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Blog, tweet, and avoid the pitfalls

From penning research papers to applying for grants, writing is an integral part of a scientist’s career. With this foundation, launching a blog or posting results on Twitter should be smooth sailing, right? Not so fast. Stepping into social media may be a great way to spread the word about your research, but there is also potential to hurt your career, by damaging your chances of winning a patent, for example. If you’re not careful, you may also unwittingly harm relationships with potential collaborators and even tarnish your professional reputation. Luckily, most often, all it takes for scientists to avoid the pitfalls and fully reap the benefits of writing online is being aware of what could potentially go wrong.

Are my research and writing solid?

Amy Mainzer

Amy Mainzer

Courtesy of Amy Mainzer

Just like presenting work at a conference or publishing a research paper, when taking to social media scientists need to balance the urge to tell the world about their new findings with the possible impact on their reputation, should their conclusions turn out to be unsubstantiated. And once they have ensured their results are solid enough to be widely disseminated, scientists must also present their research accurately. To avoid any errors, Amy Mainzer, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who has over 19,000 Twitter followers, tries “to double- and triple-check Tweets about science results before I post, or get a researcher who has more familiarity than I do with a particular subfield … to take a look,” she writes in an email to Science Careers.

Twitter only allows 140 characters, so avoiding misunderstandings can also be challenging. The need to be brief “can be great for getting right to the nub of what's important and new about a scientific result, but the danger is that context and caveats can be lost,” Mainzer writes. Posting images can be a great way to convey results effectively, she adds.

Chad Orzel

Chad Orzel

Credit: R.Lash/Flickr

Another way scientists could damage their credibility is by overstating the implications of their studies. Postings about your results might be picked up by journalists and become a news story, “so it’s important to be as honest as you can about what the actual significance of these [results] is,” says Chad Orzel, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Union College in New York who blogs about physics and politics.

When contributing to online debates about your own work or broader science-related issues, you again need to make sure you can back up what you say, as this will help shape your reputation as a trustworthy source and valuable proponent. “I’m very conscious that the things I say will be in the public domain, and therefore I have to stand by them … and make sure there is evidence behind what I’m saying,” says Alex Hope, an environmental sustainability researcher and senior lecturer in business ethics at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, U.K., who writes about his work and academic life at his Dr. Sustainable blog.

I’m very conscious that the things I say will be in the public domain, and therefore I have to stand by them.

—Alex Hope

Are there legal considerations or other potential restrictions?

There is a range of situations where bloggers and tweeters need to carefully consider how much of their work they should bring into the public domain—and when. Most public-private partnerships, for example, are bound by clauses that restrict the public dissemination of company-owned information or delay the publication of emerging results. Even if you think it’s your research, “you have to be careful that you don’t break any confidentiality agreements,” Hope says. Make sure you review all agreements before publishing anything about the research, and, in case of doubt, ask your private partners.

Alex Hope

Alex Hope

Credit: Simon Veit-Wilson

You also need to be careful about the amount of detail you release into the public domain if you are thinking about patenting your research because, to be considered an invention, your findings must meet strict novelty criteria. The United States Patent and Trademark Office, for instance, explains on its website that new results cease to be patentable if “the claimed invention was … described in a printed publication …  or otherwise available to the public before the effective filing date.” In a recent legal case, for instance, the description of a prior invention posted on a precursor of today’s Internet forums was deemed sufficient to invalidate some patent claims.

Journals also often have their own policies about how much, and what type of, prior publication, discussion, and dissemination of submitted research results is tolerated. The guidelines can be complex and detailed, so to avoid the risk of jeopardizing your future publication, Toby Murcott, a journalist and science journalism lecturer at City University London, recommends that scientists check the guidelines of the journals they plan to submit to, and if in doubt contact the editor. If your paper is already in press, the journal or your university’s press office may also require you to respect an embargo date before publicizing your results.

Once the research has been published, you may freely discuss it, but you need to make sure you have copyright clearance if you post your paper online. “If … the copyright on that paper belongs to the journal … and you then make that paper available for free…, the journal could ask you to take it down,” Murcott says.

Toby Murcott

Toby Murcott

Courtesy of Toby Murcott

Finally, bear in mind the potential to harm relationships with collaborators. Always be courteous when posting about any of your collaborative research online—even if you are only discussing your own section of the work. Send a quick email to check that your collaborators have no objections, Hope advises.

Am I writing about someone else’s work?

Careful consideration must also be given if you’ve had no involvement in the research you’re writing about. Elaborating on and critiquing the work of others is part of the scientific process, but it must be done in a clear and professional manner, especially when using a forum as public as social media.

It’s a good idea to speak to the researchers who did the work to minimize misunderstandings and the risk of unproductive online debates, Murcott says. “Even the best scientific papers are open to different interpretations …, [and] it pays to know and understand [the authors’] interpretation.” If you are criticizing their work, he adds, make sure you “don’t print what you can’t substantiate.” Include all your workings and reasoning to stand on solid ground and show that you have thought it through. Above all, never cross the line between commenting on someone’s work and making unflattering or derogatory comments about who they are as a person, he adds.

It is also essential that you distinguish between plainly reporting what other researchers have done or said and stepping in with your own views and interpretations. When Ethan Perlstein, founder and CEO of biotech startup Perlstein Lab in San Francisco, California, tweets his opinions about others’ talks, he clearly labels what is his own voice and that of the speaker, he says. And if you are planning to reproduce any of someone else’s content, make sure you get all the appropriate copyright permissions and duly cite them, Murcott adds.

Ethan Perlstein

Ethan Perlstein

Courtesy of Ethan Perlstein

Also be aware that, although most scientists will welcome having their research highlighted by others on social media, it may also present potential pitfalls for them, especially if the results are still unpublished, as is often the case for results presented during scientific conferences. Debates about best practices for blogging and live-tweeting from conferences are currently ongoing, but many conferences now offer their own rules or guidelines, so make sure you check them. Also respect the speaker’s wishes, Perlstein says. “The speaker could say, ‘Please don’t tweet unpublished data, or certain aspects of the talk,’ or could prohibit any tweeting at all,” explains Perlstein, who co-authored Ten Simple Rules of Live Tweeting at Scientific Conferences, published in PLOS Computational Biology in 2014.

Whether you’ve learned about the new findings at a conference or elsewhere, always be considerate and protect existing or potential relationships with colleagues. “If someone's working on a paper or result that isn't published, it's not kosher to spill the beans unless [they] told you it’s okay to do so,” Mainzer writes.

Although you must be aware of the pitfalls—and be prepared to deal with them—Hope, who runs professional development sessions on the use of social media, sees many benefits for scientists who take to tweeting and blogging. “It is a useful networking and research discovery tool,” he says. “And I feel strongly that, as researchers who are often funded with public money, we should be engaging with the public and writing in blog posts as well as our journal articles.”

Blogging and tweeting checklist

  • Is my research solid?
  • Is the broad dissemination of my results under any restrictions?
  • Is my writing accurate and sufficiently substantiated?
  • Did I reach out to collaborators or the authors before writing about their work?
  • Have I differentiated my own comments from those of the speaker or author?
  • Are my comments likely to offend anyone? 
  • Have I obtained copyright permission to reproduce content?

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