Friday, 6 March 2015

My Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship about Science on Social Media

Image from:
This January I visited London for an interview. I was feeling nervous and excited and, as I usually handle challenging situations, I tweeted about it. People on twitter offered words of encouragement and support. Some of the people that tweeted I have met and know well, others I only know through twitter (and I don't even know their real name). With all of these people I have built relationships completely online and we have shared advice, interesting news stories and silly memes. The tweeting helped, I found at the end of February that I was successful. The twitter conversations I had just before the interview helped me get through the interview, and reinforced my feelings about why I was there.

The interview was for a project focusing on how science is shared via social media with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. The project is a Travel Fellowship and I'm going to be meeting with people across the USA, China and Japan to see how they are approaching science communication via online channels. The aims of the project are to meet, experience and learn how individual scientists and science communicators use social media and how research groups can communicate via social media as a whole, rather than as individuals (a challenge on certain networks such as twitter that are based around personalities and often informal conversations). I will be exploring personal stories, policies and strategies about engagement online.

I often share personal experiences when I speak to others and deliver training on how social media can be used to discuss research work and/or build professional networks. The stories I have are overwhelmingly positive. I used twitter as a support network throughout my PhD, I shared posts about my research work and received positive comments and I was invited to be an 'official blogger' for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at a major conference in San Diego where I was presenting my PhD research work. All of these elements helped me get my current job as a Public Engagement Project Officer but they also allowed be to build a wide academic research network at a very early stage of my career. I made a decision to leave research for Public Engagement based on a number of reasons but I have no-doubt that those activities would have supported me if I had continued to a post-doc role. While I travel I want to build and expand on my own experiences and explore personal stories about science communication online, both good and bad, with the aim of creating some case studies and explore some misconceptions, challenges and how different cultures approach social media.

I'm putting this blog post out there to let people know more about my project, but also as a signpost for new contacts and collaborations. My plan is to be in the USA in June and I will travel to MIT, Yale, Washington, Toronto and Seattle.

Social media is arguably making the world a smaller place, but I am taking the time to travelling to people so I can see how social media integrates into their lives, rather than just seeing the outputs on social media. i will also immerse myself in the different cultures and environments. As part of the fellowship I will also be looking at how training is delivered to researchers and communicators about social media use.  

Of course, I will be blogging about my experiences here but I am also open to guest posts and I am considering blogging about my project via a network. I'm still at the planning stage so any input from others would be appreciated.  

I am incredibly excited about this opportunity. I am still forming my plan and I expect it to evolve. I want to open up an invitation to others to get in contact with me as I am very keen to chat with others.

Even if we can't meet up. There's always Skype.

I also wanted to use this post as an opportunity to thank those that have supported me, commented on posts, shared posts and just been responsive online. I do not think I would have completed my PhD without the support networks on twitter. I wanted to call out, Lou Woodley (and her awesome blog about communities and academia online), Sci Curious (and her awesome blog), Biochem- belle (and her awesome blog), Neil Denny (a previous Churchill Fellow and creator of the Little Atoms podcast), EVERYONE at ASBMB, the incredible resource created by the Thesis Whisperer and last but not least, Dr James D Moffatt for his weekly BEER HORN call and for once sending me biscuits in the post when I was in the middle of writing my thesis.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

'Careers' in Science Communication

Last week I was invited to speak at a Biomedical careers event at the University of Aberdeen about Careers in Science Communication. I thought others might find the presentation useful (especially some of the links) so I have included it below.

I put a post out on twitter for gif's and images that encapsulated the 'field' of science communication. The brilliant Matthew from created these two gems.

I only had a limited amount of time for the talk so I gave a little background about what I did as a student (Editor and co-founder of Au Science Magazine) and how I have worked at science festivals and present the Talking Science radio show with the team in my current role.

I spoke about the field in general, how there isn't really a 'career path' and that there is a large variety in styles and types of communication. My presentation links to  lots of resources and sources for people that were interested, including  Julie Gould's great resource, 'Speaking of science', where you can find case studies from people in the science communication field and Jo Brodie's excellent @scicommjobs list.

It's important for students (and scientists) to know that the skills involved in science communication are extremely useful if you are planning on applying for other fields after your degree and if you wish to continue in research.

I thought people might find the presentation useful (especially some of the links). So here is the Prezi I used. It includes a cartoon astronaut.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Academic Productivity app review: Buffer

This is a series of review posts focusing on apps and tools which may help people navigate the digital landscape and the masses of information out there. I focus on tools which might help academic's and those that work with research, especially those that will save people time. This post lists more tools and tricks. 

