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Beyond Science

They are the ones who make science accessible – researchers who blog and who are active on social networks are becoming the digital voices of the future. Digital science communication, however, is no longer a sideline. Those who want to be noticed will have to depend on Twitter and Co.

"Listen to the scientists”, the Fridays for Future movement has been preaching for years. The COVID pandemic, too, has shown us that the public expects a clear position, as well as transparent communication, from scientists. German scientists who have recently risen to fame, such as virologist Christian Drosten and chemist Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim, represent a new trend in science: communicating clearly to a lay audience.

The same is true for Stina Börchers. The neuroscientist is completing her PhD at the University of Göteborg in Sweden, where she studies communication between the gut and the brain and its effect on our emotions and eating habits. Since 2016, the 26-year-old has been allowing her more than 10,000 followers to share her work on Instagram. With her profile, she contributes to making science accessible to other people – science which to her when she started out seemed like an “impenetrable jungle”. “I often receive messages from high school students who feel inspired by my work and who consider entering the field of science – this makes me especially happy”, says the PhD

Function of scientists within social media
“For the longest time, the realm of social media has been left to the opposing side – to the conspiracy theorists and skeptics“, judges Beatrice Lugger. Ms. Lugger is the managing director of the National Institute for Science Communication (NaWik) in Karlsruhe, where she teaches the use of social media, among other topics. “This is why it is even more important to present a consistent position within these media.” Researchers on social media thus act as gatekeepers between the media and the general public.Apparently, young scientists in particular, even digital natives, are interested in entering into a digital dialog with a lay audience. In 2018, Carsten Könneker, Philipp Niemann and Christoph Böhmert interviewed high-ranking junior scientists from 89 countries with respect to their attitudes towards science communication. Whereas the majority offered a positive opinion about exchange beyond their immediate research communities, they did, in fact, tend to utilize more traditional formats. Presentations and tours of institutions still beat social media. Most interviewees, however, share the opinion that science communication is fun. Why, then, don’t more young scientists join the conversation online?

Reaching new target audiences
“The overall picture shows that communication competencies are hardly ever anchored in the curricula of university programs”, Beatrice Lugger of NaWik identifies the underlying problem. “We need more educational opportunities on this topic – at least at the doctoral level.” After all, social media open up entirely new opportunities for scientists to generate attention. Digital media, particularly social media, allow science to reach a target audience that would ordinarily not have access to its contents. For the first time it is possible to make research transparent. In this way, appreciation of its efforts and achievements will only increase, along with its impact.In addition, Stina Börchers uses social media for an exchange with colleagues and for research. “My social media activities have provided me with additional opportunities such as participating in important events, giving presentations, writing guest contributions and collaborating on YouTube videos”, recounts the scientist. In the digital era, effectiveness is measured in accordance with the SEO principle: those who want themselves and their work to be visible will have to depend on social networks. Academic selection committees, graduates and journalists use Google, Twitter and other services for their research.

Social media contributions work!
In 2012, Melissa Terras, a Professor at University College London, embarked on self-experimentation. Even before, Terras had begun using Twitter to advertise her work. She was surprised by its effectiveness. She wanted to know how exactly advertisement via Twitter would affect the number of downloads. Out of four articles, she shared three via this platform. The latter achieved between 142 and 297 downloads; the non-tweeted article reached twelve – even though all four articles were available in the same location. A 2018 study led by Clayton Lamb at the University of Alberta confirmed this trend.The researchers working with Lamb uncovered a further development: “Our results indicate diminishing returns: it now takes more effort to achieve an adequate citation rate than five or ten years ago.” The researchers explain this decline with the increasing number of people who communicate online.“Twitter is a very fast medium that allows users to participate easily without any major barriers”, agrees Beatrice Lugger. But what does intelligent use of social media look like? Many research institutions and universities have established their own guidelines that also apply to social media communication. Coordination with the in-house communication department may also be helpful. “The first thing to consider is my intended target audience and the medium which will best reach this target audience”, advises the director of NaWik.Twitter, Instagram or YouTube: all platforms have unique features. After all, communication via social media should be enjoyable, and communicator and platform should be a good match. “And finally: networking, sharing, liking, building community, posting at a reliable frequency and a really smart profile are what counts.”

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  • Stina Börchers can be found on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn as Stina.biologista. Topics: neurosciences, eating habits, emotions.

  • RealScientists on Twitter opens the stage each week for a scientist. Topics include all areas of science.

  • Rhiannon Morris blogs as Scientist_rhi on Instagram and Twitter. Topics: biochemistry, hematology, cancer research.

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