Feb 24, 2016

Interview Transcript

Interviewer: Is Twitter an effective tool for communicating science? We'll talk about that next on The Scope.

Announcer: Examining the latest research and telling you about the latest breakthroughs, The Science and Research Show is on The Scope.

Interviewer: I'm talking to Dr. Sara Yeo, Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Utah. You can find her on Twitter @sarakyeo. Dr. Yeo, what are the ways that people can use Twitter?

Dr. Yeo: I think for scientists it's a great way to have informal conversations with other people and it's a great way to meet new scientists. I say "meet" in air quotes, not meet them face-to-face, obviously, but have this conversation with someone you may not have approached or had the opportunity to approach at a conference. So I think there are many advantages to using something like Twitter, but I also know a lot of people who are lurkers on Twitter, for example, because of its ability to curate tweets by hashtag and to curate information based on categories.

You can search for information and follow that and get a lot of new sources, for example. A lot of people tweet about recent research that they have seen or interesting news articles. So I think a good way to start might be to lurk for a while and see whether you would want to join in the conversation.

Interviewer: It seems like there are different types of conversations that you can have.

Dr. Yeo: I think it can be used, first of all, just to share science broadly, to disseminate a research paper, research findings, a conference, and conference tweets are very popular. Conferences now have their hashtags. A lot of conferences have a screen when you login at the front, in the lobby or wherever you register, they have hashtag tweet scrolling about the conference from people who are live tweeting. So now you see a lot of people on their mobile devices at the conference.

Other ways that it can be used are to have these informal conversations with other scientists that are not geographically close. Email takes a much longer time. If they happen to be on Twitter you can have a quick conversation about a particular piece of research, a particular paper, maybe some challenges you might be facing in the lab or so on. So I think these are some of the ways that scientists have used Twitter more recently, and to have these debates, back and forth debates between each other.

Interviewer: Right, and that seems to be kind of the advantage, is that . . . I mean, it's one thing to stop your colleague in the hallway and talk about, "Hey, I just saw this paper today. Isn't this interesting?" But then you can have that same conversation on Twitter, but you can have it with dozens of people across the world.

Dr. Yeo: Yeah, I think that's certainly one of the appeals. I think the other appeal is that you can also put it away and come back to a conversation later by searching the hashtag and continue that conversation at some later date, once you've had a little more time to think about it. It's really breaking down, I think, the geographic barriers to collaborations, to sort of more open discussions, open informal discussions about science and research findings.

Interviewer: So we've been talking about how scientists use Twitter to discuss science amongst themselves, but how effective of a tool do you think it is for scientists to engage the public in the science in what they're doing, which can often be such a black box to them?

Dr. Yeo: The Arsenic Life case is a very good one. The case, a paper in December of 2010 was published by NASA astrobiologists and they claimed to grow bacterium on arsenic instead of phosphorus, which is a very paradigmatic change for biology. And this debate, the hypothesis was eventually refuted and refuted about 14 months later, which in terms of science and peer review is a very compressed period of time, a very condensed period of time.

And throughout this period of time, it remained salient at least in online news. A lot of this post publication review occurred in blogs, in particular a blog of a microbiologist in Canada. Her name is Dr. Rosemary Redfield. So science bloggers on Twitter and people who are interested kept this issue very relevant for any public audience who was watching or who was following this issue, and through this process media also picked this up.

So it became more prevalent in news media as well, because journalists are increasingly turning to Twitter to look for sources. In these ways it really opens up how science is done, how knowledge is certified through the peer review process, and then even post publication, there's additional informal review in open spaces that are much more transparent than what we have as traditional peer review.

Interviewer: But I'm wondering what audiences are people really reaching on Twitter? I mean, it seems like it's a self-selecting audience. If you're tweeting about science, probably the people who are reading it are either scientists or people who have an interest in science to begin with.

Dr. Yeo: I think that's absolutely true. It's definitely a self-selected audience who is going out and seeking information and news about science, and that's one of the things that we really need more research on. We know relatively little about the impacts of scientists' communications on social media platforms, things like Twitter and Facebook.

YouTube is another very exciting place to convey a lot of information in a very interactive sense. So we're in the very early stages of research in this area and so a lot more has to be done in terms of what the social networks actually look like, how many people is any one scientist actually reaching.

Interviewer: And what do you think a scientist can get out of tweeting?

Dr. Yeo: There have been some rewards that some folks point to, things like more visibility is a very clear one of these, and with more visibility comes things like more opportunities for funding, perhaps, more visibility of the institution. But there aren't any specific rewards, at least not right now. If you're a scientist at a university, for example, there aren't any specific rewards right now for your communication activities.

And certainly we are seeing a cultural shift in science or in academia from the times of Carl Sagan where he was really stigmatized almost for being such an effective public communicator with his show Cosmos. But I think we're seeing a gradual shift in how we view public communication. We're understanding that communication is a much more important and integral part of science and health. And in additional to that, we have all these federal funding agencies that have also been focused on these issues for a while. We're just sort of, in academia, we're catching up right now, I think

Announcer: Interesting, informative, and all in the name of better health. This is the Scope Health Sciences Radio.

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