Buffer sells itself as 'Social Media Management' application and that is pretty self explanatory about what it does. You can schedule posts, post from multiple accounts simultaneously and generate statistics such as the number of clicks on a link and audience size, allowing you to refine you content, post at the best times and generally be better and more active on social media with minimal effort.

I am finding Buffer incredibly useful and enjoyable to use. It was really simple to integrate it into my posting and social media use and has allowed me to better manage my posting schedule and saved me lots of time.

I've been using Buffer for just over a month now thanks to a recommendation by a colleague, Amy Hayward. I do not say this lightly, in order for a new tool or app to embed itself into my life it needs to hit a few key criteria (as experienced when I reviewed Habit RPG which aims to change your bad habits).

A good app or tool needs to:
- not have a laborious sign-up and set-up procedure (I do not want to write another profile biography)
- make my life easier
- actually give me something useful

Buffer manages to do all of them. It also complements me about how successful my posts are so that is a winning feature (It says lovely things like, 'all of your posts are doing well today').

For day-to-day social media use I use the twitter app or and I know this is old school and people like to use fancy new tools but I am a creature of habit and I prefer the simple interfaces to what other management tools offer.

Buffer's main alternatives are Hootsuite and Tweetdeck and although they are incredibly useful when managing social media campaigns, multiple twitter/facebook accounts and when needing to watch several feeds simultaneously (when live-tweeting an event for example) I find them more cumbersome and complicated than and the free options do not offer me anything extra that I need to make them worthwhile. If I am just logging on to look up what is going on at a moment in time then my go-to is the basic platform.

Buffer works for me as it integrates through my browser (Chrome) with the basic platforms so I can use it's functions without changing my normal habits on social media.

Buffer that tweet (schedule it for later..)! 
You can sign in to a number of platforms and accounts including Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin (Google+ and too) so you can post simultaneously (if you want to). The free version of Buffer does limit the number of accounts you can connect with but you can upgrade to 'awesome' if you have a lot. You can schedule posts or post immediately. Buffer automatically makes a suggestion of when to post. This is important because if you have a number of things you want to tweet but aren't too fussed about when they go out the app will automatically space them for you, rather than you inputting the times manually or logging back in later in the day to tweet.

It automatically shortens links and allows you to post content from one social media platform easily to another (e.g. twitter to Facebook). This is all without accessing social media from an alternative page.

You can even buffer retweets! 

The Buffer blog is a fantastic resource too. It offers support and advice on how to get the most out of different social media sites,  keeps you updated what changes in social media mean and hosts general discussion about topics relating to social media keeping you up to date with the latest social media information.

The only downsides of Buffer are that you can't access your social media feeds through the app or website. You can schedule posts and view your stats but not much else. I haven't really been using Buffer as an app on my phone either as it is a little clunky (see image attached where my stats are going off screen). This is compared with accessing Buffer through a web browser (below)
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I haven't been paid by Buffer or any other social media tool to write this post. I'm just sharing because I think others might find this review useful.

Most useful for: Creatures of habit, social media newbies and occasional users who want to generate some statistics and schedule some posts.

Least useful for: Social media campaign managers with multiple accounts (5+) to juggle (unless you upgrade to the Awesome version).

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Integrating social media into researcher careers

Social Media apps
Following my post on measures of success on social media I read a paper on 'A critical evaluation of science outreach via social media: it's role and impact on scientists' published on the F1000 website which is well worth a read.

The authors come to a similar conclusion my previous blog post, that the measurement of social media success needs to reach beyond simple number metrics in order to fully understand how beneficial (or not) social media channels are to academic researchers for outreach and their careers.

The paper suggests three important elements which would allow the integration of social media for outreach (SOSM) into a scientists career which are:
1) It must be valued (by research funders and by universities)
2) It must be measured (the jury is still out on what this would look like)
3) It must be manageable

I agree with the three elements but would also suggest that the efforts on social media must also feedback into the research to be truly useful and sustainable. If benefits are not received from an activity then they are less likely to continue.

At the moment, until we know how to measure value, I think universities could help researchers explore if social media networks do have benefits by better supporting and integrating researchers and research groups who are undertaking online engagement. At the moment individual social media accounts are often disconnected from institution accounts (which generally have large audiences) and exist in isolation. I think bringing them together could help raise the profile of all involved and gain bigger reach of scientific outputs and discussion. This would also help create case studies and potentially wider sharing of best practice of online engagement - which can span across research disciplines.

Research funders and institutions need to be more supportive and comfortable with individual researcher voices too, particularly on networks such as twitter. It is extremely difficult to build audiences and networks without inputting a personal voice and I think this could be a barrier to using online methods of engagement. A level of trust is required between the two is needed for this this to be a success also.

