Science Communication on Twitter: How and with whom do scientists interact?

By Stefanie Walter

Scientists use Twitter to talk to other scientists, but communication beyond the scientific community is also important. How scientists talk to these groups differs systematically and suggests a strategic language use.

Academic Twitter is popular among scholars. Scientists use Twitter to talk about their work, their success and the challenges they are facing. They share their latest articles, tweet about conferences they attend, and talks they give. Importantly, Twitter also offers an opportunity to engage with stakeholders and members of the public.
We explored whether and how scientists’ communication differs when engaging with actors within vs. beyond the scientific community on Twitter. Our results, based on nearly 1 Million Tweets, show that scientists interact most intensively with their peers, but that communication with the public is also important.
Regarding their communication style, we find that scientists seem to use language strategically. They use more neutral language when communicating with other scientists, and more words expressing negative emotions when communicating with journalists, civil society, and politicians. Likewise, they stress certainty more when communicating with politicians.

Overall network of the climate debate on Twitter.
The norms and roles that scientists have in mind about how they should behave are likely to affect the extent to which they seek public engagement. Some might be of the opinion that the production of knowledge in itself is the core task of science. Others might give more importance to how their findings can benefit society and become more actively involved in this process.
Scientists formulate policy recommendations based on their findings, and some become active advocates for policy change. The field of research is also an important determinant for public engagement, as some subjects are more pressing than others.
Our study focused on climate change as one of the more important issues of our time. While there is a scientific consensus about the human impact on climate change, public debates often suggest that it is still a contested issue. Hence, more than in other fields, scientists might feel the need to enter the public arena.

Social media are often accused of spreading “fake news” and conspiracy theories. They offer a forum for climate skeptics, people who are hesitant about vaccination, etc. At the same time, they allow scientists to share their research with a diverse audience and to engage with non-experts. Especially at times when scientific findings become contested and science has come under attack, public dialogue is a way to regain and maintain trust in science.
Being transparent about the research process could be one way to go about it and social media allow scientists to share insights about the different stages of their research with others.

Read the full article on Public Understanding of Science:
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0963662519844131



Stefanie Walter holds a PhD in political science from the University of Mannheim. She is Senior Researcher at the Centre for Media, Communication and Information Research (ZeMKI) of the University of Bremen. Her research interests are in political and climate change communication, as well as in computational social science and text analysis. Her recent work has explored scientist’ communicative practices when attending climate change summits and climate skepticism in user comments.
Twitter: @SteWalter