Science Outreach - It's a science, y'all!
This post is about Twitter science outreach and its lack of scientific assessment.
I spent some time on Twitter and joined the ranks of the scientists who do outreach on the platform. I didn’t have a focus or a plan, so my science communication (or “scicomm”) went under the radar of most non-scientist tweeps.
Twitter became a time suck during my Ph.D. and I thus discontinued my activity. Instead I focused on my research and finishing my degree. While I found many benefits to my Twitter activities, specifically publishing an essay in the Working Life column of Science, as a whole it was a major source of anxiety and irritation. I suggest any graduate student who does not have a plan of action for their participation on social media, to discontinue its use when anxiety rears its ugly head.
When I returned to Twitter with my newly acquired expertise in interviewing, survey design, and communication, I saw a LOT of major problems with how my “friends” were going about their science communication on the platform.
For one, many did outreach without a plan. Or their plan was not congruent with their posts. For example, some Tweeps would spend an extraordinary amount of time talking about a publication they had written which was marketing rather than science communication. It was indeed communicating science, by selling a book about science. There was no actual science content. This is completely fine, to push your pubs, but it alters your communication, from education to marketing something about education. These are very different.
Some scientists also correlate their follower count to how well their science communication was landing with the people. That’s a rudimentary way to assess outreach. Essentially, it shows popularity and the size of the echo chamber, not the success of outreach. The main issue here is there is no definition of “science communication” by the communicator. There are no variables of assessment besides “follower count” or “retweets”. Outreach can be assessed if there is a theoretical foundation and a scientifically done assessment.
There are plenty of academic papers that outline outreach assessments, which are quantitative in nature. This is just one aspect of social science - the science of understanding humans. Interestingly, the vast majority of scientific outreach on social media seems to be by natural scientists who have overlooked the science of assessing their outreach work. They don’t seem to realize they are wasting their time and energy by not assessing the work they do on social media. Outreach is a science. It can be assessed. Science communication is only successful if you can quantify it, not just point to follower counts, retweets, or publication views/sales.
I encourage natural scientists to look at science as a theory and practice, not just the study of organisms or whatever their interest is in. It is a way to assess the world, and collaborating with social scientists can make a world of difference.
Note: I have pointed these facts out on Twitter and been bullied by those with high follower counts (this means my words to them in a conversation were retweeted out of context so their followers would barrage my notifications with angry messages - this is social media bullying). Thus, I am not posting Tweets or members of Twitter to support these arguments. I encourage you to sit and think, or better, pick up a book on the science of science communication to broaden your perspective on the topic.