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.


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

The other day I blogged about some of the similarities I see between public health sciences and social media. Similarities which makes social media particular relevant for public health science communication.

Apart from the similarities, I have been trying to put together a list of other advantages of social media for science communication, which I can hopefully use in a report on Public Health Science Communication & Social Media. I am sure there are many more than those below so please do add to the list or disagree if you think what I have put down is incorrect.

A flexible media

Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are social networking platforms set up and created by web developers.Despite the preset features in for example Facebook, social media is characterized by its high level of flexibility. The users create the content, and new functions are constantly developed in response to the needs from the users. Blogs can for example be customized according to the requirements of the individual user and can take many different forms. In relation to science communication this presents a great opportunity to use the different tools according to the specific needs of a scientific traditions, individual scientists or research institutions.

Giving the researcher a voice

Another advantage of social media for science communication is that it gives the scientists an opportunity to become a communicator rather than leaving that to those in control of established media outlets. When relevant, the researchers can make their own voices heard and not always go through communication employees. This can for example be an advantage when communicating with other researchers where professional communicators do not have the relevant background knowledge. In combination with the great amount of flexibility in social media a communication style that supplements existing communications can be created. With for example blogs a direct relationship between the author and the reader may be established to the benefit of both the reader and the writer.

Network Building

In comparison with journals and reports social media provides the opportunity to connect and interact with the readers. Similar to what happens at conferences, the audience can ask questions directly to the author, and comment or express their views on the communicated. This can be through comment functions and retweeting on Twitter. Just like attending conferences is beneficial for extending and sustaining scientific networks, the same goes for social media. Only this can happen on a daily basis and not be a once or twice per year event. In addition, the potential network is much bigger and not limited to those who had the time or the means to travel half around the world to present a poster.

No time delay and free of charge

Publishing in scientific journals can often be a long and time-consuming process, which means that when eventually published, the study has perhaps already been finalized and closed or perhaps even outdated. The advantage of social media is that in comparison with for example peer-reviewed journals it has a much shorter time delay. This makes the media particular relevant for communicating science-in-the-making where comments, reactions and contributions from colleagues and other recipient audiences during the research process can contribute positively to the research process.

Finally, using social media comes at no extra cost. Most platforms are free of charge or has negligible costs for the users, and does thus not require big investments by neither the researcher, research institutions or the audience.


All papers at PLoS Medicine now reflect the public Twitter debate

Last week, I wrote how several scientific journals and publishers are opening their eyes to Twitter. The confirmation of the relevance on Twitter also in relation to peer-reviewed journals comes in many different forms. This weekend, I came across a tweet giving another example :

If you click on the link in the tweet (or here), you’ll come onto the webpage of PLoS Medicine and an article by McKee M, Stuckler D, Basu S (2012) entitled: Where There Is No Health Research: What Can Be Done to Fill the Global Gaps in Health Research?

In the righthand side column (under: “share this article” – which is BTW primarily through social media) you’ll see a box from Twitter, called “What the community is saying”. In this box a roll of all the tweets linking to the article are shown in chronological order with the newest first. The reasons for why people chose to include links to a particular article in their tweets may of course be many. It could be a simple wish to spread word of the article, but could also be comments and reactions to the article and additional links to for example blog posts discussing the article.

For the authors of the article this easy access to the Twitter activity concerning their article provides and opportunity to see what the segment, who are on Twitter, are saying about the article – and not least who they are. And for the readers it is a chance to check out who else have found this article relevant. Who knows, they might be people in your area of research you were not yet acquainted with.

The Twitter box is of course not unique to the article by Martin McKee & co. but applies to all PLoS Medicine articles.


When someone else writes convincingly why scholars should be on Twitter

Sometimes it just seems silly to duplicate other people’s words when they have used just the right phrases and words to say something.

The blog post “How to use Twitter” by PhD student in Molecular Pharmacology at the University of Aberdeen, Heather Doran gave me a little bit of that feeling. By sharing her own experiences, Heather writes about her efforts to get every other ph.d. student she meets to join Twitter! The blog post contains lots of good tips and arguments for why every PhD student and other researchers should get that Twitter account and start using it as part of their academic career. There are also tips to some Tweeters to follow.

So to save words: check out Heather Doran’s blog post “How to use Twitter” (and other posts on her blog Happy Science) and follow her on Twitter @hapsci.


Scientific journal publisher encourages the use of social media to reach your audience

So, your article has been accepted and is now published in a peer-reviewed journal. Great! Now the world gets to know of all your findings and hard work. Or will it? What if no one reads it? You can of course let your colleagues know that your article is out, have the communication department do a press release and things like that. But why not go wider than that? Why not share it with online social networks?

That sharing articles on social media can boost the number of downloads, Melissa Terras, whom I blogged about earlier, is a good example of. But also the publishers are becoming aware that social media can help boost the number of downloads, citations etc.

SAGE, the world’s 5th largest journals publisher, actually offers guidance on how to increase usage and citation of your article by using social media. This includes getting on Twitter (they even have guidelines for how to use Twitter), contributing to Wikipedia, joining academic networks and making use of Facebook and LinkedIn.

The offer of guidance to the world of social media comes out of an acknowledgement that as readers’ expectations change, it is important that articles are visible where the users start their search. Promotion of your articles through new channels will, as SAGE puts it “offer a direct way to reach your readership.”

And I guess that is the hope of every researcher whom has something published: that it will reach the relevant readers.


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).”


