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June 12, 2012 / caitlynzim

All A’Twitter: How Social Media Aids in Science Outreach – Chapter 9/10

Chapter 9: Gathering Survey Results

For this one, I will refer to the online version. This is where I get into a lot of the raw data from my survey and there are too many graphs and figures to enter into WordPress. I will, however, give you a bonus chapter!

Chapter 10: Coming to Conclusions

In order to draw conclusions, we need to first look back to the research questions. As I stated in the introduction, I designed this survey to investigate the use of social media in science outreach. More specifically, I wanted to determine if social media could reach a larger audience than previously attained, what value scientists and agencies found from social media use and which social media sites proved most effective for the overall goals of outreach. I also wanted to gather rules and guidelines scientists and institutions used to govern social media use in order to design a set of best practices.

The case study with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coastal Services Center (CSC) on their Multipurpose Marine Cadastre (MMC) project gave me the most insight into whether or not social media could effectively increase the audience size for outreach. The simple answer is yes. By pushing the MMC’s content out through social media, especially Twitter, we were able to increase the total webhits by 100% with a growing number of followers. Certain social media sites are more suited to different goals; Twitter was much more effective for our purposes, while Facebook has taken a much longer time to catch-­‐on and still has not reached the status we would like. Therefore, it is wise to scrutinize the type of content you will be producing, your audience and your needs based on what each site offers, before choosing the social media site you use.

Many of the scientists that responded to my survey also stated that they used social media sites to reach a wider audience than they would previously be able to attain. When asked for their biggest reasons for using social media, many said that they were able to reach an audience outside of the scientific community, they were able to reach an important market, expose more people to science, promote their science and communicate with a wider audience. Most social media sites have user numbers in the millions with many socioeconomic backgrounds represented. This means that no matter your intended audience, you can find a social media site that will help you to reach it, effectively.

The majority of the scientists surveyed stated that networking was the biggest value they gained from social media. This included networking with scientists in other fields, scientists they are currently working on research projects with (to keep everyone in the group updated), and even networking for funding opportunities.

Many scientists describe the sense of community they have gained with other scientists in and out of their field of research that has helped them gain exposure for research opportunities and co-­‐authoring. Other scientists stated that social networking helped them to land jobs and research positions in addition to helping them connect with a larger public community than they would have otherwise.

Another value gained from social media is the ability to hone and improve communication skills. Scientists said that writing blogs forced them to focus on their topic and clarify ideas in order for a wide variety of audience members to comprehend their research. Scientists also enjoy the aspect of learning new science research without having to seek out the information themselves. Scientists are able to read about interesting discoveries they might have otherwise missed while the information is passed to them through an easy medium.

Institutions, such as CSC, have found value in being able to quantify their reach and determine the amount of people relying on their projects. That way, they are able to give quantitative data for why that project should receive funding, not get cancelled, or require additional resources. Today, it is more important than ever to be able to show data proving that a project is meaningful and necessary in order to continue receiving funding and support. Social media, and using web statistic software, can fill the void for finding relevant data.

Social media also allows institutions to be more accessible to audiences that previously felt disjointed and lost in the void. Government institutions, for example, become more open to direct communication; the average person is now able to tweet the President, NOAA, or other institutions. Depending on site monitoring and volume, that person might not be replied to in a timely manner; however, he or she has a much better chance than previously in getting a response from any of these agencies.

There are a wide variety of social media sites. New sites pop up almost daily and no one can ever tell which sites will stay around and which ones will fall to the dust. Based on my research, both scientific institutions and independent scientists use Twitter and Facebook more than other social media sites; blogging sites come in a close third (independent scientists actually use blogging more than Twitter and Facebook). Twitter is estimated to have just reached 500 million users, while Facebook announced last year that it reached over one billion users (Bennett 2012). A previous study done investigating social media use by research scientists found that 27% of scientists use social media sites such as Facebook, 14.6% of them use blogging sites, and 9.2% use microblogging sites such as Twitter for research purposes (Nicholas et al 2011).

An important aspect to consider, however, is active users. Active users are defined as users who log on to the social media site at least once a month. Facebook is estimated to have 750 million active users (Crum). Another important aspect is amount of traffic on the site per day; Twitter has over 140 million tweets per day (Crum). Within just those two sites, there is a great deal of potential for distribution of your message.

There are still many questions regarding social media use left unanswered. Two of these questions turn up in almost every conversation with non-­‐social media users: How do I know what I am reading is trusted without peer-­‐review? And how do I protect my research from being scooped by another researcher after I have posted it online? The first question is easier to answer. There is no formal peer-­‐review process for social media; if there was, we would be back to the long cyclical scientific process we are trying to break away from in the first place. However, there is an informal process that helps readers to trust the source. After a scientist posts a blog, other scientists and people all over the Internet have the opportunity to read the blog. If there is something fishy in the writing or statements not backed up by facts, readers will call the author out. The author then has the responsibility to back up their claims, fix their errors, take the blog down, or risk loosing all credibility on the Internet. What this means for other readers is that you need to be an educated reader; take the time to read – or at least skim – the comments to check for these types of call outs.

The second question, how to protect your ideas, is not so easily answered. The Internet is a tricky place; once content is posted, it is out there forever, for all to see and use how they see fit and is almost impossible to monitor. This means that when you put your content on the web, you run the risk of someone else taking it and scooping your idea. This is one of the main reasons a majority of medical professionals are not involved in social media (Zivkovic, 2011). Unfortunately, there is no good way to handle this issue as of yet. It might seem overly optimistic, but the community that has formed on social media comprised of scientists from all areas of research does a great job of protecting each other and their research. There is a seemingly unspoken rule that says, help to protect other scientists’ ideas and they will help protect yours. Whether or not this is true, it is at least a known issue and one that is consciously being worked on.


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