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November 10, 2014 | By:  Jonathan Lawson
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Join the Twitter Chorus

This piece has a history as long and varied as it is. It took me a long time to put together the ideas that it contains and then in a fit of frustration (which may be palpable, especially towards the end) over the missed academic opportunity that Twitter represents, I wrote all of this, pretty much as you see it now, in a couple of hours on a late night train journey. That was almost a year ago now, I've held on to it all of this time with the intention of making it shorter, prettier, more concise. I still haven't and the time seems right for me to add my voice to those of Mark Brandon and Eva Amsen, in supporting the use of Twitter in science, especially at conferences. If you already know and love twitter you'll probably know much of this already, for those of you that have never tweeted before I hope it provides insight if not inspiration. I know you won't all agree, but that's ok. And I hope you'll forgive the parts where I get a little passionate about the subject. (All opinions expressed, and there are many, are entirely my own as a result of discussion with friends and colleagues, and cannot be blamed on anyone or anything I may be affiliated with).

Author: Jonathan Lawson

Like most things, people have mixed ideas about Twitter. Many simply don't see the appeal or don't understand how it works, whilst others can no longer imagine life without a constant stream of random news, celeb gossip and cat pictures that Twitter brings into their lives.
Unfortunately, as in life, there are a number of Twitter users who talk (or tweet) a lot without really saying anything. In my experience, it's these people that discourage others from discovering the more practical and useful side of Twitter.

I don't use Twitter as consistently or as professionally as I'd like to think - often using it to chat with friends or exchange banter with colleagues - but as a scientist I do find it a great way to stay in touch with the most current news stories in science and to find out about exciting opportunities, jobs and events.

There is one place, however, where I really feel that Twitter comes into its own, and that is at conferences (or pretty much any other organised gathering or event). I've been to several conferences now, in fields where Twitter has been openly embraced (mainly science communications, outreach and journalism). In these events Twitter adds a much-needed extra dimension to every session and it breaks down many of the perceived social walls that stop people at these events from interacting with one another. Yet, academic conferences (or at least the ones I've been to) are still lagging far behind when it comes to using Twitter and an overall online presence.

Conferences - old style

The issues of conferences are clear. Sessions are generally one directional flows of information; a speaker speaks and the audience listens. There's a short opportunity for questions at the end, but with a tight schedule and packed programmes it's impossible for everyone to have their say and put forward ideas before it's on to the next speaker.

Also the questions in conference sessions are, almost invariably, dominated by the most established scientists in the room, who are given the most opportunity to have their say and have the confidence and ego to stand up and speak their minds on subjects that interest them. This stratification is something that permeates most aspects of conferences; senior established members of a field have fun catching up with each other (most of them having worked together at some point in the past) and discussing their most recent advances. Meanwhile younger attendees often feel isolated, unknown to anyone, except perhaps as a name on a paper, with very little opportunity to introduce themselves into the wider social bubble.

Placing the blame for this division is hard, but undoubtedly some of it can be linked to the global renown held by the most senior academics. I've spoken to may students & even post-docs with the opinion that well-known scientists are far too busy, powerful, mad and/or scary to want to spend their time speaking with the rest of us. "I can't talk to them, they have a Nobel prize, what am I supposed to say?" "He doesn't want to hear my ideas, I'm sure he's already thought of them anyway?" etc. But my feeling is this... "Just because you're young and new doesn't mean your ideas shouldn't be heard."

Over the years, many have attempted to break down the social barriers and get people at conferences mixing and talking. One approach to achieve this, "science speed dating" is something my PhD lab has developed and something that I've blogged about before. Yet, I still believe the best answer lies with Twitter. If encouraged in the community and used correctly, Twitter can provide a much more flexible, wide ranging and successful grounds for conference evolution and progression than has previously been possible.

Twitter - Where to start

As a Twitter user, you can pick and choose who you want to follow, anyone from Lady Gaga to the Pope. Focusing on the scientific community, you can follow other students in your field from across the world, but you can also follow lab heads, news agencies, journals or scientific institutions. Through this you can get a constant and refined stream of the most interesting and relevant news tailored to your scientific interests. If you don't like the tweets you get from another user then don't follow them, it's as simple as that. By following the right users you can find out about the latest publications, the science stories that are making the news and even job vacancies that could be right up your street. What's more, I often use Twitter as a way to find out about upcoming conferences, or conferences as they happen. Finding the right people to follow takes time, but the returns can be well worth it.

