Keeping Connected: Social Media as a Networking Tool for Researchers

Communique 2019 Issue 2 Masthead

By: David Crotty, Editorial Director, Journal Policy, Oxford University Press; and Gary W. Miller, Editor-in-Chief, Toxicological Sciences

The dizzying volume of scientific output requires approaches to identify and consolidate important findings in the field. Our peer networks serve as a useful way to sift through the scientific morass. Indeed, building a network of colleagues is essential to success in the research community. Toxicology is increasingly collaborative, and it is simply impossible to be a master of all aspects of the discipline. In addition to potential collaborators, it can be tremendously valuable to have a trusted network of colleagues whom you might bounce ideas off of or rely upon to flag papers of interest that you may have missed, and with whom to discuss the latest developments in the field.

illustration of the connection between people based on technologyTraditionally, these networks have been built through in-person interactions, such as remaining connected with your graduate school or postdoc cohort, spending time with other researchers at your institution, or speaking face-to-face at meetings. However, this creates disparities for researchers who cannot afford to attend meetings or at institutions without a strong program in a researcher’s chosen field. The good news is that in the digital era, social media can provide networking support for the disenfranchised or underfunded researcher, as well as further enhancing connections for all.

Though still not yet a mainstream activity practiced by the majority of researchers, there is a robust conversation occurring between scientists on nearly every major social media network, including Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, not to mention a wide variety of blogs written by scientists. There are several networks built specifically for scientists, but studies (examples here, here, and here) have shown that these are usually used for specific purposes (downloading and uploading papers or managing references) rather than as a medium for social interaction. In our experience, each network presents its own communication style, and it is worth experimenting with accounts on a few different platforms to find one that best fits your needs and preferences. One quick way to start is to search for key words relevant to your research to get a sense of the presence of your field on that particular network. Some useful guides to getting started are available online, including from Science, Nature Cell Biology, and individual researchers sharing their experience.

ToxSci and Altmetrics logosBeing part of a group of researchers who share the latest interesting papers they have found can be a valuable approach to keeping up with the literature. Social media networks also offer great opportunities for promoting your own work, which has become an essential part of building a career and reputation. Oxford University Press, publisher of the SOT Toxicological Sciences journal, offers tips for promoting your published articles, as do many other publishers. Journals like ToxSci that have incorporated services like Altmetric offer great opportunities for both authors and readers to track and join the conversation happening around any paper. Clicking on the “View Metrics” link on a paper brings up that paper’s performance, and the “See more details” link therein shows you the specific social media posts connected to the article. As an author, this allows you to follow what’s being said about your work, and as a reader, this can connect you with others active on social media who are interested in research similar to yours.

Screenshot of @ToxSci feed on TwitterA few caveats: As noted above, while most researchers use social media in a personal capacity, it’s still the minority who use it professionally (for example, only about 2% of the overall population of scholars in the Web of Science are active on Twitter). ToxSci has established a presence on Twitter and has shared over 1,000 posts (your outgoing Editor-in-Chief is also active: @GaryWMiller3). Many of the researchers you’d like to hear from may not have active accounts, and owing to the small sample size, one can never assume that the attitudes expressed are representative of the field at large. And as with all social media, everything you say is public and permanent, and given that for many fields career advancement is driven largely by reputation, one must be cautious when posting. It’s also always a good idea to quietly lurk for a bit on a new network or conversation to get a sense of the tone and the community standards before joining in. One good rule of thumb is to think of the conversation as if you were on a panel at a meeting and to say (or not say) things as you would in front of a live audience of your peers. Another good rule: don’t fire off posts when angry.

Those cautions aside, there’s much to recommend about joining the larger social media conversation among researchers. Just as email revolutionized the way we communicate with our peers, social media offers an even greater reach to a larger community. As scientists, we owe it to society to provide accurate content that can help counter the latest misinformation peddled by celebrities, quacks, and the otherwise ill-informed. So to all of the hesitant semi-Luddites, we encourage you to embrace social media for the good of toxicology and society.

In his role at Oxford University Press, Dr. Crotty has overseen the publication of Toxicological Sciences since 2011. Dr. Miller’s term as Editor-in-Chief ends June 30, 2019.

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