Can social media, like Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, have any sort of relevance in the scientific work?
On the one hand, the question appears almost trivial. A recent analysis showed that these tools already reach almost 40% of the world’s population, and that these figures are going to further increase. On the other hand, however, there is a gap between scientists and social media, and these communication channels are look at with a widespread ill-concealed suspect and uneasiness among the scientific community.
In a way, this cannot be surprising. Scientists are used to different and less immediate type of communications, like peer-reviewed papers, conference proceedings, and the like. Moreover, social media are considered to lack the necessary credibility to convey scientific information. However, this picture can be misleading. Indeed, social media are just tools that, used in the right way by the right persons, can surely bring advantages to the scientific community.
For example, some science-related Facebook pages already have a large base of followers that counts in the millions. Such an audience is obviously composed by non-scientists, and posts related to research funding achieved the highest engagement. This social channel, therefore, can support scientific research in demonstrating relevance to funding agencies.
Other Social Media are fit for different purposes. LinkedIn was born as a platform to publish a professional profile and make it known among a professional audience, but over time it acquired more sophisticated functions, and now it can became the virtual equivalent of a lab meeting or a discussion between like-minded professionals.
Finally, it has been noted that tweets about research, maybe containing links to relevant articles, increase the citation rate and the paper downloads among the fellow scientists. Lists, a distinctive characteristic of Twitter, can also help to create online communities with common goals. Moreover, conference hashtags, can be a way to trigger the attention of media and potential donors, both present in this channel.
The important lesson to be learned is twofold.
Social media can become a productive communication channel for researchers to find funding, for conference organizers to attract delegates and sponsors, and to promote a scientific research inside the community of scientists and among the large public.
However, it is fundamental to use it in the right way, knowing which is the right channel for each purpose. This is something that requires specific skills, which cannot be improvised, and the time of a dedicated professional figure.