Social networking – A springboard for early career researchers?

We can consider ourselves lucky. We live in a „dreamtime” of abundant and easily accessible knowledge, the importance of which is hard to overestimate. The advent of the internet democratized the availability of information, and made long-distance communication essentially free. Before, even simple tasks like finding academic papers meant browsing through volumes of reference works, often only to find that the article of interest is only available through costly interlibrary loans. The chance of never stumbling upon something that could have been useful was in no small part a matter of luck. Interacting with researchers and the public was infrequent and limited. The digital revolution eliminated these constraints – but there are new challenges ahead.

The way scientists are doing things has fundamentally changed, yet the status quo and the inequality of the academic landscape is largely unaffected. Papers published in the so-called „glamour journals” are on average somewhat better, but tend to get several magnitudes greater number of citations than those published in more modest periodicals. Though the accessibility of the top and mid/low-tier journals is now basically the same, yet the Matthew effect of science still persists. The dramatic increase of research activity is at least partially responsible for this. For example in 2015 about twice as many articles were indexed in PubMed, as in 2005. Since the amount of information is overwhelming, scientists need to go out of their way, and seek unorthodox ways to increase the visibility of their research, The widely used „publish or perish” phrase is now almost obsolescent – without using novel means to stand out of the crowd one can easily publish and perish.

Research published by the top dogs of academic publishing is made sure to get the limelight, by promotion through e.g. popular science news sites, accompanying editorials, and influential newsletters. However, less prestigious venues usually don’t have the same resources. Even if you are a really successful scientist, chances are that most of your papers won’t end up in the elite journals. This means that to scientists need to go DIY, take action, and reach out towards their audience - and this is where social networking sites can be game changers. 

Effective use of social networking services certainly goes beyond posting selfies with posters and blurry images of  the keynote speech. All the different services have their own strengths and weaknesses so finding the best way to your audience requires some experimentation. Twitter for example is selective if not aristocratic, having a handful of key influencers at the top, and a vast number of users with modest followership. So unless you have influential followers to boost your visibility, your tweets will likely to remain unnoticed regardless their quality. However twitter is great for learning how to be succinct – 140 characters really isn’t much after all. In contrast, reddit is more "democratic": find a relevant subreddit for your content, submit, and wait for the collective decision of the community. Only the quality of your submission matters, its irrelevant whether you have just registered or you have a 20-times gilded account with a karma of 1M. But what if your article would be too technical to follow for a broader audience?  Do what the top journals do – write a short perspective piece about it, highlighting the main findings and importance of your study using layman’s terms, give it a expressive title and share it as a blog post (e.g. medium is a good venue for this).

Unfortunately, undergrads/grad students are rarely bombarded by requests to deliver keynote speeches at conferences at sunny resorts Thus, junior researchers should embrace alternative ways to connect with other scientists working on their field, and professional networking sites like Researchgate or Academia.edu can be of great help. These sites make it easier to follow the activity of other researchers, share paper, presentation, or raw data, ask/answer technical questions, review papers and preprints, and ask others to scrutinize yours – so all in all interact with your peers, hone your communication skills, and if all goes well establish collaborations. 

In summary: social networking sites (both academic and of general) offer some much needed leverage for early career scientists, spark collaborations, and can reduce the infamous Matthew effect in science. The scientific community should utilize these non-traditional forms of outreach more actively, which should be reflected by the graduate school curriculum as well.