Scientists and social media: an important new study

Pew Research Center logoOut of all academics, how are scientists using new technologies to communicate?  Pew has a new study, based on surveying nearly 4,000 scientists, and the results are important for higher education and technology.

The short version: the future belongs to young and female Earth scientists.

Pew researchers presenting to AAAS

Pew researchers presenting to AAAS

The long version: there are many observations about science and communication in the study as a whole, but I’ll focus here just on implications for education.

It’s unsurprising but useful to know that 87% of the AAAS respondents saw communication with the public – not just their peers – as important.  Broadly speaking, science is not a cloistered field.   Put another way, communication isn’t being forced on an unwilling group of disciplines.

When it comes to communicating with their peers, scientists use a variety of media, with an emphasis on old-school methods:

scientists communicating by different venues

When it comes to digitally communicating with one’s peers, the leading technology for scientists is… email.

58% get email alerts from journals in their specialty; 56% get emails from general science journals; 32% belong to email listservs

In contrast, social media is only a viable communication method for a minority of these scientists.  Roughly one fifth use Facebook, Twitter, and blogs for science:

Some 22% described it as either “very important” (4%) or “important” (18%) for career advancement in their discipline to promote their findings on social media such as Facebook or Twitter…
Some 24% of these AAAS scientists blog about science and research…
19% follow blogs by experts their fields; and 12% follow tweets or other postings in social media by experts in their field.

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To some degree that population is not growing: “the frequency of blogging is also about the same as in 2009, based on the measure where a trend is available”.  (To be fair, there’s another, tentative fifth of scientists: “Another fifth of AAAS scientists (20%) do so, but only “rarely.””)

Nearly 80% take the opposite view: “Fully 77% say that promoting their research on social media is not too or not at all important for career advancement in their specialty.

scientists using social media, by demographics
Unsurprisingly, given demographic patterns, “Younger scientists are more likely to use social media…”

Fully 31% of AAAS scientists under age 35 say social media is important for career advancement. By comparison, just 17% of those ages 65 and older say this…

Younger scientists, more so than older ones, say that promoting their findings on social media sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook is important for career advancement.

Surprisingly, and for the same demographic reasons, “blogging is something that equally spans the generations under age 65.”  Good!

Another and perhaps the strongest determining factor for which scientists use technology is the extent to which those researchers see their field as being discussed by the public.

For example, 51% of those who see a lot or some debate in the media about their field say it is important for scientists in their area to get their research covered by the media. By comparison, 34% of those who say there is not much or no debate about their field in the news say having their research in the news is important for career advancement.

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The same force shapes how these scientists see social media on a more personal level:

The same pattern occurs in views about the role of social media for career advancement. Those who say there is a lot or some debate in the media are more likely than other AAAS scientists to say that promoting their findings on social media sites is important for career advancement (26% compared with 17%).

And which disciplines think their field is being talked up?  I’m glad you asked:

scientists' perception of public discussion of their field

Those working in earth and environmental sciences and working in the social sciences are more likely than those in other disciplines to see both public interest and debate in the news about their primary specialty areas. By comparison, chemists, engineers, math and computer scientists, and physicists and astronomers are less likely to say there is a lot or some media debate and interest among non-expert citizens in their fields.

That could be a very useful observation for academic technology departments.

Pew breaks this down into some further detail, connecting these disciplines with specific technologies:

Biomedical and social scientists are especially likely to cite email alerts from specialty journals as one way they stay abreast of new developments. Also, biomedical scientists are more likely than AAAS scientists in other disciplines to use general- science email alerts.

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Math and computer scientists, along with social scientists, are especially likely to mention blogs by experts in the field as a tool for staying up-to-date. And social scientists, followed by earth scientists, math and computer scientists and biomedical scientists are more likely to say they use listservs as a tool for learning and connection.

scientists engaging through various technologies by discipline

Moving back to the sciences as a whole, Pew finds a very good datapoint for women in science: “A somewhat larger share of women (44%) than men (39%) report doing at least two of these activities [communicating with the world via technology] on a more frequent basis.”  That may connect with the general tendency of women to use social media somewhat more than men.

What can we take away from this study, especially if by “we” I mean “people interested in higher education and technology”?  Several thoughts.

  1. That disciplinary breakdown is fascinating, and worth pursuing.  Let’s see if it bears out in other areas, like LMS usage and contributions to open access publishing.
  2. The gender difference is important.
  3. Use of social media is still a minority thing, and taking a long time to grow.
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     This looks like the work of a generation or two.

  4. That so many scientists do use technology to reach out to the public is a positive sign for our times.
  5. Pew remains an essential resource.

What do you think?

You can find more discussion, including research about one university’s scientists, on the AAAS announcement.

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6 Responses to Scientists and social media: an important new study

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    on technology and communication ~ both matter not just in education for to adjunct faculty advocacy and organizing

  2. Joe Murphy says:

    I’m intrigued, Bryan, by your point that this data might guide the way we target services (or event invitations) to particular disciplines. I need to think about what that looks like, but it strikes me as a very interesting idea.

  3. David Weinberger, noted Harvard author and lecturer, describes the trend towards network enabled realtime social knowledge (as opposed to narrative book knowledge) as one of the foundation principles in his book, “Too Big to Know” (2012). Here is a segment from one of his book-related lectures that describes the difference between the old school method and the contemporary social media-driven publication of scientific research:

    • “network enabled realtime social knowledge” is a great phrase.
      Wouldn’t some scientific practices suit that well? I’m thinking about environmental fieldwork, or anything involving a distributed sensor array.

  4. Pingback: Trends to watch in 2015: education and technology | Bryan Alexander

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