Why physicists need to get on Twitter

On June 26, 2013

Tweeting

Physicists, are you on Twitter? If not, it might not just be you missing out.

The case for scientists to join the community of 200 million active Twitter users is strong. By tweeting, you can publicise your research among your peers, make contacts, gain mentors, become a role model, find jobs, improve your communication skills, and justify your professional existence to tax payers.

But, aside from all that, there’s a less selfish reason why you should be using Twitter: people want to hear what you’ve got to say.

Despite the benefits, many physicists haven’t yet taken the plunge. Katie Mack, an astronomy fellow at the University of Melbourne and a strong proponent of physicists using Twitter, says she commonly encounters the view in academia that Twitter has no use in science.

“There is definitely a perception that it’s just a waste of time” she says. It’s true that without clear goals the site can be a time-gobbling black hole, but physicists can also reap benefits. “The amount you can get out of it, if you use it wisely, is definitely worth it,” adds Mack.

I asked a number of physicists how they gain from the site. You can read their tweeted responses here and a similar conversation started by Alok Jha of the Guardian here.

Reach people

Arguably, Twitter is made for physics outreach. It offers an easy way for physicists and non-physicists to communicate directly with each other in bite-sized pieces – without the time demands that come with managing a blog or running outreach events. And there is undoubtedly an appetite for physics on Twitter: physics superstars Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson have over 3.85 million followers between them.

The PhysicsGirlies from Holly Lodge Girls’ College in Liverpool are a great example of how the wider population can gain from physicists on Twitter. The year 10 group started their Twitter feed as a record of what they had learnt each lesson, but the girls have ended up gaining much more from making contact with physicists — female physicists, in particular, who provide role models for the girls. Several of their Twitter contacts have visited their school to talk about their careers.

Kate Doran, the girls’ teacher and Assistant Curriculum Leader for Science at the school, asked them on my behalf what they got out of the experience. There were so many positive points it seemed a shame not to reproduce her entire response:

When asked the girls said the best thing about the account is that when we are in a lesson and we tweet about something and someone replies with a question it really makes them think. They said that they like talking to people who are using the physics we are learning in a real job as it makes it feel important. Also, they didn’t realise just how many scientists there are – they didn’t expect to get many followers because they thought scientists wouldn’t use Twitter and it has opened their eyes to what a future working within the scientific community could be like. They feel like part of a family. They get excited when important scientists reply to their tweets. They love to share what they are doing. Another comment was that they like looking back over the tweets to revise!

Of course, as a physicist you can also benefit from reaching people online: physicsfocus blogger Suzie Sheehy has found Twitter an invaluable way of drawing on the expertise of the science communication community.

Recently, when looking for equipment to use in a public demonstration that mimicked Photo 51, Rosalind Franklin’s famous DNA diffraction pattern, she put a call out on Twitter.  A follower responded with a suggestion and Sheehy now uses the resulting successful demonstration in her public lectures. After tweeting and blogging photos of the set up and result, several other science communicators have started to use it too.

“The interaction on Twitter not only helped me to solve a problem I needed a solution to, but also to disseminate back what I found to the science communication community,” says Sheehy.

Don’t miss relevant research

But if you don’t want to get involved in outreach and prefer a low-maintenance option, you could use Twitter just to keep up with new papers in your field.

Plenty of journals tweet newly published papers and other feeds curate papers in specific areas. For example, Dark Matter Hunters tweets titles and links for every paper published on dark matter on a daily basis. Awesome_Ph tweets new astrophysics papers published on the arXiv.

“The arXiv is flooded every day with papers,” says Neal Weiner, a professor at New York University. “Only a select few of those are going to be either relevant to me, or so interesting I should look at them. My own skim-the-arXiv approach is not perfect, and invariably the scientists I follow on Twitter end up tweeting links to papers I missed.” Weiner also uses Twitter to keep in touch with his students, posting reading, test dates and the like on a dedicated feed.

Twitter also provides the opportunity to ask others in your field questions and follow discussions between other physicists. Several of the physicists I contacted testified to the value of these informal conversations. Another, more benevolent, academic use of Twitter is livetweeting conferences and meetings, so those not able to attend can follow along online.

Boost your career prospects

Early to mid-career physicists are one particular group that stand to benefit from Twitter. For one, it’s a source of job opportunities. “All of the jobs I’ve had since finishing my PhD I’ve found though announcements on Twitter,” says Helen Maynard-Casely, a postdoc fellow in planetary science at the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne.

Mack’s activities on Twitter have resulted in invitations to blog (including at physicsfocus), give talks and record podcasts. She’s also been interviewed in the media as an expert and has been able to share her research with senior academics, also on Twitter, who might not otherwise have encountered her work. Consequently, Twitter has not only increased her profile, but has also helped hone her writing skills. “You get used to being succinct and trying to say things in a compelling but brief way, which I think is good practice for a lot different kinds of communication.”

Broadcast your research

Twitter provides an easy way to publicise your research output to a wide audience. A causal link hasn’t been proven as yet, but research has found a correlation between the number of Twitter mentions a journal paper receives, the number of downloads  and the number of times it is cited. Other, unpublished studies have turned up intriguing similar evidence.

Help your colleagues out

There’s one caveat to all of this: Twitter is only as helpful as the people who take part. And if there are fewer tweeting physicists in your field, you won’t reap as many benefits. Numbers vary between fields, with Twitter communities in astronomy and cosmology thriving more than say, medical physics, perhaps because of the broader appeal of the topics.

As with most things, Twitter is what you make it. Tweeting physicists, what else do you get out of Twitter? Non-tweeting physicists, are you going to join the conversation? If not, what’s holding you back?

Guides advising scientists how to get involved on Twitter can be found here and here.

You can find other blogs about Twitter for scientists here, here, here and here.

Big thanks to @AstroKatie, @PhysicsGirlies, @nealweiner, @Dr_HelenMC, @rick78, @MRI_p2p, @fisicomazzola, @slerner, @InvaderXan, @BlackPhysicists, @Psbasran, @kasilas and @Ihbercha for providing input to this blog.

Image: Flickr/MDGovpics

About Jude Dineley

Jude Dineley is a medical physicist turned freelance science writer based in Sydney, Australia. She did her PhD in Doppler ultrasound imaging at the University of Edinburgh and has worked in clinical radiation oncology physics in the UK, Ireland and Australia, latterly as a senior physicist at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney. She writes about a range of subjects, from physics, and issues affecting physicists, through to wildlife and rock art. She has written for Physics World, medicalphysicsweb, COSMOS magazine and Australian Geographic and also blogs for RiAus, the Royal Institution of Australia.