What is Twitter and Why Scientists Need To Use It.

Twitter is a microblogging site, restricting posts, i.e. Tweets, to 140 characters or fewer. This limit allows real-time posts to be made using SMS (short message service) technology, which is the basis for text messaging on cell phones and other mobile devices. Tweets can also be posted online at twitter.com. As of January 2010, over 75 million people are registered to Twitter.  Twitter rates are now reported around 65 million tweets per day.  With this traffic one may wonder how specific tweets and topics can be filtered from the information cloud.  Tweets can be directed to individual users by incorporating a person’s or organization’s Twitter handle, e.g. @DrCraigMc or @NESCent.  Hashtags, words preceded by the # symbol, can also be embedded in a tweet and provide searchable tags, e.g. #evolution or #ocean.

Bora Zivkovic an expert about scientific blogging and microblogging, and chair of ScienceOnline states that

Twitter forces one to think about the economy of words, to become much more efficient with one’s use of language. It takes work and thought and practice to get to the point of tweeting truly well. I remember Jay Rosen once saying that some of his tweets take 45 minutes to compose and edit until he is satisfied that the text uses the words for maximal clarity and impact. There is no luxury in using superfluous language and the result can be a crystal-clear statement or description that far outshines the often-wordy original [paper, news article, blog post].

Perhaps the best way to think of Twitter as relevant to science was put forth by James Dacey

It’s been compared to a cocktail party where multiple conversations, all taking place at once, result in that familiar cacophony of chitchat. Some people thrive in this environment, while others feel jarred, but eventually we all drag ourselves along to one because we know that’s the real place to hear the interesting stuff for our careers. Researchers need to get themselves onto Twitter pronto because it is fast becoming the place to find out the breakthroughs in your research field.

How is Twitter used?

Twitter is increasingly becoming a platform for breaking news, including new scientific discoveries.  Twitter is primarily used in 6 ways (h/t to Bora again for this).

  1. Eavesdropping: follow informative people to get information and learn
  2. Dialogue: exchange, discuss, and debate information
  3. Broadcast: used by news organizations and businesses to inform audience about news or products/services
  4. Data collection: e.g. using Tweeting fishermen to monitor fish populations.
  5. Accidental journalism: e.g. landing on Hudson river, Mumbai attacks, Iran post-election protests
  6. Mindcasting:  following a single story or topic, with links, for a period of time, e.g. like my ongoing coverage of the #oilspill at @DrCraigMc

Can meaningful content be conveyed on Twitter?

Much like blogs were viewed five years ago, many may ask whether this is another social medium used by youth to broadcast their daily inane events.  However, valuable content is consistently provided by Twitter. For example, Twitter has proved a remarkable aggregator of information concerning the Gulf of Mexico oil spill (follow the #oilspill hashtag). That Twitter conveys meaningful content is also reflected by the fact that the tweets will by archived by the Library of Congress.

David Winer who pioneered the development of weblogs, syndication (RSS), podcasting, outlining, and web content management software, served as editor at Wired Magazine, and a research fellow at Harvard Law School stated that

Twitter is a news system, today, it will be more of a news system in the future, and whatever becomes of Twitter the company or their web service, the essentials of what Twitter does is an integral part of the news system of the future.

In paper published in BioScience, John Eisen commented that

“To do science, you have to know what’s going on in science,” Eisen says. “I found Twitter…most useful for becoming informed of what other people are doing in science.” By sharing comments, links, information, and notes about new scientific developments with trusted sources, Eisen says, he is better able to keep up with the vast amount of information in his fields of interest. Twitter and other social networks such as FriendFeed, he says, enable “real-time highlighting and ranking and tracking of what’s going on in the world of science.” Twitter is also useful for networking and finding collaborators.

A great number of scientists, science journalists, and others tweeting about science can be found on Twitter. www.sciencebase.com, science writer’s David Bradley’s web site provides an ongoing list. In a recently published paper, researchers found that scholars cite science papers on Twitter and citations are part of a conversation that moves faster than traditional citations.  The researchers suggested that Twitter could be a useful source for bibliometricians and others interested in scholarly communication. Recently this was best exemplified in a contest where Twitter users were encouraged to Tweet about science papers and findings under the hashtag #sci140 referring to science being presented in 140 characters.  Some of the highlights include

  • Salt of DNA structure= double helix. Strands anti-parallel; has implications. (PS Rosie didn’t help)
  • We did some messing about with wire and stuff, found double helix fits the Xray patterns of DNA. Rest is obvious. Suck that, Linus!
  • dog + bell + food = saliva. Repeat. Eventually dog + bell = saliva, where’s my nobel prize?
  • Oops, Who would’ve thought that absolute power corrupts absolutely? (Zimbardo,1971)
  • Dropped heavy and light ball at Pisa; saw landed at same time. Peer review problems now, especially after telescope incident.
  • cat in box + decay triggered poison. box closed: cat alive & dead. when box opened: cat live or dead #Schrodinger
  • It’s impossible to determine whether a guy with an infinite piece of paper will ever stop doing math. http://bit.ly/9qKV5E

40% of Tweets on a paper occur within one week of the cited resource’s publication (ap0logies to Jason Priem for not linking to his fantastic paper, see his comments below).  While Twitter citations are different from traditional citations, survey participants in one study suggest that they still represent and transmit scholarly impact. The survey participants also suggested that Twitter allows them to (1) to share knowledge, study, work about their field of expertise, (2) to communicate about some of their research projects, (3) to increase their network, and (4) to communicate about venues (conference, workshops, tutorial, talk, etc.

Twitter provides one the most important online tools to bring together researchers despite discipline or geography to share information about science. Moreover, Twitter provides a steady stream of cutting edge science but accessible information to public.  Thus Twitter as a tool realizes scientific collaboration, the synthesis of ideas and information, and communication of science to the public.

p.s. don’t forget to follow me at at @DrCraigMc

Dr. M (1629 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, created to facilitate research to address fundamental questions in evolutionary science. He has conducted deep-sea research for 11 years and published over 40 papers in the area. He has participated in dozens of expeditions taking him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses mainly on marine systems and particularly the biology of body size, biodiversity, and energy flow. He focuses often on deep-sea systems as a natural test of the consequences of energy limitation on biological systems. He is the author and chief editor of Deep-Sea News, a popular deep-sea themed blog, rated the number one ocean blog on the web and winner of numerous awards. Craig’s popular writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.





21 comments on “What is Twitter and Why Scientists Need To Use It.
  1. Started tweeting almost 6 months ago. Not being a social media bufff but beginning research into youths online in Jamaica, I immersed myself into Twitter. It’s been an amazing journey. I’ve met the most facinating people, some of whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet offline. Been able to ‘favourite’ numeorus research driven articles and just really enjoying the speed and efficacy of news delivery (formal & informal) via this new media form. Plus my tweeps are sometimes quite funny and always most helpful. Long live #Twitter.

    My background is media management with my 1st book, Music, Media & Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica, due out in a matter of weeks.

  2. Nice post! If anyone’s interested in the source of

    40% of Tweets on a paper occur within one week of the cited resource’s publication,

    the “one study” mentioned in the last paragraph is my ASIS&T2010 paper with Kaitlin Costello, “How and why scholars cite on Twitter.” I’m hoping it’ll be online this month, but you can also email ([email protected]) or DM (@jasonpriem) if you really want a preprint.

  3. Apologies Jason. I had written the post before I realized your paper was not yet out. I went back and stripped most of the information but apparently still left some information. Thanks for catching it and commenting.

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