In many ways, the fast-paced evolution of the internet parallels the move toward “big data” in science. In less than a decade, online tools have exploded in popularity and witnessed rapid expansion (Figure 1), with an increasing number of scientists now looking to take advantage of these web-based resources (see Box 1 and Table 1 for an overview and comparison of existing tools).
Social media portals in particular undergo regular reinvention and transformation, with different tools becoming popular for different populations . Although a number of guides exist online, many researchers still feel overwhelmed and hesitant toward the virtual world, lacking sufficient information and guidance through formal scientific channels such as peer-reviewed journals. To better familiarize researchers with existing internet resources, here we discuss prospective benefits that can stem from online science conversations, explain how scientists can efficiently and effectively harness online resources, and provide an overview of popular online tools.
Box 1. Online Tools & Resources
Research Benefits from an Online Presence
Box 2. Advice for New Users
Explore online guides to social media
- The Superfund program at Oregon State University maintains an exhaustive list of resources (blog articles, videos, how-to guides) focused on science and social media: http://bit.ly/WkdN0G. We recommend this site as a good jumping-off point for new users.
Establish a professional website (at minimum)
- To establish an online presence and avoid undesirable Google search results, at minimum researchers should set up a personal website that lays out their specific research projects and areas of expertise, searchable by colleagues, journalists, and the public alike.
- Although professional websites can be established through your university/institute, external hosts (a free site at http://wordpress.com or a custom paid domain) offer more flexibility and are easier to access and maintain.
- If desired, a website can be supplemented with social media accounts (e.g., Twitter and Google+ profiles), which will also appear high in Google search results.
Locate pertinent online conversations
- Find people with common interests; follow the social media that they link to and that links to them.
- Use established social networks (e.g., a base of Twitter or LinkedIn contacts) or a means of notification (RSS feeds or personal messages from colleagues/acquaintances) to get started.
- It is completely acceptable to “unfollow” people or groups if their information is not relevant or useful.
- It can be beneficial to read first without contributing (“lurking”) to learn logistics and basic etiquette of different social media platforms.
Navigate the deluge of online information
- Strictly maintaining and organizing online accounts is an effective way to filter information (e.g., grouping people using Twitter lists and Google+ circles).
- Similar efficiency can be achieved by tracking and prioritizing the most relevant blogs and articles for reading (e.g., using RSS services such as Google Reader that can be accessed and synced to mobile devices via apps such as MobileRSS).
- Popular content is often heavily reposted and shared; the most important articles and conversations will usually reach you at some point.
- Explore multiple social media tools and related sites/apps for managing online accounts (Box 1). Find ones that you prefer with the appropriate features; consistent use of fewer tools is better than spreading yourself too thin across too many platforms.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help; there are many friendly and established communities who are willing and eager to assist new users.
Interact with diverse participants
- Effective social media use requires engagement with the audience.
- New users must be open to engaging with people outside one’s own professional background or realm of scientific expertise.
- Tone of discussions can vary wildly, from cordial (e.g., conversations about fascinating species) to highly argumentative (e.g., politically sensitive topics such as climate change).
- Users striving to impose a specific viewpoint on their audience (e.g., #arseniclife,http://nbcnews.to/152OCTH) or that are perceived to promote discrimination/sexism (e.g., #womenspace, http://bit.ly/KnEPRy) often face significant backlash and outrage.
Reach your audience
- Online communication methods only reach people who are interested in talking about science online.
- Mainstream media continues to represent the most effective platform for disseminating scientific information to broad audiences; 66% of Americans get their news through television, 43% through the internet, 31% through newspapers, and 19% through radio (participants were allowed to name two sources; 2011 Pew poll, http://goo.gl/g2j45).
- Online communities, conversations, and user demographics (sex ratios, racial demographics –) can vary across different tools, with surprisingly little overlap. Using multiple tools may be necessary to achieve one’s goals. Notably, many people shy away from using Facebook in light of lingering concerns about privacy (http://nyti.ms/KkwbDE).
- The majority of established bloggers (72% of 126 blogs surveyed ) use Twitter as a complementary outlet for disseminating new blog posts to followers.
Online Tools Improve Research Efficiency
Online Visibility Helps Track and Improve Scientific Metrics
Social Media Enhances Professional Networking
Broadening “Broader Impacts”
Defining Goals and Choosing among Online Tools
Long-term Needs and Outlook
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