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Science Communication

The Emergence of Science Twitter: 140 characters of facts and…fun?

I started my personal Twitter account back in 2009 when it was a new player in a fast-growing social media scene. I joined as part of an assignment for an ornithology class I was taking as an undergraduate student. Being a class about birds, my professor thought it was a fun idea to task us with creating an account to tweet about bird behaviors we observed over the course of the semester. At the time, I went along with it and put in the work I needed to in order to meet my requirement. After that semester, my account went largely ignored. It wasn’t until I became a graduate student and began to see the importance of science communication that I realized how useful Twitter could be for scientists.

Admittedly, my re-entry into the world of science Twitter was self-serving and narrowly focused. I would use it to connect with people in my field and folks at conferences I was attending, as well as shamelessly promote my own publications. Recently, however, Twitter has also emerged as a way for scientists to to connect and communicate with a broader audience.

In an age of “alternative facts” and future policies potentially ignoring scientific facts, it has become critical for scientists to step out of the shadow, climb down from the ivory tower, and broaden their reach beyond publications in obscure journals. One of the challenges in engaging a broader audience come from the fact that many people can’t name a scientist (perhaps aside from Neil deGrasse Tyson). This prompted wildlife biologist, and the “Best Biologist on Twitter,” Dr. David Steen to tweet the following:

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Soon after tweeting this, the hashtag #actuallivingscientist started blowing up on Twitter. Scientists from around the world started tweeting out pictures of themselves and their work, introducing themselves to the Twitterverse. This is an important step for scientists looking to communicate. It shows that they are just like everyone else. In addition to the #actuallivingscientist tag, others from underrepresented groups in the sciences promoted their diversity (see #womeninscience, #pocinscience, and #LGBTscientist among others). The success of this thread also prompted science educators to bring this into their classrooms, creating bulletin board material for their students (Fig. 1). Here, young students get a real look at who and what scientists are, allowing them to see themselves in a future STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) career.

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Fig. 1: Educators have caught on with #actuallivingscientist and are promoting it in classrooms.

Twitter can be a useful tool for any scientists looking to make public engagement a lot easier. Anyone with an account can follow what the best and brightest minds in any STEM field are doing and can engage with them directly through the platform.

But science Twitter is at its best when scientists aren’t just tweeting dry facts or links to their papers. Scientists on Twitter have recently been engaging in “hashtag games,” sharing photos or moments that show a more humorous side, ultimately humanizing them. Below are some of the best hashtag threads started by scientists.

  1. #FieldworkFail: perhaps one of the first scientist “hashtag games,” scientists share stories of SNAFUs and mishaps when working outside of the lab and in the field (Fig. 2).
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Fig. 2: Many scientists have had their share of #fieldworkfails.

  1. #BestCarcass: biologists started sharing photos of dead creatures they came across, but soon non-scientists started contributing to the thread. These photos get pretty wild and include everything from a fox frozen in a block of ice to beached whales. (Note: must have a strong stomach to survive this thread, Fig. 3)
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Fig. 3: #bestcarcass might not be uplifting, but it is interesting!

  1. #DoesItFart: scientists took to Twitter to ask the really important question of which animals can fart. This Twitter thread was also linked to a google doc where experts on certain organisms could chime in on whether certain animals could pass gas (Fig. 4). Of course, if a scientist claimed an animal could fart, they supported it with a publication!
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Fig. 4: #Doesitfart answers the question you didn’t know you wanted to ask.

  1. #Cuteoff: Many biologists have an almost parent-like bias for their study species. This prompted the #Cuteoff, where scientists shared photos of their study species that they felt were particularly cute (Fig. 5).
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Fig. 5: Everyone always thinks THEIR species is the cutest.

  1. #Junkoff: well, life does ultimately boil down to reproduction, but many off us probably don’t know how many species breed or what their reproductive organs look like. Once again, biologists on Twitter stepped their game up and started tweeting pictures of the reproductive parts of their study organisms and had a #Junkoff (Fig. 6).
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Fig. 6: #Junkoff, presented without comment.

*Check out this recent piece published in American Scientist for more science hashtag games.

Now, more than ever, Twitter has become a place for scientists to rally and to let their voices be heard. Through Twitter, scientists have begun to stand up for science and facts (#USofScience), as well as respond en masse to absurd critiques (#dresslikeawoman, #distractinglysexy). This social media platform even provided the foundation for a worldwide movement (#MarchforScience).

While a lot of science remains inaccessible to the general public, whether due to the lack of open access (free) papers or whether you’d need an advanced degree to decipher the field-specific jargon contained in them, Twitter is helping make science accessible and fun. The beauty of Twitter lies in its required brevity (it’s hard to use jargon when you only have 140 characters!) and its ability to create direct connections with scientists. In an age where science communication is critical, Twitter provides scientists with a platform to communicate, share their research, and let them be themselves.

Gordon Ober
PhD. Student/Ecologist/Craft Beer Enthusiast

I am a doctoral student in the Thornber Lab at the University of Rhode Island. I am a climate scientist and marine community ecologist studying how climate change, specifically ocean acidification and eutrophication, alters coastal trophic interactions and species assemblages. Before starting at URI, I received a BS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut followed by 2 years as a research assistant in autism genetics at Yale University.

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