Once you're connected to people and groups in your research area (some labs have their own Twitter feeds now too) then you'll see anything that they share on twitter. Depending on who they are this will vary greatly, but the point is you can communicate and interact with them. Maybe you can suggest a new method to solve a problem they're having, or maybe just share in some incredibly nerdy science humour. Either way up, you can get to know them, you can begin to establish relationships with the people you work alongside and come to know them as individuals. In this, Twitter is a great leveller, because it's much easier to interact with someone as a person without being gripped by the fear of their seniority or reputation. It's as easy to provide input to the head of a department as it is a fellow student, and often enough they may even surprise you by responding in kind. Overall, this social levelling and network building can really change the face of going to conferences, you're not gripped by dread at the thought of spending days with hundreds of people you don't know, instead you're looking forward to catch up with old friends that you've never met. One of the most fun experiences I have had at communications conferences is that of meeting someone new and then discovering that we've tweeted at each other loads of times before; the ‘I know you...' moment.

Twitter & Conferences

Then there's the actual use of Twitter at conferences. Most conferences now, especially in fields that embrace Twitter, have official hashtags. Hashtags are short words, phrases or acronyms prefixed with a ‘#', which act as a mark tweets about a similar subject and link them together. When you tweet from or about a conference you can use the hashtag, and anyone interested in the conference can then find your tweet with a simple search or by following the link from other tweets with the same hashtag. By following the hashtag for an event you're at, or even one you're interested in but can't get to, you can find out more about what's going on there, what's catching people's attention and who is getting involved. It's a very easy way to get a feel for the overall environment of an event.

In connection with the usefulness of twitter in representing ideas and making them accessible, many communicators and journalists have largely ditched their conference notepad, and now prefer to post key points and ideas directly to Twitter. These tweets can be reviewed later, and related tweets from other people can be gathered too. This is also a great way to catch interesting little bits that you might have otherwise missed. Tools like Storify exist to help you collate those tweets with other relevant information to build a lasting and useful record of what happened at a conference or even in individual sessions.

Twitter can also be used to be everywhere at once. You can keep up with parallel sessions to the one you're currently sitting in and even contribute to them through your tweets (assuming your multitasking skills are sufficiently well developed, of course). This is a great way to avoid the dilemma of having to decide which sessions you are most interested in attending.

Finally, and most excitingly, comes the extra dimension of dialogue that twitter adds to any session, whether it's an open workshop, discussion session or more typical academic presentation. Twitter allows everyone present to have their say. In the typical conference format, the short Q&A sessions can become dominated by the loudest, most confident or the most powerful members of the community. This may not always be to everyone's advantage. Through Twitter, anyone can contribute ideas, put forward questions, make criticisms and express opinions on the work that is being presented to them. In some sessions I have seen there may even be a designated person who's role is to voice some of the views expressed through Twitter. Similarly, some conferences show live Twitter screens, allowing the speakers to respond to tweets as they appear. All of this provides opportunity for less confident attendees to have their say and, most promisingly for an academic context, provides a collection of views, thoughts and outlooks that can be collected and considered by a speaker after the event. You can only get so much feedback on your work from three or four questions at the end. You can gain so much more from the plethora of conversations, discussions and concepts that can appear on Twitter in the space of 20 minutes. What is more, you can then follow up on the more promising ones, develop new research avenues and collaborations, simply by responding to the initial tweets.

Yes, but why?

As many tweeps (Twitter people) will tell you, Twitter is an excellent medium for self-promotion. As a young researcher in a relatively new lab, it's easy to see the potential to use Twitter to advertise to other conference goers. I've previously promoted talks by my PhD supervisor through Twitter and have seen several people use it to direct others to their conference posters. You can also use it to advertise other talks, sessions or posters that you've enjoyed and want to draw attention to. It's great as a presenter to see people enthusing about your work and to get constructive criticism too. Of course, there will always be people that feel the need to express negative opinions, and Twitter can only be as positive on the people using it. Sometimes the anonymity of the Internet lets people think they can get away with being really very monstrous. Yet, my experience so far though has been that scientific Twitter communities are generally honest about their feelings but also very supportive of each other. Hopefully the more of us there are, the more this will grow and the stronger our communities can be come as we use these tools to perform ever more rigorous science. Given the typical challenges of academic discussions at conferences, there is a lot to gain from Twitter. Everyone has a chance to attract interested people to their work and to gain detailed feedback about it.

