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May 15, 2012 / caitlynzim

All A’Twitter: How Social Media Aids in Science Outreach – Introduction

For those of you who would like to take your time and read my lengthy master’s project chapter by chapter, here it is. Enjoy and please leave me questions and comments! Also, I apologize for the citations without links, most of the articles are hidden behind paywalls but I will post the bibliography if you are so interested.

Introduction:

Science is a distinct process. Scientists complete research, write up a paper describing their research, submit it to a scientific journal, and wait to hear the results. Fellow scientists review the paper (a process called “peer review”) and either accept or reject publishing the paper in the journal. No matter the outcome – acceptance or rejection – scientists repeat this process over and over again until the researcher has enough papers published to feel accomplished. This process holds many benefits: readers know scientific journal articles are factual and trusted sources. However, this process has a negative side as well.

The peer review process hides research papers within costly journals and communicates science in a manner only readable to fellow scientists. Politicians are not able to easily pick up a journal article and understand the information enough to use the science to support legislation; some politicians work with scientists to better understand current research, however these are few and far between. Scientific journal articles also present problems for laypeople. The scientific jargon typically used inside journal articles keeps laypeople from truly understanding the scientific research taking place and leaves them confused and in the dark concerning recent scientific discoveries and advancements.

At first glance, one would not find this a major issue. Science is for science’s sake and why does it matter if other people can or cannot understand, correct? In light of the recent changes with the economy and environment, however, the above statement is not holding true. More and more funding agencies want to see scientists prove their worth (Zivokic): why is their research important to society? How does it pertain to the larger picture of what is going on in the world? Once you have discovered what you are hoping to discover, what can we do with the new information (cure a disease, solve the energy crisis, etc)? This information is also vital to support smart pieces of legislation. Unfortunately, scientific journals do not answer these questions, forcing scientists to realize the validity of sharing their research with a larger audience.

A variety of resources are available to scientists to help solve this communication issue. Scientists have begun using social media sites – such as Twitter, Facebook and blogging – to aid in disseminating their research to a wider audience. Social media are electronic communication platforms that convey content generated and exchanged by networks of users (Auer 2011). These powerful tools allow for fast information sharing which many scientists use to exchange with other scientists, policy makers and laypeople (Zivkovic); social media is a way for scientists to communicate with people who care, for free (Girald 2009) potentially throughout the globe (Lines 2010). There is no formal right and wrong way to use social media, however there are techniques to help facilitate success and make using social media easier and more enjoyable. The issue is then encouraging scientists to use social media and teaching scientists these good social media practices.

The aim of this master’s project is to investigate the use of social media as an aid to science outreach. I combined information gathered from a case study with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coastal Services Center (CSC) as well as information from a survey distributed to other structured agencies such as non-profits, other government agencies, research institutions and private organizations as well as to scientific researchers. I asked the question of whether social media could help disseminate information to a larger audience than previously reached, what value scientists and agencies find in social media, and which social media sites prove most successful in order to determine a set of best practices for social media use whether you are an independent scientist or within a structured institution.

By working with a NOAA agency, I was able to experience first hand what it is like to utilize new tools, such as social media, inside of a government agency. Social media is a toolset that has the potential to connect the government to the average person in an easy, informal way. However, as with most government agencies, nothing is simple. To many of the people I worked with (if not all of them), social media was a brand new concept; they knew of social media but had never used it before. New things can be scary, especially with today’s government mentality of “screw up and risk losing your job.” Therefore, I had to determine how best to teach my colleagues about social media while reassuring them that we were correct and would be successful. Since then, everyone has relaxed and is now much more comfortable with the idea of social media. Some of them have even embraced personal social media accounts and are working towards spreading their own science opinions and knowledge.

I designed the survey to investigate the more general research questions I had concerning social media. By distributing it to both independent scientists as well as to those individuals that maintain social media accounts for larger institutions, I was more able to gain insight into all sides of the issue. I made sure to ask basic questions concerning social media use on a personal level and background knowledge of social media sites. I also expanded my questioning into broader areas involving scientists and institutions not using social media to determine the reasons and concerns behind this choice in the hopes of addressing them in my conclusions.

The ultimate goal of this master’s project is to create a set of best practices for social media use to aid in science outreach. There are many basic rules and guidelines posted on the Internet concerning how to use social media effectively, many of them focused on scientists’ use. However, an overwhelming majority of these guides are based on personal experiences of the author and not a broader survey of social media’s use. My project will fill this gap and give scientists a guide they can use to be successful with social media no matter if they are using it to promote their own research or the research of their organizations.

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