FLICKR, ANDREAS ELDHSocial media and Web 2.0 technologies are narrowing the communication divide between experts, journalists, and lay audiences. Not only can scientists communicate to lay audiences directly, they can interact with them. Given the rate at which modern technologies leave the lab and hit the marketplace, media outlets are extremely important for building public awareness around new breakthroughs in science and technology. Nanotechnology, for example, first caught the public’s collective eye through popular accounts in comic books, movies, and television series like Star Trek.
Despite the common assumption by scientists that public communication is rarely beneficial and may be detrimental—for example, by being too time consuming—there has been no empirical investigation into whether scientists’ efforts to communicate with wider audiences through social media are impactful for their careers.
In order to investigate this issue, we surveyed leading scientists involved in nanotechnology research at universities across the United States to ask them about their behaviors regarding lay communication, then tracked their academic impact using the h-index (PNAS, 102:16569-72, 2005), a measure that includes the number of peer-reviewed articles published and the number of citations accrued. Using survey data and data on scientists’ online activity that we collected in 2011 and 2012, we examined differences in h-indices among scientists who participated in public communication efforts to varying degrees. We also explored how communicating through new online tools, specifically Twitter, influenced scholars’ productivity. In order to examine the specific effects of communication variables, we controlled for gender and other indicators of seniority and professional status of each researcher.
Our results show that scientists who interacted more frequently with journalists had higher h-indices, as did scientists whose work was mentioned on Twitter. Interestingly, however, our data also showed an amplification effect. Furthermore, interactions with journalists had a significantly higher impact on h-index for those scientists who were also mentioned on the micro-blogging platform than for those who were not, suggesting that social media can further amplify the impact of more traditional outlets.
Our results indicate that public communication efforts are linked to academic impact and that social media can augment more traditional forms of public communication, such as scientist-journalist relationships. While collaborations with journalists are beneficial for scientists’ careers, Web 2.0 tools can amplify the impacts of these more conventional forms of communication. Indeed, researchers recently argued in The Scientist that Facebook can be a powerful tool in publicizing conservation issues. In other words, public communication efforts by scientists will have rewarding paybacks. Although some scholars may continue perceive public communication efforts as detrimental to career advancement, our evidence suggests the opposite. Moving forward, the essential question is no longer whether scientists should engage with the media, but how to do so effectively.
The boundaries that separated scientists, journalists, and the public are blurring. With interactive social media, these worlds are beginning to overlap significantly. On Twitter, for example, scholars can keep abreast of new developments and research by following others in their field. On the same platform, lay audiences can receive, repost, and comment on new scientific findings. As the definitions of expert and public communication continue to change, and the media environment and public audiences adapt to it, scientists will have no choice but to evolve, too.
Sara K. Yeo is a doctoral student in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Dominique Brossard is a professor and Chair of the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Dietram A. Scheufele holds the John E. Ross Chair in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is co-PI of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University
Paul Nealey is The Brady W. Dougan Professor in the Institute for Molecular Engineering of the University of Chicago
Elizabeth A. Corley is the Lincoln Professor of Public Policy, Ethics & Emerging Technologies and an Associate Professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University