Microblogging Science: Introduction

This thesis wouldn't have been possibly without Upulie and all the folks involved with @Realscientists. The research itself is based on the first year of the @realscientists twitter account. If you are involved in science in anyway, whether through work or love, you should follow the account. 

I'm breaking the thesis up into sections, and hopefully it's interesting to some people. It was to me :)


1.1 Background

While the social/semantic web is a relatively new area of study, the field of science communication has been under review for many decades. It is important that the evolution of science communication is considered when discussing and analysing its current and future state.  The argument is not focused solely on whether or not science should be communicated, but rather, how best to do so.

Towards the end of the last century there was a movement away from the prevailing scientific discovery paradigm to a more inclusive one of knowledge production. The old paradigm, referred to as Mode-1 science, consisted largely of autonomous scientists, their institutions and universities, all set at a distance from the wider community. Scientists and researchers were seen as existing in Ivory Towers, with their work unavailable for public consumption.  The new paradigm, or Mode-2 science, was considered to be inter-disciplinary, socially distributed and accountable to actors outside the field (Nowotny, Scott and Gibbons 2003).

With this paradigm shift in how science was conducted, came a similar shift in how science was communicated.  Bauer (2009) noted that there were three distinct stages of science communication: Science literacy, public understanding and science-in-society.  From the 1960’s to the early 1980’s the non-science public were deemed to have insufficient knowledge to engage with discussions around scientific policy. To counter this ‘knowledge deficit’ in the public, programmes were designed to encourage scientific literacy, focusing on factual knowledge, rather than the scientific method. Information was delivered from the expert to the public, as a one-way system (Bauer 2009)

Bauer (2009) states that in the 1980s there was a realisation that knowledge alone would not lead to rise in public appreciation for science. It was believed that trust could be gained by increasing the public understanding of science in tandem with increasing scientific literacy. This change was largely influenced by the 1985 Royal Society of London report which stated that as science and technology play a significant role in most aspects of day to day life, from vaccines to work safety, it was imperative that everyone should have some understanding of science, and of its limitations (Royal Society of London 1985, p6). Following this report, researchers began to look at attitudes towards science, rather than knowledge of science. This new approach began to be referred to as Public Understanding of Science (PUS). Similarly to the earlier scientific literacy period, PUS determined that the public was not sufficiently educated in matters of science and technology and maintained the traditional deficit model approach to communicating science. That of an expert translating science to a lay audience in order to increase acceptance of that science in society (Schafer 2009).

The emphasis on the expert and the dismissal of the public’s fears and distrust of science led to a breakdown of trust, aggravated by a series of scandals from the BSE crisis in the 1990s to the MMR controversy of the early 2000s. Policy makers and science communicators began looking at the deficit model differently. As Bauer (2009) notes, rather than the public’s lack of knowledge, policy makers began to focus on scientific institutions that had lost the public’s trust. This new approach, known as Science-in-Society or Public Engagement with Science, also acknowledged that there were many publics and that the role of expert or lay-person would change depending on the dialogue taking place (Ziman 1991).

1.2 The Internet, communication and communicators

The internet allows for a greater engagement with both experts and non-experts. At its inception the internet was used by scientists to communicate with each other. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, created the web as a method of indexing and sharing data on experiments at CERN (CERN 2014). Researchers have used the internet ever since as a way of communicating with colleagues in other institutions and countries. Journals – both the traditional subscription ones and the newer open access ones – have a presence online, with peer reviews and editing happening via email (Trench 2008). However, while initially conceived as a tool for research, the web has since been integrated with society as a whole. From banking to phone-calls, the offline and online worlds have never been more united. This integration has implications for the communication of science – With the rise of the internet there has been a similar rise of the ‘New Expert’.

As stated above, traditionally experts were seen as somewhat separate from society. Those employed to communicate science to the wider public often had social capital, not just in their field of expertise, but also in other areas. In the offline world science is communicated to the general public via the medium of TV, radio, newspapers and books. Access to these platforms of communication is restricted to those with certain privileges. There are many physicists, for example, but not all of them are telegenic, and very few have been members of a chart topping pop band. This is not to say that Brian Cox should not be involved with communicating science, but more that, the internet, and social media in particular, has the potential to level the playing field and allow for experts to arise from areas outside the traditional collegiate or media landscape.

Bourdieu & Wacquant (1992) discuss how social structures are set up in ‘fields’ that are “…a network, or configuration, of objective relations between positions.” Positions are “objectively defined in their existence and in the determinations they impose upon their occupants.”(Bourdieu and Waquant 1992, p97) Bourdieu contends that intellectuals are defined by the positions they hold within their chosen field. His argument is that there is an ongoing struggle between the establishment and the challengers (Swartz 1997, p225).  Communicating outside of the approved channels has not been encouraged or supported in the past. Poliakoff & Webb (2007) found that a significant proportion of the scientists in their study saw no career benefit to participating in public engagement (Poliakoff and Webb 2007). Researchers are supposed to research. Time spent engaging with the public is time spent away from the lab.

1.3 Research Aims

Instead of seeing these networks as socially isolating, many argued that the internet created a new space for social interaction and democratic participation, establishing some of the basis for claims about the internet as an empowering medium. For others, this online or virtual construction of social spaces was reminiscent of what Ray Oldenburg had described as ‘great good places’ or ‘third places’. Such places that exist outside the home and work and are places where conversation is the main activity, positions are levelled and the mood is generally playful. (Hinton and Hjorth 2013, p37)

As social media become more integrated with the daily lives of researchers and scientists, the traditional lines of communication are blurring. There is a softening of the edges between work and home life. People frequently update Facebook or Twitter while at work. Indeed, these social networks are becoming more prominent in traditionally offline environments such as conferences, with people arranging meet-ups in advance and engaging in dialogue on the social web while at the physical event. Indeed, those who are unable to attend such events are frequently able to keep up with them via the social web.


With this in mind, this research looks at a curated Twitter account whose primary purpose is to communicate science. In looking at this account the research asks:

1.       Why these scientists choose Twitter to communicate their work?

2.       How do they use it?

3.       Who are they communicating with?

4.       Is there any benefit to using Twitter as a scientists or researcher?