Want to be A Professional Scientist? Ask to Join the Facebook Group


(This article first appeared in Nature.)

Planetary scientist Heidi Hammel was at the telescope when Facebook alerted her to an important new target: a comet had just crashed into Jupiter.

“I learned about one of the impacts on Jupiter via Facebook while observing on Keck, and we were able to do immediate follow-up.”

It is no secret that more and more, scientists are using Facebook not just for outreach or for fun, but to do real, ground breaking, earth-shattering science.

More and more, if you're a scientist and you're not in the right Facebook group, you're missing out.

But how does this work, exactly?  There are so many websites devoted to science news and amateur science—but where do scientists go online to interact with their colleagues professionally? I asked my colleagues on the Marketing for Scientists Facebook group (mostly astronomers) to share their social networking tricks. I think their answers point to a fascinating shift in the social fabric of the scientific community.

The first “trick” I heard from my colleagues for harnessing social networks was the obvious one: if you have a lot of Facebook friends, you can have professional scientific discussions right on your wall. Angela Speck told me, "Since a significant fraction of my friends are scientists they do respond to science questions. And then the ensuing Wall discussion is like a chat over lunch."

But it takes time and effort to build that long list of followers or friends, and then more effort keeping up with them and sorting through their status updates. Angela has more than 1100 Facebook friends, well above the median number (roughly 300).  So that trick doesn’t work for everybody.

Facebook/LinkedIn Groups: A New Home for Science

Instead of building large contact lists themselves, more and more scientists are working with colleagues through a strange new underground network—Facebook groups. For example, Adam Burgasser told me,

“Our Low Mass Stars and Brown Dwarfs group has been a great place to post papers, promote astro apps, announce conferences, ask about a pesky references etc.”

Joining such a group is like instantly acquiring hundreds or thousands of high-powered new friends/followers. Burgasser said,

“I think such groups stimulate interest, facilitate feedback and provide quick answers to expert questions.”

I took a closer look at Facebook groups in astronomy to see how they work and how they manage to concentrate professional scientists. The “Astronomers” group seems to be the largest in the field, with over 7000 members—about as many as the American Astronomical Society (the largest U.S. professional organization for astronomers). I also found groups for Exoplanet Imaging, the Submillimeter Array, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory Users Committee, Jobs for Astronomers, and many other groups populated strictly by professionals.

These professional groups are mixed in, of course, with groups like “I Fucking Love Science” which is fun, but not meant for professional scientific discussions. So the information page for the Astronomers group contains a serious warning to non-professionals. “*****Note to people requesting to join***** This is an informal group intended for *professional astronomers*. For membership requests to be accepted, you must have a “web presence” that indicates you are involved in some aspect of professional astronomy.”

I myself spend most of my social networking time on Facebook or Twitter. But LinkedIn groups are also a fertile home for scientific research. As Mark Eisner told me,

“In my field of hydrogeology, or more generally environmental consulting, I belong to 50. So much I cannot keep up.”

Wanted: A Directory of Facebook Groups for Professional Scientists

Facebook and LinkedIn groups have become new incubators for scientific progress, important virtual places for scientists to work and to mingle. It sounds like a kind of online intellectual paradise. The trouble is: there’s no good directory of these groups of professional scientists on social networks. Your colleagues may remember to invite you to join, or they might not. The most reliable way to find the professional Facebook groups for scientists seems to be to “friend” lots of colleagues whose interests overlap with yours, and look at their Facebook pages to see what groups they belong to. Then you have to ask permission to join. Either that or you need to start your own group and hope one doesn’t exist already for the topic you chose.

You might call this system “informal” or you might see it as a kind of underground network—a circle of insiders that can needlessly exclude scientists with less web savvy.

Perhaps one day, the AAAS or another organization will maintain a directory of Facebook and LinkedIn groups where active professional scientific collaborations are taking place. It would take a bit of work to build this directory—to separate the groups of professionals from those meant for entertainment. But building such a directory would help young scientists meet established scientists, and help established scientists move into new fields where they don’t already have contacts.

In the meantime, the rise of this informal network of professional scientist groups makes it more clear than ever: in science, it matters who your friends are.

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