Reflections: how social media has changed my life

About a year ago I started to write blog posts regularly – this was partially because I was invited to give a talk on social media in Academia at the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada (held this past November).   It was around the same time that I started using Twitter more regularly.  Up until that point, I was a casual user of twitter, and did not understand it.

After one year, I can sum up my feeling about blogging, twitter and social media in one word:  exhilarating.

Writing regular blog posts has changed my professional life.  It has allowed me to hone my skills as a writer, and learn to write in a different way – a way that attempts to bring science to a broader audience – an audience beyond the walls of the University in which I work.  An audience that is articulate, intelligent, interested, engaging, and passionate.  Writing blog posts has forced me to articulate clearly about my research, and to think about what I do as a scientist, and why I work on small, obscure animals.  It helps me think about the sort of advice I might give to graduate students, whether it be reviewing papers or thinking about how to succeed as a Professor.

I have learned that there is an incredible community “out there” and this community has something to offer.  I can now keep track of key happenings in science by following Malcolm Campbell, Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, and others.  I can learn about Higher Education in Canada by paying attention to Melonie Fullick, and I can learn more about my own University thanks to McGill’s amazing twitter feed.  I can learn about Entomology around the globe, and take part in  inspired,  meaningful (and sometimes hilarious) conversations with new friends and colleagues including Morgan Jackson, Derek Hennen, Dr. Dez, Chris MacQuarrie, Bug Girlthe Bug Chicks, Crystal Ernst, Alex Wild, and many more….  These interactions are barrier-free.  It doesn’t matter if the conversations are among Professors and undergraduate students, or with high school studentsIt’s about keeping the conversations relevant, of high quality, and respectful.

I now have new colleagues from different countries – colleagues that I now collaborate with, including Graham Scott in the UK – he and I share many similar ideas about the value of field work in University courses.  Or Leslie Brunetta – she and I are now discussing neat ways to take spider silk research into new areas. Social media has also changed how I teach, and using blogs and twitter in the classroom has allowed students to see value in their course work that goes beyond the classroom. My undergraduate students tell me that they feel their University education is more valuable when they can interact with other experts.

Writing blog posts allow me another way to share my passion for all things Arachnida, from spiders to Opiliones and Pseudoscorpions.  Yes, our eight-legged friends are awesome, whether they are on your ceiling, in your windowsills, or living on the tundra. Social media has allowed me to write about things that I write about anyway – I am constantly answering emails about spiders, whether it be identification help, or general queries about venomous spiders.  By writing a blog post about these topics, (including “spiders do not bite” – my most popular post!), I can now refer people to posts instead or writing emails.  Writing posts does take some time, but it is a productive use of time.

On a more personal level, social media has given me meaningful and important connections to people: really good people.  People that I respect, people that are now part of an evergroing circle of friends.  We need to surround ourselves with good people.  Life seems to throw a lot of challenges – whether it is managing with the work-life balance, coming to grips with local and global tragedies, constant worrying about the health of our planet, or struggling with mental or physical health. It’s a big, sometimes scary and often intimidating world out there – and it’s easy to feel insular, lonely, and scared.  Social media is one antidote.  Social media is not a cure, nor should it be used as escapism – instead, I am saying that it brings a ray of light, a smile and a shot of optimism.  I am grateful to have become a part of this community.

As my PhD student Crystal Ernst and Bug Girl discussed (partially reflected in this post): social media is a tool that allows for productive discussion about science, life and the confluence of these.  It’s a discussion that can take part in a REALLY long hallway – a hallway that is inclusive, honest, and filled with bright lights.

I will finish with a big “thank you” to all my followers and friends (of this blog, and on twitter).  Your interest, comments and enthusiasm are so important to me and highly valued.

I wish everyone terrific end to 2012 and I look forward to continued discussions into the new year!

Science outreach: plain-language summaries for all research papers

1) Scientists do really interesting things.

2) Scientists have a responsibility to disseminate their results.

3) Scientists do not publish in an accessible format.