Inflation in teachings on social media in Danish Health care

Judging from the number of courses, guidelines etc. on the use of social media in health care, Denmark is now also becoming aware that there is something to it. The Danish Medical Association just published an advisory guide to their members on how to deal with social media, and “Dagens Medicin“, a Danish newspaper for health professionals, is offering a one-day course on social media in the health sector. An almost identical half-day course is offered by the Medicademy (an international educational program by The Danish Association of the Pharmaceutical Industry) which focuses on how the pharmaceutical industry can use social media in their communication. Both courses come at a quite heavy fee of 2700 DKK per person (475 USD).

A communication expert and case stories

The two courses are very similar in their structure and speakers – and price. Both courses have a broader social media expert as their first speaker. It is not a person from the health sector, but communication specialist Elisabeth Tissot Ludvig, who is director of a private communication and PR company specialising in Health Care Communication. Elisabeth Tissot is also an occasional blogger [in Danish] at The Danish Medical Bulletin, where she blogs about Danish medical doctors’ communication habits.

The two courses offer various speakers from the health sector who according to the programme will share experiences in using social media in relation to their profession. This includes a blogging doctor; a researcher in patient blogs; a nurse who have used social media in recruitment of personal; and a pharmaceutical company’s use of apps in communicating with patients. Through these examples it is the objective of both courses to spread knowledge of social media and its potential role in the Danish health care and pharmaceutical sector.

Focus on legal issues, not much about science communication

At both courses and in the folder from the Danish Medical Association, legal aspects of the use of social media play a mayor role. A lawyer will present legal restrictions in using social media in a health context. The guide from the Danish Medical Association is almost entirely focused on legal issues and advice on what not to do or avoid doing when online. The advice is sound enough, because of course there are issues to be aware of when communication, regardless of what media is used. I miss, however, some words on what social media could be useful for. Examples of benefits of being online as a medical doctor or other health care personnel. The folder seems to be mostly fear driven and not very balanced on potential advantages for doctors to go online.

Twitter, which I myself find to a kind of glue that connects the different kinds of social media and attach it to traditional media, is only briefly mentioned in the course offered by Dagens Medicin. Here Twitter will be presented by a popular comedian. Of course there can be an intention to add a more light and less formal speaker to the programme, but seen from my perspective it is a shame that a health related tweeter couldn’t be invited.

Another thing I miss in the programme is how social media can be used in research and in research communication. Research is an integrated part of the Danish health system and it would have been interesting to have added social media’s role in science communication to the programme. But perhaps that is an entire course in itself…

Regardless, the guide from the Danish Medical Association and the two courses, indicate that social media in relation to health care is an emerging issue also an Denmark. If not among the older generation then surely among the younger generation of doctors, nurses, researchers, public health specialist etc. who have grown up with social media as a natural part of their lives.


Two not so separate worlds: Peer-reviewed journals and social media

Social media and peer-reviewed journals. Some people would regard this as two separate worlds and perhaps they were once upon a time, but times change and more and more journals are embracing, exploring new uses and expanding their traditional journal universe with blogs, Twitter accounts etc.

An editorial retreat at The British Medical Journal focusing on social media shows that journals and social media are definitely not worlds apart. As I have been on a pre-Easter break I was unfortunately not able to follow the Twitter stream from the meeting, but in the spirit of social media a Storify (a collection of tweets #BMJseminar) from the meeting has been put together. It gives a small peak into the highlights of the meeting.

Blogging journals

I have previously blogged about the BMJ and PLoS blogs and recently the blog of the International Journal of Public Health. Lately, I have also been following Richard Horton, Editor of the Lancet, on Twitter (@richardhorton1) where he actively tweets about the numerous meetings he attends. At times very entertain and very opinion born.

In addition, I just discovered The Lancet student blog, which aims to give medical students from around the world a place to talk about their experiences of medical school life, and  their thoughts on the top health issues of the day. The use of blogs, like they are used at BMJ and PloS, is however, as far as I can tell, nothing the Lancet has engaged in. I wonder why that is….



Ruling out Justin Bieber fever … and how we get feedback from the population

“… and how we get feedback from the population”. This sentence is the last remark in a short video on how Twitter might just change how we do Public Health. I love the sentence. It refers to how Twitter is a new tool in Public Health research, but also a tool for us to get feedback on our research from the population. It strikes upon one of the key values of social media in public health – its ability to interact with the population whose health and well-being is what we are working to ensure.

In 1 minute and 40 seconds, Computer Science Professor Michael J. Paul and Doctoral Candidate Mark Dredz, both at Johns Hopkins University, gives an appetizer to how we can use public health information hidden in tweets to improve the health of our population. The secret is, as it is in most public health research, not to look at one patient, one doctor, one sick story or one single Tweet, but to look at thousands or in this case even billions. This video show how two billion Tweets can unlock insights to our public health.

By analyzing two billion Tweets for relevance to health information and then comparing the results to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Michael J. Paul and Mark Dredz demonstrate how Twitter can accurately track the spread of influenza, the peak of allergies and predict how diseases spread and change over time.

This really could change the way we do public health in this country – and how we get feedback from the population.”

Michael J. Paul, Professor, Johns Hopkins University

The secret is to turn tweets into data. That requires however a computer which  have been taught that ‘Justin Bieber fever’ is (so far) not a public health problem. Luckily they solved that problem:

The analysis by Michael J. Paul and Mark Dredz can be read in a traditional scientific article format here.