefit of the public). Public health is, as Martin McKee opens the article, not just a collection of different disciplines or the goals it seeks to attain. It is much more. Exactly this ‘much more’ however requires communication. Public health science cannot (meaningfully) exist in its own little universe. It only comes to life when it steps out of the public health sphere and meets the rest of the world. This, however, requires that we as public health people are dressed to meet the world and to communicate with it. Let’s make public health science communication skills the 8th goal of public health training in the 21st century.

The article by Martin McKee is unfortunately hidden behind a pay wall, but you can read an extract here: Seven goals for public health training in the 21st century.


Experiences with teaching Public Health Science Communication

On my list of things to do writing a blog post about my experiences with teaching Public Health Science Communication to graduate students at the University of Copenhagen has been high-up for a while. However, moving to Bonn, Germany and other minor things have somehow managed to overrule the writing of this post. But its time – also to avoid the experiences being stored too far back in my mind to be brought forward.

So how did it go? Did the students find it useful? What went well? Would I repeat a course like this again? And if so, what would I do differently? There are lots of questions to answer, so I thought I’d go through them one by one.

How did it go?

Overall, I think it went quite well. At least all students passed and it wasn’t criticized apart by the students. I’d even like to think that the students learned something new and useful. And just as important: I learned a lot! Both about science communication in relation to public health and about teaching public health science communication.

Did the students find the course useful?

It is very often difficult to get a clear impression of whether students found a course useful or not, and the fact that only few students filled in the online evaluation questionnaire and that only about half of the class attended the last module, where we did a short oral evaluation of the course, makes it even more difficult. However, based on the students who did participate in the evaluation I think it would be alright to conclude that the students on the whole were happy with the course. From the online evaluation most of them indicated that the study objectives of the course were met (and I assume they to some extend joined the course on the basis of these), and they rated their overall study-relevant benefit as ‘very good’ or ‘good’. I was also very happy to see that a most of the students who filled in the online evaluation found the course very relevant to their general Public Health education.

From the oral evaluation the comments were also in general positive. The students expressed that it had in many ways been a very different course, with much less hardcore theory than many of their other graduate courses. Some also mentioned that the fact that the centre of attention to a much higher degree than in other courses had been on themselves as individuals and researchers, had been interesting but at the same time a challenge. They expressed that they were more used to focus on the objective of Public Health, which is usually the public and not so much on their own role in this. I found this interesting, and recalling my own time as a Public Health student it is true that it was rarely about ourselves and our current and future roles in public health (one could talk about our subjective role), but much more about all the other players in public health, of course including the public itself.

examAnother thing I found interesting, was that when asked about the syllabus, the students in general seemed happy with the selected literature, except many of them expressed that they found the blog posts too chatty and recommend them taken out in future courses. I myself had put a lot of thought into allowing different kinds of literature. In part to illustrate that science communication is not just about text books and peer-reviewed journals. I guess they as university student have by now just been a little brainwashed to prefer good old scholarly texts over the more ‘chatty’ and personal writing styles…

What went well?

videnskab.dkMedical museionIn my own opinion, many things went well. The balance between having myself as the main lecturer and having great guest lectures (thank you to them!) was good (I taught about half of the modules). It also worked well and was a good change to get out of the class room and go on field trips. One to Videnskab.dk, a Danish popular science news website, and to Medical Museion.

I’m happy also that I chose to make a compendium rather than assigning a textbook. Partly due to the fact that there isn’t yet a book out there on Public Health Science Communication, but also because it was good to be able to through different kinds of texts to illustrate the many forms of science communication.

Another things I found was successful was trying to use as many real life examples. Ranging from case studies (although it would have been nice to have more), to YouTube clips, podcasts, blogs etc.

Despite some worrying comments from some of the participants prior to finishing the exam, I also think that the task of writing an introductory chapter on Public Health Science Communication worked well. Some students expressed that they found that an exam more focused on actually trying to communicate a specific public health challenge would have been more appropriate and useful instead of what they regarded being an assignment to refer theory of science communication. I (of course) tend to disagree. Writing an introductory chapter on Public Health Science Communication is also an example of communicating a scientific field – it just happened to be a field (and a way of thinking) that was new to them.

What would I do differently? 

It is funny what time does. Looking back at the course now, with some months having passed, I have a hard time recalling all the things I would have changed. Because at one point I thought there were many. However, some do come to mind:

I think I would have tried to include more real life examples of science communication – both good and bad examples, and perhaps have challenged the students to analyse both and suggest why they worked and why the didn’t.