This is a really, really big problem.

Scientific research is largely funded by public money, and it can be argued that scientists have a responsibility to make their work accessible to the public (and scientists are particularly well suited for outreach activities!).  The main platform for disseminating research results is the peer-reviewed journal paper and this is not ideal.  Let’s be honest – these kinds of publications are often very specialized, full of jargon, and unreadable to most (even other scientists).  Many papers are also behind pay-walls, making them even less accessible to people outside of certain institutions.

Earlier this week I attended a scientific conference (the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada) and as part of this conference I was invited to speak in a symposium that was about social media in science.  It was a great session and some of my favourite social media mentors were also speaking at the symposium, including Adrian Thyssemacromite, the Bug Geek, and Biodiversity in Focus.   As I was preparing that talk the week before, I was also madly finishing a grant application, and in that application I was require to write a plain-language summary of my proposed research.  The granting agency uses this ‘summary for public release’ as a way to communicate research to the public.  Taxpayers fund the research and they might want to know where their money is going; the granting agency has found one way to communicate this information in a clever and effective manner.

…………………………..Eureka!

Here is the proposal:  Every scientific paper published in a peer-reviewed journal must be accompanied by a short, plain-language summary of the work.

This summary would be placed on-line, free for everyone to read.  It would be concise, clear, free of jargon, and highlight why the work was done, how it was done, and what was discovered.

Here are some examples of how these plain-language summaries could be used:

1. Media: Media offices at Universities are constantly interested in promoting fantastic work by their Professors.  This work, however, is often not accessible and it can be a lengthy process to put together a press release (how easy is it to track down a researcher?).  A plain-language summary written by the researcher would be readable, clear, accessible, and an easy way to start the process of promoting research activities occurring at Universities.

2. Blogging: I am a regular blogger, and always happy to promote the research occurring within my laboratory, the laboratories of colleagues, or just discussing interesting scientific papers that I have read.  If I had plain-language summaries to access, it would make the process that much easier, and help facilitate timely communication with the public about recently published work.  Other science bloggers could also pick up on these summaries for their own writing.

3. Publishers & Editors:  As an editor-in-chief for a scientific journal, I sometimes look for ways to promote great papers, and promote the journal to a larger audience.  If I was able to peruse the summaries for public release,  this would make the process much easier.  Publishers could also take text from these summaries, put together a press release or blog post, and also promote research results from their journals based on particularly interesting papers and findings.

4. For Everyone: In my experience, people outside my area of expertise are always keen to hear about research activities.    It’s sometimes a challenge for me to explain my research results, and if I was always doing plain-language summaries, this would get easier.    The audience for research results can be as big as you can imagine: high school students, friends, family, colleagues, Departmental chairs, graduate students, journalists, libraries, etc…  Finally,  the Bug Geek has a great post about the challenges of talking science to 10-year olds:  it is hard to do, but important.  We need practice.  These summaries will help.

The procedure for getting plain language summaries could be quite simple.  When an author submits the final revisions on a scientific publication, they would be required to write a short plain-language summary.  I would like to think that publishers would be willing to incorporate this (simple) step into the on-line systems for manuscript processing, and be willing to post these, as open-access, on their websites, possibly paired with Abstracts.   These summaries would not diminish the value of the actual peer-reviewed papers – it would probably help increase readership since these summaries would help people find the work they are actually looking for, and give them a doorway into the scientific literature.

Let’s make this happen.  

It will be an effective way to do science outreach.

 Please comment, share the idea, and let’s see this idea grow.  

Why a scientific society needs a blog

I’ve been involved with the Entomological Society of Canada for a long time.  It’s a wonderful community of Canadian entomologists sharing an interest and enthusiasm for arthropods. The ESC’s activities are mostly centered around  its annual conference, its range of publications, and it offers a suite of awards and scholarships.  The society’s website also hosts career opportunities, photo contests, and a range of other rich and varied entomological content. The latest, big news for the society is that on 1 June, the ESC officially launched its own blog.  This blog was the brainchild of a few members of the society, and two great Canadian entomology bloggers, Crystal Ernst and Morgan Jackson, are the administrators of the blog.

