Planes, Spain and auto… mated out of office emails

The plan for this blog was intended to be a description and summation of the British Council sponsored conference I recently attended in the beautiful and inspiring Doñana national park in Spain. But instead I’m going to describe an experiment I carried out whilst there.

I am not a fan of online social networking, but effective communication of anyone’s work is just as essential as the work itself. And with so many people using social networking sites, surely it’s there for scientist’s disposal? I am sceptical though. The anonymous nature and ease of negativity online is disturbing, a generational bias may occur, and the online interactions made simply cannot compare to meeting someone face-to-face and understanding their real character.

But I’m intrigued.

UK and Spanish freshwater ecologists in search of that vital ingredient.

UK and Spanish freshwater ecologists in search of that vital ingredient.

This conference presented the chance to observe a cross-section of scientists (albeit within the freshwater area), young and old, of different nationalities and listen to their views on the use of social media in science communication (Darling et al. 2013 is an excellent read, encompassing a wider scientific subject area¹).

To test the power of online social communication I devised an experiment. I requested the conference organisers send out a hashtag (#ecologyofwaters) prior to the conference that Twitter users could quote when referring to our meeting. Therefore anything ‘tweeted’ could be stored on one page accessible to anyone. I started the ball rolling with the first comment on the 11th of October.

Within one week our tag had been quoted 130 times. This was mostly by people attending the conference stating scientific snaps from each presentation; but at least five users out-with the conference jumped on our bandwagon too e.g. an art/science company, an environmental news agency and a student contacting us a request for our thoughts on his PhD survey regarding conservation of freshwater lakes in Scotland (probably as he should have said lochs). Between the 5 people at the conference who use twitter we had around 2000 followers but our comments were often retweeted to potentially many more. This cumulative total was 30,000, with our tweets followed/discussed by researchers in 7 countries (3 continents). The conference programme was viewed from slideshare >500 times.

Now as a new user I don’t know if these numbers are good or bad, but what is obvious is that the issues discussed in a closed room of 30 people became available to those who could not be there or were interested from a professional or personal point of view.

On the final day of the meeting I told the whole conference about the hashtag i.e. including those who had no idea what Twitter was, and took a vote on three questions; 1. Who here uses Twitter and thinks it’s beneficial to science, 2. Who doesn’t use twitter and thinks it cannot help in science, and 3. Who doesn’t care?

Before I could count how many hands were up, the vote descended into a full blown, uncontrollable, hilarious debate on the communication of science. This was eventually brought under control with the announcement of a break for coffee.

Indiana Jones had to visit Doñana to realise that it was a dung beetle that started the boulder rolling in his quest for the lost ark

Indiana Jones had to visit Doñana to realise that it was a dung beetle that started the boulder rolling in his quest for the lost ark

Two main trains of though emerged from the discussion. The general thoughts of pro-Twitter users were: that it creates a two-way flow of information, has a greater speed of delivery and creates the potential for greater dissemination and communication of our work available to those who are interested but can’t otherwise get information from the ivory towers of academia. On the other hand we can be misrepresented, taken out of context, and communications that are short in length could be short in lifespan (this goes for individual tweets and the social media platform itself).

The purpose of this wasn’t to try and change people’s opinions; there were no criteria for success or failure. But it was refreshing, however, that even those opposed to social media were intrigued and curious by its potential; this could be related to the inherent, inquisitive nature of scientists.

Of all the animals inhabiting Doñana e.g. wild boar, fallow deer, badger, Egyptian mongoose, Imperial eagles and lynx, birdwatchers can be extremely hazardous if care is not taken upon approach.

Of all the animals inhabiting Doñana e.g. wild boar, fallow deer, badger, Egyptian mongoose, Imperial eagles and lynx, birdwatchers can be extremely hazardous if care is not taken upon approach.

One of the take home messages from Prof. Brian Moss was to integrate modern tools (without overusing them), don’t be afraid to take risks and be flexible. The use of Twitter meets these concepts, especially for work purposes i.e. expanding your online research network, reading blogs and integrating our work across other research areas. Although the line between online networking and procrastination can be extremely fine.

I often find that over-the-top self-promotion and positive thinking can be cringeworthy, but if we don’t do it for our own work who will? So maybe we shouldn’t be shameful of a little bit of self-flattery (providing the work is there to back it up), and social media is the perfect place to start.

Alan

P.s. thanks to Jonathon Grey (@drjongrey) for Twitter stats.

References

  1. Darling et al. (2013). The role of Twitter in the life cycle of a scientific publication. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 6: 32–43.

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