I learnt from the paper that studies in the USA have shown that female scientists are more likely to be involved with outreach activities than male but that female scientists are less likely to participate in online engagement.

The paper doesn't really explore the nature of why scientists choose not to engage online, beyond citing surveys that state a lack of time as the biggest factor. I suggest that a lack of knowledge about how to engage online and/or a attitude of 'why bother' when the benefits are yet to be understood and widely recognised. There also needs to be wider discussion about the fear of online engagement. Careers have been damaged through social media networks and many cases have been widely reported in mass media.

If you are interested in reading further how researchers are using social media networks at the moment this Nature survey makes interesting reading.

How to cite: McClain C and Neeley L. A critical evaluation of science outreach via social media: its role and impact on scientists [v1; ref status: awaiting peer review,] F1000Research 2014, 3:300 (doi:10.12688/f1000research.5918.1)

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Creating effective social media networks; why it isn't all about numbers.

In my current job I help researchers engage with the public about their research work. I talk with them about how they might engage with particular groups of people or how they might think about structuring a public talk. I especially like talking with people about different ways they can engage and how they might think about using online tools and social media to engage with others about what they are doing. This post is about maximising the potential of social media networks for engagement and measuring success online. It isn't all about the numbers....

The first thing I ask is, 'why do you want to do this?' Followed closely by, 'who is it you want to engage with or reach?' This second question is so important. It's no use chatting to fellow researchers and tweeting links to scientific research papers if you want to speak to people outside of the research field about their views on nature. Tailoring content and building the right network of contacts is so important to minimise wasted time and to use social media platforms to their full potential.

Now, social networks aren't all about a purpose or end goal. They can be a release and just an enjoyable place to spend a few hours. I didn't join social networks for the main purpose of personal gain. When I started to use twitter I didn't think about what I wanted to get out of it. I  joined because I was bored one afternoon and I had heard (via Ben Goldare's badscience book) that there were lots of people on twitter that were interested in setting right misreported science and stopping the UK government from cutting science funding. Turns out there were, they did an excellent job and they are a lovely bunch of folk too. I can't say that I contributed to that campaign. I supported and watched but I quickly realised that twitter could help me as a PhD student and that I had things to say, views about my own work and science, and that people were interested and engaged with me.

This was over 5 years ago and since then many others have realised the value social networks can serve as a tool for many end goals, including crowdfunding research. More people want to get involved and often 'social media' is thrown in as a buzz word on grant applications as a dissemination tool, but setting up an account and sporadically posting content isn't the best method of getting the most out of social media.

If you are just starting out then you might quickly realise - regardless of your social media medium of choice - that in order for it to be useful to you then you need some connections whether they are followers/likes/friends/commenters. A network isn't a network without people in it. But it is a mistake to judge solely on the numbers.  Quite often people quote simple numbers as measures of how successful they are online. There are a lot of spam accounts and you might build a huge network by discussing the in-and-outs of football but that follower number doesn't mean you have a large influence on what an audience thinks about science - although you might - but how can you measure that? As you see numbers can be a measure but looking for big numbers might mean you miss out on real benefits.

I'm not the only, or the first, person to think about this. I like this quote from Andrew Maynard, in his article about social media and science communication , "..every hour spent writing pieces like this is an hour lost to something else I should be doing. Which is why I’m constantly grappling with how I determine the worth of the videos I make and the articles I write."

There have been multiple attempts to try and track and rate online influence too , through tools like Klout. I haven't seen a tool that is truly insightful though and useful enough to use as a metric for tracking success.

So what do you measure?

The problem the belief that people should use a one size-fits-all model. This will not work. Firstly, all social media networks are different so a 'like' on facebook doesn't equal a follower on twitter. Interactions are subtle and hard to measure. You need to be familiar with the platform and how it works to get the most out of it and to understand what is worth measuring.

Really, you can only judge success based on your aims. Let's say your aim is to engage with the local community about their history.  If you get 25 people actively involved on a Facebook group sharing historical content that could equal success. The active sharing is key  here. If you had 300 likes on a page about local history with no active posting or sharing then that isn't really a success even though the stat of 300 likes is higher than 25.

As a PhD student your marker of success could be securing a post-doctoral position. Like all good research you need to determine what you want to do before you launch into it. Of course, unexpected excellent things can happen too. The biggest mistake is getting bogged down in the numbers.

If you have thought about and set your measures. Where do you go from there? 
How do you build a relevant network or audience?

