Practices and Promises of Facebook for Science Communication

We summarized and discussed a paper entitled Practices and promises of Facebook for science outreach by Dr. Craig McClain during a Twitter chat on August 29th.

 

Poster- Practices and Promises of Facebook for Science Communication

Here is a summary of the publication, followed by selected discussions from our Twitter chat.

State of science communication on social media

In a 2016 survey by Pew Research Center, 62% of adult Americans say they use social media as a source for news. This prominent use of social media for news is likely behind the rise of fake news in 2016.  If scientists are to debunk pseudoscience and misinformation, they should engage the public where they turn for information: social media channels.

Aside from being a major source of information for the public, social media channels are free and easy to use, providing a potential to reach a massive audience.  However, science outreach on social media can be very time consuming and requires long term commitment. But time is a commodity always running in short supply for scientists. In fact, in a number of surveys scientists cite lack of time as number of one reason they do not engage in social media.  Since time seems to be a bottleneck for scientists, we must address the problem of the clock. How can scientists find time to both fulfill the responsibilities of their profession and engage with the public?  Facebook may just be the solution for this problem.

Why use Facebook for science communication

Among all social networking sites, Facebook is consistently the leader in number of daily active users, as well as the source for dissemination of fake news and pseudoscience. In addition, Americans spend an average of 40 minutes per day on Facebook and each adult user has an average of 338 friends. Despite the clear dominance of Facebook in the daily lives of the public, surveys have shown that scientists do not view Facebook as an effective and suitable platform for science communication.  This pessimistic view of Facebook may be why scientists primarily use Twitter and blogging for science outreach.   However, 80% of surveyed scientists do have a presence on Facebook but primarily use this platform for communication with family, friends and close colleagues.

Methods

In order to better understand how scientists use Facebook, Dr. Craig McClain surveyed his scientist connections for their Facebook usage habits.  Since Dr. McClain is an evolutionary biologist and a marine ecologist, the scientists surveyed skewed towards biological and marine sciences.

To see survey questions view S1 text supporting document .

Results

A total of 230 scientists responded to the survey, with majority being early stage career female scientists:

  • Community size– Scientists active on Facebook had on average of 519 friends.
  • Community Structure– The surveyed scientists fell into three clusters in terms of the structure of their Facebook communities: 1) non-scientist friends, 2) a mixture of non-scientist friends and other scientists, 3) other scientists.  Among the three clusters, number of scientists who are mainly connected with non-scientist friends was the majority.
  • Posting frequency and type- Most scientists surveyed share well below 6 posts per month with an outlier minority sharing 100 posts per month.  Majority of scientists rarely post about science, and avoid sharing information about sharing their own research.  The few times they post about science, they share information on controversial topics (such as climate change, vaccines or GMOs) or something related to their field of expertise.

Discussion

This survey suggests there are plenty of scientists active on Facebook, most of whom have a sizable personal network of non-scientist friends. Current examples of science outreach on Facebook tend to be through popular science pages.  Dr. McClain argues, although having a large fan base may be valuable, science communication with friends and family may be more effective.  This is because scientists are already viewed as “Nerds of Trust” by their friends and family. Since asking friends for recommendations is a common behavior on Facebook, scientists can share their views on fake news and pseudoscientific ideas as a subject matter expert and a trusted source of information.

Challenges to address

Two challenges must be addressed to realize the promise of using Facebook for science outreach:

  1. Reluctance of funding agencies to view Facebook as an inferior means of science communication as opposed to blogging
  2. Lack of tangible quantitative and qualitative data about the effectiveness of science outreach through Facebook.

Dr. McClain argues there is a need for a change in culture in the scientific community about the value of Facebook as a science communication tool. We could not agree with him more and our hope was to spark this culture change by summarizing his work.  Judging by the tweets featured below, it seems like we were successful!

Highlights from #scicommjc

We hope you enjoyed reading this summary and that you will join us for our second Twitter chat on Tuesday October 3rd at 5:00 PM PDT.  If you cannot make it to the chat, you can always subscribe to our list to receive summaries in your inbox.  We would also love to hear from you and hear your suggestions.

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