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How to use Twitter as a scientist

Posted by Hemprasad Y. Badgujar on February 5, 2016


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if you are a scientist, with “joining Twitter” and then “doing stuff with Twitter” on your To Do list, you might feel a little intimidated by the long list of possible people to follow. Moreover, following @CNN and @BarackObama might be the first thing you do, and might be suggested to you, but these are not your main sources of scientific joy and information.

So let’s take this step by step. Let’s go from setting up a profile, following people to building an academic network on Twitter. I don’t want this to become like a tutorial (there’s plenty of videos on YouTube to take you through any step you might have difficulties with), but I want to give you some tips and tricks at every step along the process.

1. Crafting a bio
One of the first things you need to do when you sign up on Twitter, is to put a bio. I recommend that you make your Twitter profile publicly accessible instead of private. If you join Twitter to enter the realm of scientists on Twitter, you’d prefer them to be able to find you and follow you. Make sure your bio mentions your field and institution(s). You can add a warning that Retweets are not Endorsements, but, really, most of the Twitterverse is aware of that.

Keep in mind as well that Twitter is a lighter type of platform. There’s no need for you to cite your recent publications in your bio. I like to add a bit of lightness to my bio by adding “Blogs. Pets cats. Drinks tea.” I’m assuming that also sets up people for the fact that besides the concrete and the science, I could blurt out the odd complaint, random observation or retweet cute cat pictures if I feel like. Does that make me unprofessional? I’m on the border of Gen Y and I don’t think so…

2. Choosing a profile picture
Your standard profile picture is an egg. Whenever I get followed by an egg, I don’t even take the effort to read the profile description of this person, because the sole fact that he/she didn’t even finish his/her profile, makes me doubt this person has any real interest in interacting on Twitter.

Since Twitter profile pictures show up very small, I recommend you use a headshot. If you put a full body picture of yourself presenting your work somewhere, you’ll be reduced to the size of a stickman in people’s timelines. Use a clear, recognizable headshot, so that the odd fellow researcher might be able to recognize you at a conference.

3. Following people

So now that we have the basics covered, let’s start to move forward into the actual use of Twitter. Your first recommended people to follow will typically be @CNN and @BarackObama. While I like using Twitter as a source for the news, I’m going to assume you came here in the first place for the scientific community. How do you start following people?

Here are a few types of accounts that you can/should start following:
– the accounts of your university and department. These accounts will also retweet tweets from fellow academics at your institute.
– the accounts of universities and research groups worldwide you are interested in.
– the accounts of academic publishers
– the accounts of news websites and blogs related with higher education, such as @insidehighered
– make a search for your field and see what and who shows up
– organizations in your field
– Twitter lists about your field or with people from your institution

Keep in mind that, just like growing followers, growing a list of interesting people to follow is something that happens over time. You might see a retweet of somebody, check out his/her profile and then decide to follow this tweep. If you start aggressively following a lot of people in a short amount of time, Twitter will ban you from following more people anyway.

4. Creating content
Now you can start creating content. You can tweet about your recent publications, retweet information from the accounts you follow and more. If you have a blog, Twitter is an excellent place to share your recent blog posts. You can also tweet series of posts (indicated by (1/3), (2/3) and (3/3) if you distribute it over 3 posts, for example) of the contents that you want to share is too long to squeeze into 150 characters.

Some ideas on what to share with the world:
– tweet about the topic you will discuss in class
– tweet about the conference you are planning to attend
– share your progress in writing
– talk about a recent publication
– join the discussion about higher education policies (I know you have an opinion – we all do)

5. Getting the discussion started
If you see a topic of your interest, you don’t need to wait for anyone to invite you to take part in the discussion – you can imply barge right into it. You wouldn’t do it in real life, but on Twitter, nobody knows you are reading along. So comment to what fellow researchers are sharing, ask for ideas and opinions and interact.

You can also tag people in a post by adding their @name when you share an article and ask what they think. In this way, you can as well get involved in the academic online discussion.

6. Using hashtags
Hashtags, those #selfie #dinner #random stuff that you see showing up around most social media platforms come from Twitter, where feeds and discussions center around certain hashtags. In the academic world, I recommend you to check out #phdchat, #ecrchat (for early career researchers), #scholarsunday (on Sundays, to learn who to follow), #acwri (for academic writing) and #acwrimo (in November, the month in which academics worldwide pledge to get their manuscript out and post their daily word counts).

Some hashtags have a weekly fixed hour to chat. Other hashtags are continuous streams of information. Figure out what the important hashtags are in your field and in academia in general, listen in and contribute.

7. Saving conversations with Storify

If you had a particularly interesting conversation on Twitter that you would like to save for future reference, you can use Storify. Storify is a website on which you can save stories, by adding social media content. You can, for example, add tweets and replies to tweets in a logical order, to save a discussion you had. Once you finished compiling your story, you can share it again through social media. Stories also remain saved and accessible for the future in Storify.

8. Curating content
Retweeting, sharing articles, hosting people to write on your blog, … all these activities are related to curating content and broadcasting it to your audience. I enjoy interviewing fellow academics that I meet through Twitter. I post the interview then on my blog, and share that link on Twitter (going full circle). From a number of newsletters that I read, I also share articles and interesting documents. Find out what type of content you and your followers find relevant, and start distributing interesting information.

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