So…why does a scientific society need a blog?  What’s the benefit to members of the society, to the society itself, and what’s the benefit for the broader entomological community?  Here are some thoughts about this:

1) Visibility:  it’s a tough time for scientific societies – funding is tight, and for a lot of people, the value of memberships to societies may seem less important than it once was.  Therefore, increased visibility though an on-line presence is important. A static website is essential, but a blog has a fluidity and dynamic presence that is hard to match with a website.  An active blog with well-written and interesting content will do a lot to increase a society’s visibility.  The visibility from an active blog is also global in its reach.

2) Opportunities to contribute:  the ESC blog will have dozens of contributors – means anybody with an interest in entomology (regardless of their profession and educational background) has an opportunity to write something for a broader audience.  Blog posts are often easier to write, they are shorter than research papers, and the content need not be vetted through a peer-review process.  It’s a forum for creative ideas, stories, photographs, and fun facts about insects.  The blog already has a couple of nice examples to illustrate this point.  For example, Chris Cloutier, a naturalist at the Morgan Arboretum on the Island of Montreal, just wrote a lovely post about the Hackberry Emperor.  Chris is an example of a different kind of entomologist – he’s not a research scientist, nor is his primary profession Entomology.  However, he does outreach, has a wealth of expertise and  talent, and he has a lot to offer the entomological community.  These kind of opportunities create an environment of inclusion for a society – members have a voice and can share their ideas and expertise.  Non-members can also contribute and recognize that there is a strong community associated with the ESC (…and perhaps some of the non-members will see the value of the society and join).

Screen shot of Chris Cloutier’s post

3) Economics: more than ever before, scientific societies are struggling to maintain members, and balance their books.  A blog is a cheap and effective way to promote their science to the world and the cost can be as little as a domain name.  I can think of no other method by which a society can promote itself at this cost point.  You could even argue that the time for static websites may be coming to a close since they are costly to host, require people with specific technical skills, and require a lot of back-end support.  The good blog sites can be administered by people with relatively few of these skills (I’m proof of that!!).

The ESC logo

4) Marketing and branding:  a high quality blog helps a society get its brand to a broad audience, and helps to market the society to the world.   The ESC has a long and wonderful history, but its main audience over the years has mostly been academics, research scientists, and students of entomology.   The ESC brand has excellence and quality behind it and that kind of brand should be shared, expanded, and through this process, the society will hopefully gain positive exposure and more members.

5) Communication: At the end of the day, knowledge is something to be shared.  Scientific communication is a fast-changing field and one that is making all of us reconsider how we talk and write about our interests.   I think we all have a responsibility to do outreach.  There is so much mis-information out on the Internet, and people with specialized and well-honed skills must be heard and must have a means to share accurate information in a clear and effective manner – e.g., a society blog. I also think many entomologist are perfectly positioned to do effective outreach (I’ve written about this before).  Part of the ESC’s mandate is dissemination of knowledge about insects and social media is a key piece of any communication strategy.

What do you think?  Can you think of other reasons why scientific societies need to embrace social media?  Please share your ideas!

I will finish with a stronger statement:  scientific societies are perfectly positioned to have the BEST blogs on the Internet.  A scientific society is a community, a community with history, and a community built on high level of expertise.  A scientific society also provides a structure and framework for bringing together high quality knowledge about a particular topic.  A blog can be amazingly strong with this kind of support.  A society is also about people and these people work tirelessly behind the scenes to facilitate the dissemination of high quality content.   These people, structured in committees, and with oversight from an executive committee, can provide tangible support that will help to keep a blog from becoming unidimensional.  The ESC’s blog administrators (Crystal and Morgan) know how to keep the content of high quality, and know how to put all the pieces together – and they know they can do this because they have an entire community behind them.  The society is committed to supporting the blog and for that reason, there is reason to be optimistic about its long-term success.  Please follow the blog!