Using Social Media to Enhance Your Research

Daniel Hooker posted some nice slides on Using Social Media to Advance Your Research that he presented to a group of PhDs and post-docs at the UBC Faculty of Medicine.  I gave a similar presentation to World Health Interest Group at Case Western Reserve University.  I spoke about using blogs, Twitter, wikis, etc. in scientific research. 

During my presentation some of the attendees got hung up on the tools and technologies as toys and the idea of communicating was lost.  Social media is just one method people can use to communicate, share ideas, protocols, methods, lab notes, etc. In the very broadest of terms, email is sort of social media.  You can email many people who can then pass that discussion along to others. Listservs are a perfect example of this.  But email has been around with us for such a long time that there is no real discussion about its communication potential.  Yet, email was once a new fangled communication toy. 

Read this abstract from Science 1982. 12;215(4534):843-52.

Computer networks are an integral part of the rapid expansion of computing. Their emergence depends both on evolving communication technologies, such as packet-switching and satellites, and on diverse experiments and innovations in the software tools that exploit communications. The tools provide computer users with facilities such as electronic mail, access to remote computers, and electronic bulletin boards. Scientists can both adapt and extend tools to meet the communication needs of their work, and several networks are developing to serve particular scientific communities.

Funny how with very minor editing that same paragraph could be used to describe blogs, wikis, Twitter, or other social media programs.  I am also fairly certain back in 1982 there were a few people out there who thought email was more a toy than a tool and more of a time waster than a time saver. 

As I mentioned so many people get hung up on the technology, they have a hard time seeing how it can help them advance their research as Daniel would say or enhance their research as I would say.  Tomato…tomahto.

The big thing to impress upon people is that they don’t have to try all of these things all at once.  That would be a little like jumping in the pool and trying to swim a 400 IM all at once with no experience and no warm up.  If you do that, the experience is gonna suck…trust me. You can’t jump into the pool of social media and swim all of the strokes at once, nor do you have to.  Take some lessons, try it out, figure out what works for you and your schedule. Daniel mentioned Social Media University, Global (SMUG) by produced by Lee Aase, Mayo Clinic director of social media, as a good place to learn. 

 Social media applications are meant to save you time in the long run, not take more time out of your day/week/month.  You don’t have to be the Michael Phelps of social media, using it every day, several times a day.  Recreational social media swimming is totally fine too, logging into your feeds once or twice a week for 30 minutes.  If you think you don’t have the time to devote 30 minutes twice a week to using social media to advance your research you’re lying to yourself.  Considering the average American watched more than 154 hours of TV per month (State of the Media. Nielsen 2010), four hours a month looking through your RSS feeds to stay up to date on research in your area isn’t a lot.

I think the biggest challenge isn’t necessarily finding the time it is understanding how it can be useful to you.  Unfortunately that is somewhat up to you.  I can suggest some blogs, wikis, and Twitter feeds to follow.

Blog examples:

  • Useful Chemistry  -Chronicles research involving the synthesis of novel anti-malarial compounds. Closely tied to Useful Chemistry wiki
  • Cold Spring Harbor Protocols –Discusses current events in biology with emphasis on lab techniques, protocols are highlighted & discussed in detail
  • HUGO Matters  –Discusses topics relevant to human genetics and genomics

Lab Notes blogs:

 Wiki examples:
  • UsefulChem wiki –Synthesis of novel anti-malarial compounds, including experiments. It is completely open.
  • OBF wiki –Open Bioinformatics Foundation focused on supporting open source programming in bioinformatics
  • OpenWetWare –Promotes sharing of information, know-how and wisdom among researchers & groups working in biology & biological engineering. It is partially open.
  • WikiPathways –Dedicated to the curation of biological pathways
  • Yeast Genome wiki –Everything yeast including protocols, methods, reagents, strains
Lab or Research Group wikis:
 Twitter feeds:

Lists of scientists and researchers on Twitter:

The easiest way to have a rich and informative Twitter feed is to follow the people the leaders in your field are following and branch off from there.  By the way, Twitter’s site is ok for learning, but it really stinks for following any sort of conversation AND you always have to refresh the page (annoying). I highly recommend using Hootsuite or TweetDeck to monitor your Twitter feeds.  The thing I like about TweetDeck is that a little message pops up in the corner of my computer screen with the tweet. I can read it quickly and decide whether I want to ignore it, comment, or click on their link. Using Twitter on TweetDeck this way is very similar to how I use email because my email pops messages to my main screen too.

Really you need to sit down and figure out what your information needs are and the leaders in your field to follow.  This might be hard, but I bet there might be somebody in your field who is already doing it, so ask them, build off of what they are doing and tweek it to fit your needs.

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