Who follows scientists on Twitter

Credits: (Graphic) N. Desai and C. Smith/Science; (Data) I. Côté and E. Darling

Scientists, do you want to succeed on Twitter? Here’s how many followers you need

Some scientists have started Twitter accounts to share their findings with the public, but does this form of outreach succeed?

To find out, two scholars examined who followed the Twitter accounts of 110 academic ecologists and evolutionary biologists—largely in the United States and the United Kingdom—who tweet mostly about science, rather than personal matters. For example, an evolutionary biomechanist tweeted a video of a leaping crocodile, and a corals expert answered a question about bleaching caused by climate change.

The study found that scientists with fewer than 1000 followers were mostly tweeting to their own kind: An average of 60% of their followers were fellow scientists. But above that tipping point, members of the public and the media made up a majority of followers, the team reports in Facets. (Decisionmakers such as politicians and other government officials, not shown in graphic above, made up less than 1% of followers, regardless of the total number of followers.)

The nonscientist followers amplified a scientist’s reach exponentially because those Twitter accounts typically had larger followings than scientist-run accounts, the researchers found. Or as they put it in their paper, “Academic scientists on Twitter start by preaching to the choir but can eventually sing from the rooftops.”

The study did not track how individual scientists’ followers grew over time, but the authors say their findings support the view that building audiences on Twitter and reaching nonscientists requires persistence and effective strategies, such as posting images with tweets. Another piece of advice is to just start tweeting: In a 2014 survey of 3500 scientists worldwide, only 13% reported regularly using Twitter.