Using social media for science communication

A female scientist explains an atomic model
© Getty Images/iodrag ignjatovic

Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim has been successful: this chemist uploaded her first YouTube video in 2015 to raise young people’s interest in the natural sciences. Today, six years later, the 34-year-old is a successful author and influencer whose videos explaining the coronavirus are followed by millions of young people in Germany and who is therefore occasionally interviewed in newscasts. She is now one of Germany’s most influential researchers. And it all began with a few clicks and registration on a social network.   

Researchers like virologists Christian Drosten and Sandra Ciesek explain their science in podcasts, others have hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter – like medical professionals Melanie Brinkmann or Karl Lauterbach. The coronavirus pandemic and climate change are increasingly focusing society’s attention on researchers. Society needs skilled individuals who can explain the challenges of the time in scientific terms, make suggestions on what should be done, and provide credible sources that refute the increase in misinformation. They can introduce calm and reason into heated debates.

More and more researchers are using social media forums like Twitter, LinkedIn or ResearchGate to increase their visibility and explain their work to a wider audience. A survey by scientific magazine Nature found that 95 per cent of the researchers and academics surveyed regularly use at least one social media platform.

Using social media to increase your own visibility

Science communication via social media has many advantages, says , who coaches researchers in how to market themselves online. ‘When journalists need an expert in the volcano eruption on La Palma or want to find the organisers of science slams and conferences, the first place they turn to is Google. If they find you as someone conducting research in the field, via a social network for example, that’s really good in terms of your visibility.’ There are by now even examples of interviewers requesting information on the networking and publication channels that you use for your own research.

Doctoral candidate and also uses Twitter and LinkedIn to draw attention to his publications and to keep up to date with papers, events and current developments in his discipline of ‘transformative science’. He uses hashtags and shared tweets to learn about topics and people that he would otherwise find difficult to access or would not even know existed. ‘I can obtain real time information about new publications, or about people who are active in spheres that interest me.’

, alumna of the , who works as a researcher in ‘computational biochemistry’ at Technische Universität Berlin, discloses her work via Twitter and also uses it to share job offers in her working group. ‘My Twitter account has already resulted in me being invited to present my research to other institutes on several occasions. Twitter has generated greater visibility for me and my work’, she says. 

Ausgelotet: Die Herausforderungen von Wissenschaftskommunikation in sozialen Netzwerken

Ausgelotet: Die Herausforderungen von Wissenschaftskommunikation in sozialen Netzwerken
Ausgelotet: Die Herausforderungen von Wissenschaftskommunikation in sozialen Netzwerken ©

A personal attitude is expected

Many researchers do however find it difficult to break their research down into a few simple sentences. Unlike in scientific studies, social network users expect authors to present a personable attitude. Coach Susanne Geu also recognises these challenges from working with her clients. “Many of them don’t want to sing their own praises or come across as vain. Many are also asked why they’re not fully occupied with research.’

Input on social media is seen to be a waste of time in some cases. Geu then encourages the researchers to be a role model for early career researchers by occasionally tweeting about their enthusiasm for their specialist subject, or how they ended up conducting their current research. Not every tweet has to present results and success stories after all. It’s often sufficient to clarify a process or write about the challenges and hurdles in research. That might even sometimes spark a debate, like the Twitter campaign in which researchers denounce precarious working conditions in academia.

Describing processes, sparking debate

has also enjoyed positive experiences through openness and courage on social networks. He tells us that one of his most popular posts was a LinkedIn article in which he describes a negative experience he endured as the author of an academic publication. ‘Numerous people subsequently informed me that they had experienced similar issues. It was encouraging to receive this positive feedback and to realise that I’m not alone,’ he says.

Many researchers are also concerned about being attacked online or receiving uncontrollable hostility or insults. Ariane Ferreira Nunes Alves circumvents these risks by thinking very carefully about what she posts. ‘I avoid writing polemically, and always formulate my tweets with a friendly tone and in language that is simple, yet accurate.’

This is how social networks can become an opportunity for researchers to develop a public profile with expert status and bearing. And of course this doesn’t instantly have to be to an audience of millions.

Continue reading on the Alumniportal Deutschland

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Since the Corona pandemic at the latest, the word science communication has been on everyone's lips. Here you will find an overview of various formats, contributions and events on the topic.

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