tips for effective on-line science outreach

As you'll have gathered, I'm finding Facebook – and now Twitter – great sources of information, whether it's for teaching, sharing with my students (& others!), or blogging about. And today, this paper popped up on my Twitter feed: Ten Simple Rules for Effective On-line Outreach. Because it's published on a PLoS journal (in this case, Computational Biology), it's open-access, and so you can read the full paper here. For that reason I'll just list their 10 rules here, with the occasional aside from me.

Having noted that it can be quite a challenge to develop and keep an audience for what you have to say, here's how the authors introduce what their paper's about: 

Here, we describe ten rules for conducting effective online outreach, so that other scientists can also enjoy the advantages of disseminating their knowledge and expertise through social media.

  1. Stop treating outreach and research as separate entities. This point dovetails with the comments in an article that I have in my 'must blog about real soon' list: that much published work doesn't get read & is never cited. Blogging or tweeting about research is a way of making it accessible to a wider audience, one that may never read a scientific journal but still wants to hear about what scientists do.  There's also this: 

    It should also be acknowledged that the requirement of translating research to a public audience increases both awareness and intimacy with the published literature—one that can feed directly back into your research program.

    Not to mention that both blogging and tweeting can increase your range of contacts and, from my so-far limited observation, lead to new collaborations.

  2. Be strategic. Be deliberate. In other words, plan before you act. I know that when I began blogging (seven years ago, now!), I gave a lot of thought to why I was doing it & to the nature of my target audience. 
  3. Find your niche & story. I've always seen this blog as outreach. Originally it was set up to reach year 13 biology students & their teachers, and although that range has expanded over time, I still have that group in mind. To that extent, I guess this descriptor from the paper applies: "a sustained effort to disseminate science beyond the ivory tower." I like to mix & match topics, depending on what catches my attention in my reading & on-line activity; it would be really really boring to stick to just a single area or focus! 
  4. Branding… branding… branding… Not one I've really thought about, beyond the fact that the blog carries the University's branding, given that it's hosted by the uni 🙂
  5. Recruit a top-notch team. I wish! Group blogging would certainly share the workload and, as the authors note, allow for more diversity of voice & viewpoint. Certainly this is something afforded by Sciblogs
  6. Focus on the story. I agree with the authors that good communication skills include story-telling and the ability to develop a narrative. These things allow you to show the human side of science & so build links with the audience. 
  7. Leverage multiple tools to disseminate content and build up your network. Yes indeedy. Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and all the other things I have a peripheral knowledge of: they're all ways of getting your ideas and stories out to a much wider network. My friend Kimberley Collins did her MSciComm thesis on this.
  8. Collect & assess data. This is not something I do in a formalised way, and I suppose that I should. (My Head of School would certainly agree!) But I do keep an eye on my blog stats, the number of 'likes' posts get on FB (I've taken to sharing each post there), and whether tweets are 'favourited'. (Social media are doing strange things to grammar…) The blog platform WordPress also shows you what search terms people used in coming to your site, giving an indication of what things are currently interesting to your potential audience.
  9. Iteratively assess what works and what doesn't. This follows on from #8. The authors also suggest going for shorter, rather than longer, posts; I have to admit that I'm torn on this one. Orac, for example, writes some monumental posts, but his topics are usually fascinating and he carries a large audience along with him. Carl Zimmer & Ed Yong, two other bloggers whom I really admire, go more for brevity. So both can work, but I agree that for many readers shorter is better.
  10. Create prestige for public scholarship. Let's finish with the authors' words:

The most important overarching benefit is visibility—to one’s colleagues, to the media, and to the public. By being accessible, researchers participating in online conversations have the opportunity to have a much more influential voice for their science. In these days of dwindling governmental investment and increased public distrust of science, scientists need to speak out on the value of their profession and training.

Because we have witnessed such direct and beneficial gains as a result of our online outreach activities, we feel strongly that such activities should be given more weight when determining scientific productivity, e.g., during hiring/promotion decisions. The impact of online activities is increasingly recognized, and they should be formally encouraged.

Bik HM, Dove ADM, Goldstein MC, Helm RR, MacPherson R, et al. (2015) Ten Simple Rules for Effective Online Outreach. PLoS Comput Biol 11(4): e1003906. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003906

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