Scientific particles collide with social media to benefit of all (Irish Times)

The Irish Times – Thursday, July 12, 2012

xxx Large Hadron Collider at Cern: the research body now has 590,000 followers on Twitter

xxx Large Hadron Collider at Cern: the research body now has 590,000 followers on Twitter


IN 2008 CERN switched on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva – around the same time it sent out its first tweet. Although the first outing of the LHC didn’t go according to plan, the Twitter account gained 10,000 followers within the first day, according to James Gillies, head of communications at Cern.

Speaking at the Euroscience Open Forum in Dublin this week, Gillies explained the role social media plays in engaging the public with the particle physics research its laboratory does. The Twitter account now has 590,000 followers and Cern broke important news via it in March 2010 by joyously declaring: “Experiment have seen collisions.”

“Why do we communicate at Cern? If you talk to the scientists who work there they will tell you it’s a good thing to do and they all want to do it,” Gillies said, adding that Cern is publicly funded so engaging with the people who pay the bills is important.

When the existence of the Higgs particle was announced last week, it wasn’t an exclusive press event. Live video was streamed across the web, questions were taken not only from journalists but also from Twitter followers, and Cern used this as a chance to announce jobs via Facebook.

While Cern appears to be the social media darling of the science world, other research institutes and scientists are still weighing up the pros and cons of platforms like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.

There is a certain stigma attached to social networking sites, not just because much of the content is perceived as banal, but also because too much tweeting could be damaging to your image as a scientist.

Bora Zivkovic is blogs editor at Scientific American, organiser of the fast-growing science conference ScienceOnline and speaker at the social media panel this Saturday at the Euroscience Open Forum. He says the adoption of social media by scientists is slow but growing.

“Academics are quite risk-averse and are shy about trying new things that have a perceived potential to remove the edge they may have in the academic hierarchy, either through lost time or lost reputation.”

Zivkovic talks about fear of the “Sagan effect”, named after the late Carl Sagan. A talented astronomer and astrophysicist, he was loved by the public but snubbed by the science community.

“Many still see social media as self-promotion, which is still in some scientific circles viewed as a negative thing to do. The situation is reminiscent of the very slow adoption of email by researchers back in the early 1990s.

“Once the scientists figure out how to include social media in their daily workflow, realise it does not take away from their time but actually makes them more effective in reaching their academic goals, and realise that the ‘Sagan effect’ on reputation is a thing of the past, they will readily incorporate social media into their normal work.”

Many researchers still rely heavily on specialist mailing lists. The broadcast capability on social media is far greater and bespoke, claims Dr Matthew Rowe, research associate at the Knowledge Media Institute with the Open University.

“If I was to email people about some recent work I would presume that it would be marked as spam. However, if I was to announce the release of some work through social media, then a debate and conversation could evolve surrounding the topic; I have seen this happen many times on Facebook.”

Conversations on social media sites are often seen as trivial – for scientists, the end goal is “publish or perish”. Results must be published in a reputable academic journal and preferably cited by those in their area.

Twitter, it seems, can help. A 2011 paper from researcher Gunther Eysenbach found a correlation between Twitter activity and highly cited articles. The microblogging site may help citation rate or serve as a measure of how “citable” your paper may be.

In addition, a 2010 survey on Twitter found one-third of academics said they use it for sharing information with peers, communicating with students or as a real-time news source.

For some the argument for social media is the potential for connecting with volunteers and providing valuable data from the citizen scientist. Yolanda Melero Cavero’s MinkApp has connected locals with an effort to control the mink population in Scotland.

“The most interesting thing about MinkApp, for me, was the fact that the scientist was able to get 600 volunteers for her ecological study. Social media has the grassroots potential to engage with willing volunteers,” says Nancy Salmon, researcher at the department of occupational therapy at the University of Limerick.

Rowe gives some sage social media advice for academics about keeping on topic and your language jargon-free.

But there’s always room for humour as demonstrated by the Higgs boson jokes on Twitter and Facebook last week. As astronomer Phil Platt tweeted: “I’ve got 99.9999% problems, but a Higgs ain’t one.”