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What Twitter can bring to science writing

Posted by on January 10, 2014

Rebecca Nesbit, press officer at the Society of Biology, is running evening courses on writing for a non-technical audience along with The Biologist’s managing editor Tom Ireland.

Last year we ran our first course on writing for a non-technical audience, and I was struck by the diversity of people who attended. We had representatives from academia, from conservation charities and from industry. Their reasons for coming were equally diverse – to help attract donations, to explore alternative careers, to help raise the profile of their business…

There are many situations where scientists write for non-specialist audiences – in magazines, on websites, as lay summaries of academic papers – but social media is particularly popular. There has been lots of discussion recently about how and why scientists should write for social media channels, and with our next courses coming up in February it seemed like the time to take a look at what people are saying.

The current issue of The Endocrinologist, the magazine published by our Member Organisation the Society for Endocrinology, focuses on social media for researchers. For anyone wanting to venture into social media or to build their research career, it makes valuable reading. Particularly sound advice is to start by working out your objectives. Do you want to use social media to discuss your research, communicate with the wider public, build up your networks or find potential jobs?

Twitter is one channel which, if used wisely, can help with all of these aims.

The outreach director at the journal F1000Research, Eva Amsen, was quoted this week in Times Higher Education as saying: “Twitter can also help to bolster students’ communication skills. Such skills are vitally important for writing research abstracts for papers, grant applications and teaching courses.”

I couldn’t agree more. It isn’t easy to compress your message into 140 characters, and it can help you to clarify your thoughts. You also lose unnecessary words. I certainly hope that participants on our writing for a non-technical audience course will use these skills in a scientific context too. In all our writing we should aim to express ourselves clearly, and I often see scientific papers written in complex language which detracts from the findings.

To encourage the use of Twitter, all presenters at the 2013 International Congress of Conservation Biology were asked to provide a tweetable abstract of their presentation. A recent article in Conservation Biology stated that engaging with Twitter can be a powerful way for conservation scientists to reach journalists, policy makers, and the wider public. One interesting finding is that marine scientists on Twitter typically have a following that is over seven times larger than each scientist’s academic department. For some people who were trained in the formal ‘passive voice’ style of writing, injecting your personality into what you write can seem alien. I believe it can also be rewarding, and navigating what is and isn’t appropriate will be part of our course. Part of finding your voice is to read what other people are saying and to try things out yourself. Good luck!

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