There is, of course, a small caveat in the use of Twitter at conferences; you need a lot of people. Twitter is present on the fringes of academic conferences, I used it at #pombe13 but other than a small number of publicity posts from companies and sponsors, and the occasional social comments from the tea breaks and receptions, I often felt like the only voice in the room, which can be a very solitary experience and removes a lot of joy from the Twitter dimension of a conference. It did mean I had some great real-world chats with those few other twitter users, but it just didn't create the same buzz. I was gratified to see much more Twitter activity less than a year later at #byg2014, but there is still a lot of scope for advancement. Twitter when you're alone is still useful for notes and to reflect on what you've seen. But it lacks the connection, the evolution of discussions and the overall enthusiasm that comes from a thriving twitter feed with dozens or hundreds of users contributing. Therefore, it's impractical to expect a gradual growth in Twitter presence at conferences. For scientists to really feel the full benefits of this technology we need to take a big step and embrace it together.

I believe that developing effective Twitter communities at conferences is partly the job of the organisers, encouraging and facilitating Twitter use through the establishment and, more importantly, enthusiastic and coordinated use of, relevant Twitter accounts and hashtags. However, conferences in recent years are generally quite proactive in incorporating Twitter users, it seems a change is needed by the community to realise the potential for Twitter. I hope the younger, more technologically literate generation may help to ring this change, but with so much on offer, I live in hope that scientists throughout the academic hierarchy will come to recognise Twitter as the next invaluable, and inexpensive (did I mention it's free?) research tool.

Ok, it's not all perfect

There is an obvious concern in amongst all of this cheerleading and promoting (I hope Twitter's going to pay me commission for all this) that I feel cannot and should not be overlooked. There is a general fear of Twitter in academia, especially at conferences, for one simple reason. People of present unpublished data at conferences and they are afraid that if this data is tweeted about that it may be seen by competing labs. Competing labs that will then replicate their findings and attempt to publish before them.

The results of combining Twitter and unpublished data have been recently explored by Mike Taylor and I support the view that policy on this should be clearly defined, however, I also feel that Twitter usage should be expected and encouraged, and conferences excluding Twitter would ultimately be stifling scientific openness.

The problem here lies in the messy issue of collaboration versus competition that is an inherent aspect of the scientific world. I have discussed this with colleagues and friends on a number of occasions, and I still find it hard to see how Twitter can be viewed as an additional threat to anyone's research, whether published or otherwise. At most international academic conferences, your major competitors are going to be at the meeting, this is an accepted fact. If it's a conference about something that interests you then it must also interest them. On top of that, even if they're not there in person, it's almost certain that someone will take note of any exciting results and pass them on to others in their field that are likely to be interested in them. True, modern technology may slightly speed this process, but it seems strange to assume that data shared at a conference won't find a way to the labs of your competition.

Some have said to me that an unwritten rule of academia is that you don't discuss what you hear at conferences, i.e. that unpublished data is the right of the person presenting it. But any scientist will also tell you that if they hear something at a conference that they think is important to their lab they will talk about it, in detail, as soon as they get back. And this is ok. It is good even, as it a way to learn from each other and ensure that the work we do is relevant and valid.

In research, we shouldn't need to protect and hide our data from each other, we should be able to share it freely with everyone. The fear of having data stolen by a dishonest few is stifling progress by inciting an irrational aversion to social media and new technologies, forcing us to restrict our communications to established channels, despite their commonly accepted flaws and limitations. We should invest our efforts in promoting and recognising honest practice in science, which would remove this fear and allow scientific collaboration to reach its full potential by making full use of all available media.

Where does that leave us?

We must have learnt by now - if not through common sense, then through high-profile media examples of people saying things that they shouldn't - that anything you say in public may as well be taken to be out there for all to see. People will hear it, and pass it on, it'll get picked up by people that are interested and, faster than you can think, it ends up on the desk of your rival, or the front page of the Sun or whatever the worst case scenario you choose to imagine is. There's a simple life lesson here, and it's one that I've used when preparing for conferences in the past: ‘If you don't want people to know something, then don't tell them about it.' If you do want people to know what you're doing, and as a scientist you really should, then tell everyone, and get Twitter to help.

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