Why you should tweet for @RealScientists

In response to a few queries we’ve had over the past while about how people can become @RealScientists curators, how we in Team RS go about selecting potential curators, and general advice-seeking about the tweeting of science, we’ve decided to write a Thing about tweeting as a scientist, and tweeting as a @RealScientist.

Firstly, as a scientist, why should you tweet?

Yeah, why should I tweet?

Because there’s no better way of communicating directly with the end-users of your research – the people who paid for it, one way or another.

But how can you say anything meaningful in 140 characters?

Practice! Just give it a go.

But I don’t have anything to say!

You seem to manage when you’re asked to write a grant or a paper, don’t you? Or when your parents or family or mates down the pub ask for the once-over-lightly version of your project?

But but but can’t you get fired for tweeting stuff?

Only if you’re a dick. General rule is, even if you’re nominally anonymous, it’s a public forum and you need to stand beside everything you say. Even hiding behind a dinosaur with a hat is no guarantee of safety. Don’t tweet anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face, or have published in the paper with your name beside it. Don’t call your boss a clueless gurning arsewomble, even if he IS, and everyone in the office says so. That’s not necessarily peer-reviewed data.

In terms of how to tweet as a scientist, there’s actually some good resources out there to help – Christie Wilcox aka @NerdyChristie of Scientific American’s Science Sushi wrote a tremendous multi-part series about the whys, wherefors, hows, dos and don’ts of science tweeting: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 2.5 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5. Also, Tweet Your Science has been putting together a repository of academic resources on tweeting science, as well as running events and establishing databases of active science twitterers. There’s no right or wrong way (the above ‘don’t be a dick’ rule notwithstanding) to twitter about science (or about anything). Take time to find your own voice and you will find your own audience.

So how do we go about picking curators for RealScientists? Well, it’s fair to say we (meaning the RS admin team – @dryobbo, @upulie, @sciencesarah and @reneewebs) don’t see ourselves as gatekeepers – it might seem ironic given the name of the project but we don’t sit in judgement on what is ‘proper’ science or who is a ‘real’ scientist. By and large, the people who nominate themselves for curation know whether they’re scientists or not. Generally, we aim for people who are doing active research – although we’ve had and will continue to have science communicators, educators, policy makers and so forth – because that’s what we feel our followers are interested in hearing about, that’s where the ‘unmet need’ is in terms of whose voices are heard. Despite half our team being science communicators, we are supporters of the idea that one day professional science communicators might not be necessary, if all researchers could be citizen science communicators in their own right. Of course, that’s not feasible right now, but our hope is to showcase best practice in that area.

As a guide, most of our curators have been postgraduate students (PhD/MSc), postdocs or beyond, but that doesn’t preclude. We’re fairly agnostic in terms of speciality – most of our team are molecular biologists by background, but we’ve probably had more astronomers through the account than anything else – and welcome all denominations. We do tweak the scheduling in order to get a good ‘mix’ of specialities – also to try and tie in with potential curators’ field work or conference trips. We also do a bit of ‘due diligence’ around what sort of stuff a potential curator tweets in their own timeline, how they interact with people and so forth – we’re not shy of engaging with controversial subjects in the science sphere, but we do require them to be engaged with in a rational, non-confrontational way (i.e. without abusing people.) My own timeline, as my followers would wearily attest, is science interspersed with sport, cars, off-colour jokes, beering and swearing, so we understand that people who are scientists or into science aren’t necessarily tweeting about science 24/7, and we keep that in mind when assessing potential curators.

At any given moment we’re usually booked up for a few months in advance, although occasionally earlier vacancies appear, so if you do have some cool field trips or conference junkets lined up that you think would be fun to live-tweet for RS, be sure to sign up well ahead of time and let us know about these things when you do. Nominating yourself as a curator is easy – send thisissciencetwitter@gmail.com an email saying you’re interested in curating, a bit about what you do (links to relevant websites if you have them), your Twitter handle (it’s amazing how many people don’t include this and we have to go searching!), and if relevant, particular weeks or periods you would prefer.

If you do end up tweeting for us, congrats and welcome to the family! It’s a lot of fun and you end up making huge new networks of followers and followees (is that a word?). One other thing to remember: rotation-curation is hard. It’s actually kinda scary to be air-dropped into someone else’s account with someone else’s followers, particularly if there’s thousands more than you’re used to. We’ve had excellent curators on RS so far, and new curators have often commented they’re nervous about maintaining the quality level that’s been established – that’s a natural reaction – don’t worry about it. As an expat Aussie living in NZ I had the chance earlier this year to tweet for @PeopleofNZ and even though at the time my personal account had more followers than it did, I still did the first-day ro-cur noob thing – froze up completely, then thawed out and tweeted a rapid-fire brain-dump of unmitigated faff until people politely asked me to not. Like with Twitter itself, you will find you need to take time to get the pace of any ro-cur account and its followers, and we get that.

Also, at some point we will get as many RS curators together as we can at the pub and talk nonsense, so there’s that to look forward to. It won’t be IFLSLive, but it will be fun.

Yours in continued scitweeterage

Dr Y

theotherdrsmith

James is a recovering scientist and escaped postdoc who works in research management at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He's now retired from active @RealScientists duty, after serving from the project's beginnings in 2013 through to mid 2015. When not managing research, surviving #PlanetParenthood or pretending not to be an expat Australian in the Deep South of NZ, he tweets @theotherdrsmith.

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