When Being Online Means Scientific Collaboration

26 August 2013 by Paige Brown Jarreau, posted in Communications

Two weeks ago, I posted an announcement of a social science survey I am currently conducting for news and media content producers, including journalists and bloggers, on what makes science research get translated into science news. Since that time, the survey announcement has been posted to the Scientific American Guest Blog and several journalism listservs.

But perhaps more importantly, the survey has appeared on Facebook pages (in different languages even) and in probably more than 100 Twitter feeds, thanks to wonderful friends and contacts in science communication. I've had Bora Zivkovic (@BoraZ), Ed Yong (@edyong209), and even the Society of Professional Journalists (@SPJ_tweets) mention my survey on Twitter.

Twitter Icon. Wiki.

It would be very conservative to say that I have received an overwhelmingly positive response on this online survey study, which addresses a topic of science communication, i.e. what rules do journalists use in selecting science research and science press releases for news coverage. Active journalists and communication scholars have been expressing an interest on social media to see my results when they come out.

But social media hasn't been the only place that people have been giving me feedback about this survey and project. I've had journalists personally e-mail me to give me their thoughts on my survey as well as my overall research question. One freelance journalist wrote to me in an e-mail:

As a freelance journalist, I’m in a different position from people who are on staff at various news media. My articles in print and online are for outlets that are willing to pay for them, which is how I earn my living. That means I have to sell an editor on the story. Certainly the more important a study is and the more extensive its impact, the greater the chances are that I can convince someone the study is newsworthy. [And] In addition to all the issues about the importance of the research and its relevance to the public, I need to compete with lots of other writers out there to persuade an editor that this particular story merits both space and funds.
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Editors’ needs and preferences vary widely. One consideration is each publication’s audience. But other factors enter in as well: Has the publication recently done another feature on this general topic? Is this research different enough to justify classifying it as news? How “user-friendly” is the topic in terms of its appeal to readers? What else is competing for space?  Are images available?
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I also need enough lead time that the article will still be newsworthy after I pitch the piece, do my interviews, and write up the story. Getting an advance press release through EurekAlert!, AlphaGalileo, or a press office helps. The longer the lead time, the better chance I have of being able to get an assignment and complete the story while it is still “hot.”
The fact that many active journalists and bloggers have taken time out of their days to not only take my 15-30 minute survey but also to e-mail me their thoughts about the survey and my research in general, warms my heart and increases my motivation to pursue the research I am doing into the future. Many journalists and bloggers, both those who regularly cover science and those who don't, seem to have a keen interest in learning more about how they should look to science research for news content, and how they could incorporate more science into their work.

But beyond active journalists and bloggers interested in helping with my research and seeing the results of my study, I've had several science communication scholars, including PhD students, contact me about potential collaboration. THIS is any PhD student's dream, to be doing research interesting enough that even scholars at other universities want to collaborate with you, potentially leading to further high-impact and interdisciplinary research studies and publications. One PhD candidate at Northwestern University e-mailed me saying that he is conducting research similar to mine, i.e. following the flow of science from scientist to public relations practitioner to journalist to the public, except through video-based observation and in-depth interviews.

Based on what I've quickly read about your research, I think our research is complementary and we should talk about collaborating... we have the same interests but different methods, so high five!

All this feedback got me thinking about the power of social media and one's online presence for scientific research and collaboration. Just think, I could have followed an easier and more standard PhD-student-research route to getting 300-400 individual responses for my survey: distribute my survey through my university's subject pool of undergraduate students, who get credit for participating in graduate students' surveys and experiments. But while distributing my survey online may be more time-intensive and doesn't help me get any more of a representative sample necessarily (a methodological concern journal manuscript reviewers often bring up), it brings a wealth of feedback and potential collaboration that I would never have received had I used my university's subject pool, or gone with another method of distribution not connected with social media.

Image by Rick Liebling, via Flick.com

So can social media serve scientific collaboration and meaningful interaction between researchers in different areas? In this case, I would say 'hell, yes!'

And obviously, the type of networking and communication necessary for scientific collaboration doesn't need to come through social networks built expressly for scientists. In fact, I've received great feedback on my survey project from professional journalists and bloggers who might otherwise not have interacted with the project and with me until it was completed and published, ready for press release and news coverage.

So in summary, if you are a PhD student, scientist, professor or researcher, and you are NOT on Twitter and other forms of social media, drop what you are doing immediately, create a profile, replace the 'egg' with a friendly picture, and for Pete's sake, TWEET!

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