Science and the social media

by Chris Rowan
Friday, January 20, 2012

How blogs, Twitter and other social media tools are changing conversations about scientific research

Blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools are undeniably changing the way that people communicate and share information. A small but increasing number of scientists are starting to use these tools to talk about science: writing blog posts about their work, papers they have read and the activities in their laboratories, or using Twitter to collect and share stories and resources with like-minded colleagues. These outlets, which were initially used mainly for scientific outreach, are also gradually becoming venues for conversations with other scientists — conversations that have until now been confined to the conference halls and coffee rooms of academia. Despite what you might think, this is a good thing for science.

Take, for example, the recent controversy over the claimed discovery of bacteria that could substitute arsenic for phosphorus in their DNA, published in Science and announced to great fanfare in a NASA press conference last December. It was exciting news, apparently widening the definition of life as we know it. Yet within only a few days of the announcement, media coverage shifted dramatically: Stories discussing the potential impact of this discovery on the search for extraterrestrial life were replaced by critiques from other microbiologists who questioned the authors' methods, casting doubt on the validity of the conclusions. The cause of this change? Blogs and tweets. Several microbiologists wrote blog posts expressing their doubts, and their criticism propagated to the mainstream media via Twitter (where there was so much discussion of the story that it had its own hashtag, #arseniclife).

The authors' response to these criticisms was curt: “Scientific discussions should take place in the peer-reviewed literature.” In this case, the unfortunate entanglement of a genuine scientific controversy — evidence for arsenic-based biochemistry, or not? — with media controversies — Hype! Embargoes! Skeptical scientist shocker! — has doubtlessly convinced many scientists that not only was this attitude completely justified, but that the only thing that blogs add to the scientific conversation is sound and fury, signifying nothing.

A short-lived flurry of blog posts and tweets may have little to no impact on the final resolution of the outstanding scientific questions, and will not replace peer-reviewed literature in scientific conversations. But blogs and other social media tools can potentially augment those conversations, to everyone’s benefit.

The peer review process prior to publication may filter out ideas that are obviously wrong, but it is the peer review that occurs after publication — as other scientists test new conclusions or use them to inform their own research — that determines whether a piece of research stands the test of time. Criticism of newly published research is therefore no surprise, particularly if it is in Science or Nature, which tend to focus on novel ideas and discoveries that are pushing the boundaries of established science. Even in the absence of social media, microbiologists and chemists would have been skeptical of the claims of arsenic-utilizing bacteria. Until recently, however, these critiques have largely been confined within the scientific community. Now, blogs and other social media are giving scientists the ability to share their opinions and insights with a much wider audience, and provide a much clearer and quicker view of the impact of a new result than could ever be garnered from a press release.

It may seem counterproductive for scientists to air their dirty laundry in public, but in a world where the media is dominated by manufactured pseudo-debates over the reality of anthropogenic climate change, the safety of vaccines and evolution, the value of giving the public a window into what a real scientific debate looks like cannot be overestimated.

Scientists also benefit from scientific conversations on blogs. Peer review by the wider scientific community after publication is largely informal at first. The small community in a particular field of research may quickly agree that the hypothesis proposed by paper X has serious flaws, or know that doubts are starting to emerge about the accuracy of the results produced by method Y, far in advance of such information being available in peer-reviewed literature. But someone working in a separate but closely related subfield might be completely ignorant of these important facts — to the detriment of his or her own research. Discussing these issues on blogs not only provides a permanent and more easily accessible resource for scientists within a field, but also helps to disseminate important information more easily to those outside it.

I agree that scientific debates should primarily be held, resolved and recorded within peer-reviewed literature. But social media tools can also offer value by providing people — both within the scientific community and outside it — with a more accurate sense of the nature and progress of these debates as they occur.

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