How Twitter made me a better scientist

BY JEAN-JACQUES ORBAN DE XIVRY. Social media have become omnipresent in our everyday life. However, few people know that Twitter can be useful professionally, especially if you are a scientist. I would like to convince the reader that social medias and especially Twitter, are a useful tool for scientists.

Written by Jean-Jacques Orban de Xivry. He is professor at FaBeR and has been involved in non-traditional ways of communicating science since his post-doc at Johns Hopkins University. Jean-Jacques has a blog about his research (jjodx.weebly.com) and a Twitter account: @jjodx
JJ

Jean-Jacques Orban de Xivry

People are afraid of Twitter because they don’t see the utility of messages that have only 140 characters. But tweets often refer to information outside of the Twittosphere via links to webpages, images, etc.

On Twitter, you follow people who share information of interest for you. Ideally, you would also become an active user by tweeting information that is relevant to others. Let it be a new published paper in your field of research, the information about an upcoming conference, or a consideration about science in general or about your scientific field.

In this manner, you will start seeing interesting information on your twitter feed and the number of people who follow your tweets will slowly grow in function of the frequency of your tweets and of their content. You have then achieved the first step of an active Twitter user: you have built a social network of people with who you can interact online. I have categorized the people I follow on Twitter in three categories (through Twitter lists): people from my scientific field, scientists that are not in my field and people linked to KU Leuven.

Tweets with people in my research field

From people in my field of research, I want to get prime information about their research or to answer some of my questions about their research. It allows me to also debate scientific questions with them or to promote my own research to other scientists from my field. Sometimes, this leads to interesting discussion about relevant papers that I might have missed but that are relevant (I did not know about the “ballpark” response).

Using this social network on Twitter allows me to get answers when I am completely stuck. This can be a question about statistics, the classes I teach or how to respond to a nasty reviewer. There is always someone ready to help you.

My twitter network is often able to refer me to relevant papers that I should not miss. No need to scan the endless tables of contents that journals send by email. My twitter network filters the information for me. This becomes a big advantage given that the number of available journals is exploding.

From the scientists who are not in my field of research, I have learned a lot about the scientific process. Personally, I learned a lot about statistics on Twitter. As an engineer by training, my statistical knowledge was very theoretical and I was making a lot of mistakes in analyzing my data. My mentors did not have a better understanding of statistics than myself but my tweeps did. By following key scientists on Twitter, my understanding of statistics has been much improved.

In addition, I decided to follow scientists that are at the forefront of the scientific enterprise. Any new methods, methodology, statistical tool is discussed on Twitter at the time of publication or even before. This exposes you to state-of-the-art methodologies. Twitter is not about traditional ways of doing and evaluating science. On Twitter, you are exposed to the pitfalls of the current ways of doing science such as p-hacking, the file-drawer problem, fraud in science, the danger of the impact factor game, the replication crisis, the fact that most scientific studies are completely underpowered and the consequences thereof (if you have not heard about all these problems, you should definitely get on Twitter)

But the path to the future of science is off course also very well represented (pre-registration, open data, preprints, etc.). This has drastically changed the way I do science.

Because it forces me to think about the important goals of science.

Tweets from my KU Leuven colleagues

Finally, following my KU Leuven colleagues is a way for me to build a network within KU Leuven. A good network is always useful if you need expertise from others, advice or information about internal opportunities. It allows me to learn about the work of colleagues outside of my department or the biomedical sector, about job or funding opportunities, and about seminars organized elsewhere in the university. Finally, it gives me a glimpse into what is happening at KU Leuven.

Where to begin?

Now that you are all interested in starting a Twitter account and in becoming an active Twitter user, let me give you a few advice to successfully use Twitter.

  1. Be yourself, don’t play a role. You will meet lots of people from Twitter in real life at some point (conferences, meeting, etc.)
  2. Be kind.
  3. Think twice before tweeting. It takes time to build a reputation but it takes one tweet to destroy it
  4. Start slowly. Start with a few key people that you follow. Then slowly increase the number of people in your Twitter network.
  5. Be active and engage your Twitter network. Nothing worse than a silent account. Twitter is very useful to advertise your research, to connect to people from your scientific field. Don’t be shy, interact with people online, ask questions, comment tweets.

To conclude

Twitter is incredibly useful to stay up-to-date with the latest research in your domain, with state-of-the-art research methodologies that will shape the future of science and with the life of our university. It is a tremendous source of information and filled with people who are willing to help you when you have no clue what you should do. Most importantly, it allows you to come in touch with important information that you would have otherwise missed about research or about teaching.


  1. Nice blogpost @jjodx and reflecting my own feelings about twitter as a scientific tool (rather than “just opinions” or nonsense as some perceive it to be). Though I think we never met physically, we also ‘know’ each other as KU Leuven tweeps.
    As an addition to your blog, this https://sites.google.com/site/lakens2/blog/howatwitterhibarendsupasapublishedlettertotheeditor describes one of my own experiences. We started discussing on twitter, four colleagues who had never met in real life. The discussion resulted in two published letters to the editor.

  2. I fully agree with Tim – by the way one of my KU Leuven tweeps. But I wonder if you are not missing some categories, like “tweets with the general public” (i.e. science outreach), “tweets with the policy makers” (i.e. societal engagement), “tweets with the media” (i.e. opinion making), … or maybe you don’t want to scare too much our early-career colleagues to start a twitter account 😉
    Hope to meet you once in real life …


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