Science tweets galore!

Although I have tried numerous times, both “formally” as part of professional development chats and informally, few of my colleagues or friends have adopted Twitter. I have noticed misgivings and suspicion about “being on Twitter,” and no explanations or examples have worked to change that perception. I understand the misgivings- as my friend and mentor Michelle Pacansky-Brock knows, I was extremely suspicious about the public nature of Twitter when she introduced it to the Building Online Community course. The fact that I embraced it afterward and it has remained one of the few social media outlets I follow publicly is pretty telling.

Blog writers and readers love lists, so here comes a short one top off my head about why am I on Twitter:

  1. Learn about news first-hand and in real-time.
  2. I get “curated” news from different point of views, directly in my feed (more later).
  3. Make new connections and friends.
  4. Learn about what is going on at professional conferences I cannot attend.
  5. Ask for and receive advice.
  6. Complain about or praise services- I usually receive lightning-speed responses from vendors.
  7. Provides a virtual “water-cooler” environment. Not all is serious and professional. However the 140 character limit keeps chatting under control.

Let me give a quick and recent example of point #2 regarding curated news. A few days ago, namely January 7, Nature magazine published an article about the discovery of a novel antibiotic using a very creative technique to culture soil microbes (of which the majority are impossible to culture in the lab with traditional methods). The article was picked up very quickly by many mainstream media outlets and was heavily publicized over the next few days.

How did I learn about the article? Through Twitter.

I am not sure which was the first tweet that caught my attention, but I do know that is was in the evening or night. And it was not Nature journal’s account’s tweet that I saw, but noticed a flurry of activity among a number of microbiologists, geneticists, and metagenomics experts that I follow. They were referring to the article in the way experts do-  commenting, asking questions, expressing doubts and/or enthusiasm. Soon knowledgeable science writers joined (think Ed Yong) and by the end of the night I had a pretty good idea not only what the breakthrough was about, but also many of its highlights and also limitations.

Next morning the article was everywhere in the news outlets. I received the article by email from friends and colleagues and was asked about it directly. It is a great way to motivate students who do soil research in their courses (as we do), and also raise awareness of the issues with antibiotic resistance.

Let’s say that I was not on Twitter. I might have seen the article if I was the kind of person who reads Nature fresh off the press (which means having full-text online access from home- I don’t). Most probably I would have seen it at the same time as the general public, so I would had to go and read the article first to know what was it about (with all due respect, but I do not trust any press conference about a scientific discovery to get it 100% right). With my knowledge of microbiology and some idea of metagenomics, I would have probably come up with a few opinions and ideas of my own. As I am not surrounded at work with experts in the field (I am at a mainly teaching institution), I would have missed the opportunity to discuss this in person. All in all, to acquire the same knowledge that I got reading at night the Twitter feed of a few selected experts in the field may have taken days or even weeks for me.

Add to this the fact that I am still privileged: I have access to journals through the university library, and I can connect with other experts albeit not as fast as if I was in a top tier institution. Imagine the situation of those who cannot: either as an adjunct disconnected from campus life, or for academics in countries where access to information is more limited.

In summary, Twitter, with limitations of course, allows anybody with internet access to learn from experts and join enlightening and educated conversations. Dear Readers, have you succeeded to get your fellow scientists and colleagues join Twitter? If so, please share how you did it- thank you!