Is Twitter Right for Every Scientist? (Hint: It May Be)

By Kirk Englehardt (@kirkenglehardt)

Convincing scientists to tweet…have you tried it?

If so, you’ve probably heard all of the reasons why it’s not possible. Many will have no interest, no matter how much encouragement you provide.

Those of us who do use Twitter know that there are thousands of excellent examples of researchers tweeting about their work. So, how do we convert the others from Twitter skeptics to believers?

A few months ago I met with a group of research institute communication executives. Among them was Jeffrey Hiday, who directs the Office of Media Relations for RAND Corporation. His team runs a formal training program for RAND researchers who want to give Twitter a try – and it’s working.

Jeff graciously took part in the following Q&A so that others may be able to learn how he has helped dozens of researchers become comfortable sharing their thoughts, expertise, and opinions with the world – 140 characters at a time.

Q: Tell me a bit about how you use Twitter at Rand? What makes your process unique?

A: We have around 75 official Tweeters at this point, up from zero when we started in early 2012. Most are researchers, along with a few communicators like myself. The number is growing now at two or three a month. We require participants in our official Twitter program to undergo basic in-house media training. These are small-group sessions that run about a half-day. That helps familiarize folks with our general principles for communicating with outside media. We also have them get about an hour of individual Twitter training from our social media producer Tim McNellie. That’s aimed at making sure folks understand how Twitter works, as well as some do’s (e.g., try to tweet at least once or twice a day) and don’ts (e.g., don’t get political). I suppose our process is only unique in the sense that we’ve designed it with RAND’s culture in mind, trying to strike a balance between engaging in social media and preserving RAND’s reputation for objective analysis.

Q: Many science communicators wish more of the researchers they support would use Twitter for direct outreach. What tips do you have for encouraging scientists to take the plunge?

A: My #1 tip would be to keep expectations modest. We started off by stressing best practices; I think that scared some researchers off. Now I make sure our folks know it’s fine to start out just monitoring Twitter for a while without tweeting. They can do that without even being part of our formal Twitter program. Once they start tweeting, I tell them they can start by mainly retweeting other interesting things they see. Gradually they tend to get the hang of Twitter and start developing their own voice.

My #2 tip is to sit down with prospective researchers and walk them through opening a Twitter account. Otherwise, it’s something they might put off forever. Once we get them in, they are routinely amazed at how many of their peers are already out there tweeting away.

Q: When encouraging researchers to Tweet we hear a lot of excuses. “I don’t have the time.” “You can’t communicate substance in 140 characters.” “Someone will steal my ideas.” “It won’t help my career, so why bother?” How do you help them understand the pros while acknowledging the cons? 

A: One thing I do is tell them they’re right: You can’t put everything across in 140 characters. But you certainly can entice folks to click through and read your research in that number of characters. I tell them it’s like having a compelling subject line in their email (which often leads to an interesting discussion about email.)

I haven’t gotten the stolen ideas line yet but would probably say that if others really want to steal your idea, they can also do it by co-opting your dissertation, journal article or blog post.

I do offer a robust riposte to the career line: Of course, it will help your career! Twitter is a great way to keep on top of trends in your research area and to exchange views with peers (which you can do publicly or via private direct messages). In fact, if you’re not on Twitter you might be hampering your career. I recommend that researchers commit to spending five minutes a day perusing their Twitter feed. If they don’t encounter anything helpful, they haven’t lost much. But chances are they will find items that spark their professional curiosity.

We also have plenty of examples of a Twitter presence leading to media interviews, business prospects or congressional appearances.

Q: Is Twitter right for every researcher?

A: The short answer is: Yes. Even if you are merely a passive Twitter observer, there is value for a researcher. Clearly, some take to Twitter more readily than others, but I can’t tell a pattern. Some of our more senior, technophobic researchers have become very comfortable with Twitter, while others have steered clear. Same goes for our younger cohort. I have noticed male researchers were more eager to engage on Twitter initially, although that has begun to even out, perhaps in part because we have gone out of our way to encourage female researchers to tweet.

I wouldn’t encourage the small subset of our researchers who conduct mostly classified research to tweet; but, as I’ve said several times here, there is very likely value in them at least monitoring Twitter. In a few cases where we’ve signed up researchers for Twitter, the bug hasn’t bitten, and their accounts lie mostly dormant. But I’ve already seen a few of those cases where something – publication of a new piece of research they’ve worked on for months or years, an email from a colleague who has begun engaging on Twitter – sparks them to come back to me and say: So remind me how this thing works? And Tim or I are always happy to oblige.

Q: Creating a Twitter bio is always challenging, what advice do you give your experts for creating a bio that’s appropriate, yet stands out? 

A: In keeping with RAND’s culture, we tilt more toward a bio that’s appropriate rather than one that stands out. We prefer they mention their title and perhaps the subjects they follow, rather than getting too cute. We specifically warn against being too jokey or irreverent on their Twitter account. That said, if someone wants to include their favorite sports team (I’m guilty as charged on that score) we don’t mind. A bit of personality is helpful for building an audience.

Q: How do you help researchers understand that the ‘tone’ of a tweet is important?

A: We do that through the media training and the Twitter training. We explain that tweets should be thoughtful, friendly, and engaging. They should conform to the guidelines RAND uses for op-eds, commentaries, and interacting with the news media. That means they should always be accurate and nonpartisan, and strike a constructive and balanced tone. We remind them not to refer to unpublished or restricted research – and to remember that whatever they tweet is available for the entire world to see. We also show a bunch of “good” and “bad” examples. E.g., Good: “Support reformers in Iran by all means, but don’t count on this to help resolve the nuclear challenge any time soon.” Bad: “#NYC subway alleged murderer not only bigoted, but stupid: Wanted to kill a #Muslim, but the victim was #Hindu.” Yes, we had to delete that last one.

Q: What are the key ‘dos and don’ts’ you share with your experts when they start Tweeting?

SOME DOs:

  • Be yourself. Your Twitter account is about your work and your expertise, but don’t be afraid to show your personality. It humanizes your feed and makes your tweets more interesting to read. Always keep in mind that you represent an organization too, so carefully consider the tone of each tweet before you hit send.
  • Keep up with your account. After you tweet, be sure to check for mentions, retweets, and direct messages. See who is following you and don’t be afraid to reach out and say hello.
  • Be accurate
  • Be fair and balanced
  • Be constructive

SOME DON’Ts: 

  • Don’t refer to unpublished or restricted research.
  • Don’t tweet outside of your area of expertise. You can tweet about non-work topics like family, sports, and books, but if you’re an expert in, say, domestic transportation, there’s no need for you to weigh in on al Qaeda’s rising presence in Syria or the U.S. budget crisis (unless you’re commenting on highway funding or something that ties it to your field).
  • Don’t over-promote yourself. A steady stream of advertisements for yourself with no other value will turn off your followers.
  • Don’t blindly retweet. When you retweet a post, be sure to read it in its entirely and consider that people might interpret your retweet as an endorsement.
  • Don’t tweet too much. If you fill up people’s feeds with scores of tweets each day, they are likely to unfollow you.
  • Don’t Tweet too little. If you tweet once per month, few people will even notice it, much less pay attention.

Additional Information: 

Jeffrey Hiday is Director of Media Relations at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution. He oversees strategic planning and daily relations with global media.

Before joining RAND in 2008, Hiday was director general for external relations at the Asian Development Bank in Manila and advisor to the president and head of media relations at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London.

Hiday’s 13-year career as a journalist included stints at The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, and the Providence Journal, and as a regular commentator on CNBC in London.

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