Some thoughts on Twitter, and accessibility in science

By Emma Atkinson

I am an undergraduate entering my fourth year in Biological Sciences at Simon Fraser University (SFU). I ask a lot of questions, and I love that science rewards my curiosity by giving me a framework to tackle these questions. I love that my early scientific endeavours have taught me the fundamentals of experimental design, techniques, and analysis, and I love that they have also taught me to scuba-dive, drive boats, and hammer a nail (or several hundred…).

More and more, I find myself interested in how the answers to questions we ask as scientists are communicated (to each other, to decision makers, to the public), and how they are (or are not) translated into changes in action and in policy down the road. Perhaps the recent political climate in Canada sparked this interest. Or perhaps it was working in the lab of a professor who writes op-eds telling Justin Trudeau what to do.  In any case, it resulted in my investigating funding options for attending the Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) taking place in Ottawa this November. While the organizers make efforts to welcome students including a discounted student rate and volunteer opportunities, it turns out that there are very scant resources for undergraduates seeking to attend conferences – or at least for this particular undergraduate.

I was discouraged and contemplating the feasibility of biking to Ottawa (very low) when the #IMCC4 hashtag made a timely arrival on Twitter. This past week, the 4th annual International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) was held in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Scientists from around the world migrated to the beautiful Atlantic city to share their research, discuss ideas, and connect with fellow researchers and educators. They also posted 35,000 tweets over the course of the 5-day conference. Thirty-five thousand!SURJ_blog_4 Spending the better part of five days pouring over 140-character snippets encompassing talk summaries, commentary, and questions, I reflected on how thoroughly I felt included in a conference happening on the other side of the country.

Science communication or #scicomm is having a moment. There are many who exalt the benefits of Twitter literacy for scientists, and there are those who argue that “serious” science and Twitter are mutually exclusive. The former put forward that science communication on platforms like Twitter and blogs facilitates bridging an often gaping divide between academics and the public. These platforms force us to communicate our work concisely and are often far more inviting than the equally important, but much more daunting peer-reviewed articles that require readers navigate unfamiliar jargon and complicated figures. They also inspire young students to pursue science, and provide a space for conversations about things like gender equality in academia and poetic odes to spiders.

My experience tracking the IMCC hashtag on Twitter cemented another extremely important reason to promote “scicomm”. Engaging with Twitter, Instagram, etc. does more than facilitate communication with the public. Social media platforms increase accessibility within science:

– They allow undergraduates and others to participate in events like IMCC (and maybe CSPC!?) that they would not otherwise have access to.

– They provide scientists with direct access to decision makers.

Canadian Minister of the Environment, another virtual attendee of IMCC 2016.

– They provide scientists with access to wider audiences for their publications. A recent study found that highly tweeted articles were 11 times more likely to be highly cited*.

– They facilitate access to connections that might not otherwise be made between scientists.

Oh, the connections!

I am not trying to argue that we should abandon peer-reviewed articles, and convert to publishing the results of studies in 140-character tweets. Nor would I mandate that every scientist maintain three different social media accounts alongside their research. But it is important to acknowledge that science communication is about much more than “using social media to impress people that you know”, and as I find myself part of more and more scientific communities, it is interesting to continue thinking about the ever-growing list of ways science communication and science storytelling contribute to a richer, more engaging, and more inclusive field.


*Of course, it is difficult to tease apart whether this is a product of social media increasing citations or rather a reflection of the underlying quality of the articles themselves.


Emma Atkinson is entering her fourth year of Biological Sciences at SFU, and is an editor at SFU SURJ. She spent this summer studying jumping salmon babies. You can follow her on Twitter here


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