To tweet or not to tweet?

Grant proposals get rejected for lots of reasons, most of them pretty routine. But one reviewer’s critique of a proposal by microbiologist Jonathan Eisen breaks new cultural and technological ground. Eisen’s “high time commitment to his blog,” the reviewer opined, means that Eisen may lack the “bandwidth” to accomplish the proposed project alone.

In a former time—say, back when Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan was hosting his smash-hit television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage—the same critic would probably have accused a researcher like Eisen of “Saganization,” losing standing with fellow scientists for communicating about science outside peer-reviewed journals and scientific meetings. Back then, Saganization was limited to a handful of scientist-journalists and scientist-communicators. These days, with far more scientists blogging and tweeting, Eisen’s reviewer’s disdain raises a question for early-career scientists: How is this nontraditional activity likely to affect professional prospects?

[B]log posts have helped me get invitations. They’ve helped me get papers. They’ve helped me get grants.

—Jonathan Eisen

Eisen, for one, has “no doubt” that using social media “wisely” can help a career, he tells Science Careers in an interview. A full professor at University of California, Davis, with an active, well-funded lab and a reputation as a pioneer in innovative science communication, he’s quick to acknowledge that tenure and an established reputation give him the “freedom [to] actively experiment with new tools for communication in the same way I would actively test a new microscope.”

He calls the experiment a success and says it has “revolutionized” his career. Eisen attributes his “last three or four grants”—along with much of his laboratory personnel and his ability to collaborate, gather information, and otherwise do good work—to “making good use of social media.” But he strongly emphasizes the qualifier: good use. “Just like computer programs,” he says, “just like a microscope,” social media are tools. “Use them as a tool but not as an obsession.”

Risks and benefits

Judicious social media exposure provides several career advantages, Eisen believes. “One is to get recognized. It’s hard to get a job. It’s hard to get people to look at your CV. It’s hard to get people to look at what you do in your papers.” A carefully crafted social-media presence can help create a “better baseline for people to find out about your work,” by, for example, making it more visible in a Google search, he says.

You can count on that Google search occurring if you’re ever seriously in the running for a job, Eisen adds; it’s “the first thing people do” when evaluating applicants. “If you have nothing interesting on the Web, but if you have the most spectacular application ever in history, you’ll be OK.” But, should 40 applicants be “spectacular, and someone has to choose five people to interview, and one of them has a collection of interesting Web posts,” that person is “going to get the interview,” he says.

In his case, “blog posts have helped me get invitations. They’ve helped me get papers. They’ve helped me get grants.” The same can happen to young researchers who make their work known—and make it seem interesting—on social media. “People cite my work more almost certainly because they’ve heard about it more” on his blog or Twitter, he says. The empirical evidence on this last point is mixed, with some research finding an effect of Twitter on scholarly impact and other research finding no correlation between tweets and citations.

Eisen may, of course, be a special case. An early adopter of social media for scientific work, he today ranks as a “star” among researchers who tweet, according to our colleagues at Science, who place him 25th on the list of scientists who use Twitter, with 24,900 followers and 46,100 tweets (at the time that Science published the list). His 41,289 scientific citations—some, no doubt, garnered because of social media attention—defend him well against accusations of scientific frivolity. On the Kardashian Index, a metric proposed (apparently with tongue in cheek) by University of Liverpool geneticist Neil Hall to compare scientists’ Twitter followings to their number of citations, Eisen earns a score of 19, eighth lowest among Science’s list of the top 50 scientific tweeters. (Lower is better.)

A lively Web presence “shows that [a scientist] can communicate,” Eisen says. “It’s good to have people who like to do research, but at some point they have to write papers, do presentations, [and] at some time they have to apply for other jobs. The ability to communicate is really important for those issues.” And, he adds, “in my experience, looking at people’s past papers does not help [to judge that ability] because you don’t know how much time they spent on it or who wrote it.”

Also, “social media is important for practice,” Eisen says. Just as participating in journal clubs provides experience preparing and giving presentations, a blog can do the same for writing—“even if there are a million blogs out there, even if nobody sees the blog.”

Of course, the great majority of students and postdocs are not going to get faculty jobs anyway, no matter how hard they work at their research. Some who are particularly skilled with social media have turned their avocation into paid work as communicators—but no matter what kind of nontraditional career you’re after, communication ability plays a major role in landing jobs, as we have often reported.

But social media also hold risks, Eisen warns: Doing it “too much and doing it badly” can damage your career. For people aiming for research jobs, “social media [should] be, in essence, a supplement to their work, not the core part of what they do. [It's a] component of communication and learning what’s going on in the field. … You’re not going to get a faculty position at a major research university if your research sucks.”

Danger can also lurk in posting or tweeting rude or ill-advised comments without due thought. “You can seem like a jerk, an idiot, or both,” Eisen says, as quoted at Science.

There may also be danger of running into a reviewer or potential employer who shares the suspicions of Eisen’s skeptical reviewer. Some consider social media efforts among the “broader impacts” of their research, but Eisen notes that there is no reliable way to translate the products of such work—even the ones that advance science by encouraging collaboration and spreading ideas—into scientific credit or impact in the current system, which recognizes only journal articles and citations within them and, increasingly, a short list of other research outputs.

One funeral at a time

Eisen expects to see a system develop to “give people the tools to track their contributions no matter what they are,” and he is among those participating in efforts to bring it into being. One of his graduate students, Russell Neches, “wrote a tool to convert a tweet into a citable object.” Already, the Impactstory website, for example, “helps researchers explore and share the diverse impacts of all their research products—from traditional ones like journal articles, to emerging products like blog posts, datasets, and software”—and seeks to “build a new scholarly reward system that values and encourages web-native scholarship,” according to the site.

As Max Planck apparently didn’t say (or not exactly), science advances one funeral at a time. Social media skeptics like Eisen’s critical reviewer may one day be the “flat-earthers” of a social-media-enabled scientific community. People’s use of social media relates, on average, directly to their age, so even though many of today’s faculty members appear leery of the new communication tools, many of tomorrow’s scientists apparently are already using social media as part of their scientific work. Things are changing, Eisen says, but “how fast it happens and to what extent I’m not sure.”

“What is clear is that you should have a balance in everything you do. If you excessively spend time doing anything, it probably is not going to be good for your career. And that includes research, that includes administration, that includes teaching, that includes doing something in a company on the side. That includes everything.”

But doesn’t social media take time away from research and other essential activities, as that critique of Eisen’s proposal suggested? Some supervisors, in fact, object to the time spent maintaining a blog or conversing in the Twitterverse, and one postdoc who used a blog to transition to a full-time science writing career posted under a pseudonym for several years to avoid detection by her lab chief. But Eisen insists that, “in fact, it frequently saves time. … [I]f I write up something about a new project on my blog and then dozens of people ask about these projects, I don’t have to answer each one with a separate e-mail message. I can just say, ‘go look at my blog.’ ” On the other hand, “there are people who sit there with Twitter and watch the feed go by and spend ridiculous amounts of time at it.” Not Eisen. “When I have some dead time, in between classes or eating lunch or something, I read. … I’m a geek. … Every couple of days I browse the Twitter feed.” When he does sign on to tweet, “I might read the last two minutes of what other people are posting. … I don’t go out of my way to spend extra time” on Twitter.

By taking wise advantage of the new tools, people “would get their message out more in the public. … They would get more practice communicating and interacting with other people, and it really shouldn’t cost you time. It should just be another way of taking notes and communicating.”

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