Despite having the primary focus on the communicator (the public health professional) rather than looking at the receiver, I think I would in a future course try to incorporate a little more on how publics benefits from public health science communication, and perhaps try to allocate some more time to going through how one can become better at understanding and writing to a specific target group. This will present a different challenge, because the course is not a writing course.

Actually, I found the that finding a balance between being a course on principles, trends and theories in science communication and a writing, hands-on course quite difficult. I am sure that in a repetition of the course, this would again be a difficult balance to get right.

It’s always difficult to get students to discuss, but in a future course I’d try to make room for more discussion and student involvement. My own take-home message from teaching this course, is that I should keep in mind, that science communication is not an exact science and that I, despite being the teacher, does not have all the answers…

Would I repeat a course like this again?

Yes, I think I would. For many reasons. One, I thought it was fun and inspiring to teach. Second, I was confirmed in my belief that introducing public health students to the importance of science communication is very much relevant – if not essential. And finally, I learned a lot from the process and I would love to see how a version 2.0 of the course would go about.

Did I forget to mention something important in the post? Probably – but I promise to add them (or do an additional post) if and when things come to mind. I also welcome my students to share their views and correct me if I’m wrong, and I would be happy to answer questions from anyone interested in hearing more of my experiences with teaching Public Health Science Communication.

Public health science communication


New Public Health Blog from PLOS blogs!

I can’t believe that this is my post number 101. Actually, I had planned to do something special with blog post no. 100, but I only realised that it was my anniversary post when it was published. So the celebration will have to wait for post number 500.

However, post number 101 can also be special and actually I think the topic is quite appropriate: A public health science blog hosted by PLOS blogs has arrived! It is simply called ‘Public Health‘ and has five contributors coming from different backgrounds but all with an interest in Public Health.

PLOS Blogs public healthThe blog looks very promising and the posts currently posted are well written and interesting. I look forward to following the blog and hope for many discussions.

Public Health 2.0

Not surprisingly, I am especially happy to see that the topic of social media and public health is discussed on the blog. In the post Public Health 2.0: Electric Boogaloo by Atif Kukaswadia of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada draws attention to strengths and weaknesses of social media in public health. It is clear that Atif comes to this with an epidemiologist’s perspective (being and Ph.d. candidate in Epidemiology), but he raises some important questions about acknowledging that social media exists and that regardless of whether people with scientifically founded knowledge make use of social media or not, people spreading untrue or perhaps even harmful public health information will continue to do so. This is in my opinion an important argument which needs to be made also to the social media skeptics.

The post is full of great links, so newcomers to the topic of public health 2.0 should take a look at the post and join the discussion.

Social media and science conferences

Atif Kukaswadia opens the blog post with discussing what makes a good conference, and how it not necessarily what happens during the presentations and in the conference room, but rather the discussions that continue (or perhaps first starts) in the lunch room and during the coffee breaks. This make me wonder, if Atif Kukaswadia has been to the Science Online conferences, which acknowledges exactly that. These conferences are built up following a so-called ‘non-conference’ format and brings more space for the in-between-sessions-stuff. Based on my experiences the ScienceOnline people are the most advanced users of social media before, during and after conferences. For newcomers to social media in conferences it is actually quite overwhelming and a little extreme – but none the less a great eye-opener for the power of social media in conferences.


Social media: putting the public into public health information dissemination

I can’t think of a more appropriate place than Twitter to come across an article about the use of social media to disseminate public health information.

I regularly do a Twitter search for ‘public health social media’ and very often come across new interesting initiatives, reports, meetings etc.

Today’s finding was the article Putting the Public into Public Health Information Dissemination: Social Media and Health-related Web Pages. The article, written by Professor Robert Steele and Dan Dumbrell, both from the Discipline of Health Informatics at The University of Sydney, takes a closer look at social media as a tool for the dissemination of public health information.

The paper discusses the novel aspects of social media-based public health information dissemination, including a very interesting comparison of its characteristics with search engine-based Web document retrieval. I especially find the below table from the paper interesting:

To me, this table captures in a very precise way many of the advantages and new possibilities of social media. The ‘push’ and ‘pull’ analogy for the mode of disseminating information is very telling. I also find the interaction difference of ‘community and peer-post-based’ vs. ‘individual’ based interesting and particular relevant to the field of public health sciences.

In addition to the comparison of social media and search engine-based web document retrieval, the paper presents the results of preliminary analysis of a sample of public health advice tweets taken from a larger sample of over 4700 tweets sent by Australian health-related organization in February 2012 and discusses the potential of social media to spread messages of public health.

All in all the paper has a lot of very interesting perspectives and makes a call for more research in the area. I’m looking forward to hearing more as they get deeper into the analysis. For example it would be interesting to learn about which hashtags (#) the analysed tweets were assigned, if any.