Tweeting Science

Infographic: Catherine Pratt

I was at a dinner recently and the conversation turned to social media.  Some of the parents around the table, almost all of them scientists, were lamenting the great life distraction of social media in its hydra-headed form – Twitter, Facebook, or any of the endless variety of virtual rabbit holes down which one can disappear these days.

I asked them whether any of them would consider using Twitter or another type of social media as a part of their own work.

To put it politely, there was not much enthusiasm for social media as a means of scientific exchange, for a variety of reasons.

First and foremost, the question was: Why bother? Communication, interaction, information dissemination via email, telephone, publication and conferences all work just fine these days without adding new forms to the mix.

Another issue was the unchecked free broadcast of anyone pitching a project or theory without the benefit of peer review or verification right alongside trusted institutions and publications. Then there was the issue that had started the whole conversation, the waste-of-time factor.

Illustration:  Thanamat Somwan

Illustration: Thanamat Somwan

A recent study, The role of Twitter in the life cycle of a scientific publication, published in the journal Ideas in Ecology and Evolution, discusses some of these issues as well as others when it comes to the exchange and broadcast of scientific work via Twitter.

David Shiffman, one of the study co-authors who was recently named one of the top biologists to follow on Twitter (@WhySharksMatter) by the Huffington Post, was quoted in an article as saying, “Social media, which allows information to be shared instantly around the world, gives internet-savvy scientists the ability to drastically accelerate the pace of scientific communication and collaboration.”

It’s no secret that a lot of what happens on social networks is the virtual equivalent of chatter and noise. After all, that’s the purpose for which they were invented.

But I’ve observed Twitter discussions develop on everything from rare bird counting to phylogenetic trees to new reptile tracking technology. As a means of promoting science as a part of daily life, social media can play a key role in attracting people who might otherwise never read the Science section of their online news source.

Although the study sample was small – 116 marine scientists – my feeling is that as young scientists who grew up with social media enter the research community, this kind of exchange will become increasingly natural. And in a period of information overload, it might even be a way to make sure that good work doesn’t get lost in the flood.


Ideas in Ecology and Evolution studyThe role of Twitter in the life cycle of a scientific publication by E.S. Darling, D. Shiffman, I.M. Cȏté, and J.A. Drew

The A to Z of Social Media for Academia – An initiative to encourage academics to share information about the latest platforms for use by academics in their professional lives. This is more about tools which can used to create or curate content, rather than a list of resources for use in academia. It is hosted by Prof. Andy Miah, Chair of Ethics and Emerging Technologies and Director of the Creative Futures Institute at the University of the West of Scotland.

Guerrilla Cartography

Cameron Reed / Food: An Atlas

Cameron Reed / Food: An Atlas

I just read about a project I find intriguing on a number of levels. It’s called Food: An Atlas, and it is an attempt by a loose and shaggy collection of cartographers, researchers, and I am guessing more than a few activists in both groups to literally map out food production and distribution around the world.

It is interesting that with all the statistics, data and technological potential we have at our fingertips, collating information to get a true-ish picture of  production, distribution and consumption in the real world remains a challenge. This isn’t just true of food, it’s true of carbon footprints, oil, water, and almost anything else beyond a single specific product such as coffee or bananas.

A project of this kind isn’t just interesting for the maps it will produce, or the information we can glean from any given illustration. It provides a way forward for the kind of cooperation and interdisciplinary thinking we need on a global level. The map on the left, for example, was put together by a Berkeley high school student for a class project. Assuming a certain level of oversight, this kind of collaboration allows people at all different levels of expertise to make a genuine contribution.

It also brings out the best in what social media has to offer. In June 2012, Darin Jensen – a UC Berkeley professor of cartography – put out the call for maps that examined food production and distribution. And maps on everything from local markets and snack trucks to the international trade agricultural products and regional meat production started coming in. I expect the upcoming book will be as shaggy as the coalition of people who put it together, and will only be the beginning of the project, but what an inspiration. What a start.

And, as always, I love innovative ways of presenting information. The next step will be to see just how this kind of information, once gathered, can be implemented on the newly charted ground.

Find out more on their Facebook page. You can pre-order the book at Guerrilla Cartography or read about them here and here.