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Social Media Helps CBS Projects Reach New and Massive Audiences

August 13, 2015
Digital HPS

Scholarly work has little impact if no one reads it, but the Center for Biology and Society (CBS) is showing that social media can connect ASU research to academic and to non-academic audiences alike.

Those efforts with social media are paying dividends.  

Several projects in CBS use social media regularly, including the Embryo Project and the MBL History Project. Furthermore, several researchers use social media for individual but scholarly purposes.

Together, CBS researchers are showing that social media can help them embed their research in society and provide a network of resources about the knowledge produced at ASU.

A Larger Public Audience

The Embryo Project (EP) maintains accounts on Twitter and Facebook, and it regularly shares content related to developmental biology on Reddit.

The Embryo Project's Twitter pageIn order to increase scientific literacy in general audiences, the EP publishes the Embryo Project Encyclopedia, an online publication with articles about topics in developmental biology and reproductive health.

The encyclopedia has become one of ASU’s largest science outreach venues, reaching greater than 80,000 people a month. Steve Elliott, editor in chief for the encyclopedia, says that social media has played a key role in the project’s growth.

“We publish articles for people who aren’t academics, and social media provide the best tools to ensure that our audiences find our articles,” Elliott said. “Without social media, we simply do not get our articles in front of the eyeballs of new readers.”

Elliott noted that social media do more than drive traffic. “They also enable us to connect and talk with our readers, to answer questions, and build friendships.”

In May of 2014, the Encyclopedia reached just more than 38,000 people, but in May of 2015 it reached almost 88,000 people, a jump that Elliott largely attributed to strategic use of social media, including a post that made the top pages of Reddit.

Elliott noted that social media is easy to use, but that it is hard and time consuming to use well.

To ensure that the EP uses social media well, Elliott recruited Paige Madison to become the social media manager of the Embryo Project.

Together they developed a manual for social media best practices, which they presented to widespread acclaim at the 2014 meetings of the History of Science Society and at the Digital History and Philosophy of Science Consortium.

Madison said that to use social media well, users must recognize that the aim of social media is to build communities.  A good social media strategy starts with identifying and ranking the communities a user will help build.

MBL History Project tweet

“It’s easy to forget that social media isn’t about pushing your own content, its about being social,” Madison said. “For MBL History Project tweetexample, we’ve been able to build the EP’s academic community by answering questions from scholars, who then become our advocates in other communities and help us build those.”

Madison notes that the EP is weekly recognized on Whewell’s Gazette, a social media digest among scholars about the best new history of science content on the web.

Madison is now applying the principles of the handbook to the MBL History Project, for which she’s constructing FacebookTwitter, and Tumblr accounts.

“We love the support we get from academics on social media,” Madison said, “but the support we get from everyone else confirms that history of science isn’t just for professional historians, it’s for everyone.”

A Larger Academic Audience

While projects run through CBS have enjoyed the perks of social media, individual researchers have used social media to increase the academic audiences of their professional work.

No one provides a better example than research professor Matt Chew, who studies the history of ecology and concepts of invasive species.

Chew has mastered the use of Academia.edu, which hosts a large international community of scholars from many disciplines, to increase the audience for those reading his work.

Chew posts most of his published work, media appearances, and presentations to the site, which tracks the number of people downloading those products.

So many people have downloaded and cited his work, Chew has replaced counting the number of times he’s cited with the number of journals in which he’s cited.

Madison has also developed social media accounts to share her research about the history of paleontology. Those accounts include a blog, a Facebook account, and a wildly popularTwitter account.  

While the life of a researcher can be hectic, Madison said that social media are tools that can no longer be ignored.  

"It's a way of connecting with the rest of the world and making our research relevant for a variety of people.”

Social Media and ASU

While CBS has used social media, it isn’t the only one in the School of Life Sciences (SoLS) to find new and larger audiences online.

The Ask a Biologist project maintains vibrant  accounts on Facebook and Twitter, taxonbytes has a blog and a Twitter account, and SoLS itself maintains a strong social media presence.

Elliott predicts an increase in the amount of time and effort that researchers put into social media.

He said that publicly supported research and education face incredible amounts of scrutiny, often due to misperceptions about the daily life and products of researchers.

“Social media provide tools to remedy those misperceptions, to show that researchers aren’t esoteric dullards, that we do interesting and important research, and that knowledge isn’t just for people in labs or libraries or classrooms. If you can get online, you can access your local researchers and their work.”

He also said that centers like CBS, which focus on the interactions between research and society, provide perfect venues to connect society to research via social media.

“People often call, in a rhetorical fashion, for people trained to translate the results of research to greater publics, but places like CBS are training people to be those translators. As we move into the future, the media that those translators use will increasingly be social.”

Madison is already looking to the future, developing new strategies and new products.

“Video is our next big thing,” Madison said. “I want to get people interested in science through its history; a fabulous window into science that's easy for people to understand.”

More Information:

Steve Elliott

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