In order for a social network to be useful a certain number of connections are needed. A certain level of activity is also needed. The network needs to be present and useful/of interest to those in it.  The point of being on twitter or other networks isn't necessarily about growing a network of hundreds and thousands of followers. If you are looking to grow your network what are the best, most meaningful ways of achieving it?
  • Search for your audience. See what your audience is posting about, where they are posting it and when they are online. 
  • Pick the right social network to use. A Facebook page usually isn't the answer. 
  • Match your content to your audience. Always have that in mind when you post. 
  • If appropriate, use hashtags that your target audience are using and respond to. Use the hashtags to engage in conversation with others. If regular chats happen about a topic of interest then join in (for a guide on twitter see here)
  • Make yourself available for comments (if you are looking for engagement)
  • Join in conversations.
  • Be present. 
  • If you are looking to start something with a community that you cannot find online then don't make social media your first point of call. Reach out to them in person and find if an online source might be useful. 
Grow purposefully not for the sake of growing your follower number.

I want to hear more about useful measures and ways of presenting them. If more people map what they are trying to do and how they get there (perhaps by blogging?) then others can follow, adjust and use for their own aims.

Useful information might emerge from this too - like an ideal number of people in a Facebook group for it to be active and informative. Too few people and there isn't enough momentum to keep the group interesting, too many and conversations aren't conversations they are just singular posts. Where is the tipping point?

High numbers of followers on twitter can be useful as it ensures that when you post at least a number of them will see it before it drops off the timeline - but the same thing can happen - over a certain number of followers means you get too many responses to read. Is that still useful or just time consuming?

If you are interested in conversations like this and interested in community structure and how they work then I would highly recommend reading Lou Woodley's Social in Silico blog.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Age of Discovery (How old are people when they do their best scientific research?)

Science is an extremely competitive field, getting research funding requires an excellent track record and researchers judge themselves against their peers. I wrote a blog post about the number of publications scientists are 'supposed' to have per year in order to be competitive on fellowships and grant applications a few years ago. I am surprised at the number of people that find that post by  searching for 'How many research papers should I have?' . It's a worry or thought most researchers have throughout their careers. There is of course no magic number and there's a need for a track record of quality publications vs a quantity of publications.

The ultimate accolade for a scientist is being awarded a Nobel Prize and I came across an interesting infographic about the age of Nobel Prize winners (when they completed their prize winning work) and also how that relates to the age at which they wrote their PhD dissertation. I have included it at the bottom of this post. Before 1905 2/3rds of Nobel Prize winners completed their 'winning' work before the age of 40. Post 1905 the average age is 48. I am surprised that the average dissertation age is 33. I thought it would be more in the mid-20s.

Of course the age of someone when they make a world changing discovery is also influenced by their peers, mentors and often by the technology and equipment available at the time.

If you want to hear from Nobel Prize winners about their career paths and hear their advice for current researchers. I've just discovered this resource of videos of Nobel Prize winners inspiring others through their stories. I'm looking forward to watching quite a few of these. This video is about choosing a research project but there are also videos on dealing with surprises and setbacks during your research career.

How should young scientists choose a research project?

The infographic about Nobel Prize winners is below. I always try and remember when reading lists and summaries though, especially when it comes to research,  that all projects and research pathways are unique and no two people take the same path. 


Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Can Research Groups communicate as a collective rather than as individuals?

Image courtesy of jscreationzs at
I'm speaking to more and more research groups about how they can get online and share their work via social media.

I used some of the thoughts and diagrams from 'An introduction to social media for Scientists' published in PLOS Biology 2013 to illustrate some of the thoughts, barriers and journeys to engaging online in a short talk I gave..

I'm looking to speak to more people and read more case studies about how collective research groups have shared their science openly online - rather than the science being communicated by single individuals -  which I see to be more commonplace. Research rarely exists in isolation so I see more groups moving to this collated model.

Communicating as a group is, in theory, easier than as a single entity as there is potentially more to discuss and potentially less onus on one individual to provide all the narrative. That said, it is more difficult for people to communicate as a group as you are representing more voices and within a research environment everyone needs to be happy about what is being said. Relationships within research groups aren't always easy and that can mean that communication can stall. Communicating as a group also takes more input from people to organise and co-ordinate so although individuals might not have to contribute as much content, their time might be dedicated to the outputs in other ways.

For the receiver it may be difficult to engage with a group communication rather than an individual as it can lose the personal connection. Especially on twitter, group accounts can become static and exist only to announce outputs and information, rather than real engagement with an audience.

The use of social media by scientists has been criticised by some, including a Nobel Laureate,  as being 'self-promotion' and that, isn't 'science'. I was at that discussion and disagreed with it completely at the time but would communication by groups, rather than individuals avoid this? Or does it just prevent many of the benefits that can come from social media if used as an individual voice?

I am really interested in discussing this further and some ways people have used to overcome the barriers to communicating as a group.

Here's my prezi talk for those that are interested!