Social Media for Scientists – Why You Need to Be There

When it comes to social media use by scientists, some scientists are avid users, some dip their toe in occasionally, and some scientists are simply on the sidelines with various reasons why they don’t use social media. Many of those reasons are outdated or inadequate in today’s digital age.

“The scientific discourse is moving online,” says Paul Groth (@pgroth) – Assistant Professor, Dept. of Computer Science, VU University, Amsterdam  

Let’s look at some of the reasons why many scientists are engaging in social media (especially Twitter), the benefits of participating, and the preferred platforms of avid users.

While ResearchGate has the largest number of users who primarily use it as an access point for contact, it is not functioning as a social network. 

Facebook has the largest number of users worldwide, and while many scientists have a profile there, they generally do not use it in a professional capacity, preferring to interact with family and friends rather than fellow scientists. 

LinkedIn is useful to scientists for having a profile visible to those who may contact them, and for jobs and peer connections. It is not actively used for sharing information or commenting.

Twitter is the preferred platform of scientists who use social media. Twitter is used by both early-career as well as tenure-level scientists. It offers a wide variety of benefits to scientists and has many active users from many disciplines.

For scientists, the benefits of using Twitter include:

  • Sharing your published research with scientists in your own and other disciplines
  • Getting your paper noticed above the competition of 2 million yearly published research articles
  • Sharing research published by others
  • Connecting with other scientists in your field, locally and globally
  • Gaining visibilty for your research papers, and possibly improving your citation numbers
  • Networking and engaging with peers
  • Sharing articles of interest with scientists in your field or for science at large
  • Connecting with potential collaborators for future research
  • Staying abreast of news in specific scientific disciplines and of general science interests
  • Staying informed of articles published by journals of interest
  • Connecting with conferences you are attending or cannot attend, as well as with other scientists interested in the conference by using the conference hashtag
  • Easy to find and follow anyone without needing permission
  • Easy to search for topics by keyword or hashtag
  • Can create lists of key accounts to see their tweets first or to catch up on missed tweets from those accounts
  • Easy to mute or block trolls, hiding them from your feed
  • Fast moving newsfeed allows sending important tweets at different times of day to reach more people without their seeing duplicates
  • Smart phone Twitter app makes using Twitter quick and easy
  • Joining regularly scheduled and hashtagged science chats to discuss specific topics with other scientists
  • Helps to establish your online presence in Google searches 
  • Teaches you to communicate clearly and succinctly within 140 characters
  • Allows communication of science with the lay public

Growth of Twitter users in the sciences is slow due to a few factors – fear, time, unsure of benefits, and unsure of how to use Twitter. Let’s touch on a few of these:

FEAR OF EXPOSURE OR MAKING ERRORS, INTROVERSION – Scientists on Twitter for scientists are a fairly friendly group and happy to connect with other scientists. However, as in real life, you will find those who are not so friendly, but you have the choice to interact with them or not. You create your own Twitter feed of people you wish to follow, but others can follow you without you returning the follow. If anyone gets nasty you have the option to Mute or Block them. While Tweets can’t be edited, if you make a terrible error, you can delete it and start over. 

If you are an introvert, don’t worry! Introverts are welcome on Twitter and no one knows you are introverted! If you wish, you can begin by being an observer, known as a lurker in social media terminology, until you get the hang of Twitter. Most people begin as lurkers, so you will have plenty of company! You can set up your account to follow anyone and see their tweets in your feed to get the feel of how Twitter is used before you jump in and comment. Retweets are the easiest way to participate and show that your account is viable, and hashtags (a word or phrase following the # symbol, e.g. #SocialMediaForScientists) allow you to find others who share an interest.

FEAR OF NOT KNOWING HOW TO USE TWITTER – There are many articles available online for beginner “newbies” to learn how to use this platform and the terms used, but we will outline key points for you here. When you set up your account on Twitter you will need to choose a Twitter @ handle, or name. You will also have your own name on your account as well as your handle. By using your real name on your account and then a descriptive handle, you will be more easily found by your fellow scientists as well as show your interests. Here’s an example:, which is the account for Dr. David Shiffman who goes by the handle @WhySharksMatter.

witter handles have a character limit of 15 characters so choose wisely, and the shorter the better. You can do a search directly on Twitter to see if your desired handle is taken or available. Twitter handles and images are no longer counted in the 140 character tweet limit, so that is a new help for users. More on tweets below.

You will also need a square profile picture of yourself to upload. Using a real photo or cartoon of yourself allows others to be sure they are connecting with the right person, especially is your name is a common one. The size of this image should be 400×400 pixels in JPG or PNG format. The large header image at the top of your account is also important to have as it shows you have an active account. You may choose something that represents your science or an image that you like. The Twitter recommended header image size should be 1500×500, again in JPG or PNG, but Twitter crops and compresses it automatically to fit all screens, and if you have important information at the edges, it can be cropped out. An image size of 1263×421 might be a better option to avoid Twitter resizing, and do upload the highest quality image you can. It is always better to reduce a larger image to the correct size than to expand a smaller image, because expanded smaller images are unclear. 

Quick way to find accounts to follow – For new users to find accounts to follow, try searching for a #hashtag of a word you are interested in and with that hashtag you will see the accounts that use it in their tweets or bio. Click on “Follow” and that account’s tweets will appear in your Twitter feed. However, pay attention that the account is active and has recent tweets. Don’t follow quiet accounts because it is a waste of your time. Once you have followed an account, you can click on their “Followers” and “Following” links at the top of their Twitter page on desktop (not available on phone) and you may see other accounts you wish to follow. 

Need ideas of accounts to follow? Try these:

The Top 50 Science Stars of Twitter (2014)   

The Best Science Twitter Accounts (Updated 2016)   

Here is an example of a Twitter hashtag search for #science, which includes that hashtag as it appears in biographies (“bios”) and in tweets.


Speaking of Twitter bios, be sure you fill out your bio as completely and descriptively as possible (there is a 160 character limit for bios). Include your city and your personal website link if you have a site. 

Tweets – While tweets are limited to 140 characters (including spaces), you should compose your tweets using 120 characters to allow space for an addition @ handle in your tweet if needed. Also – and very important for Twitter’s character limits – you should use a link shortener instead of the original long URL in your tweet. Twitter itself will shorten long links using its service. Shorteners will consume 23 characters (including of your allotment, but are better in the long run. If you use as a shortener, it offers analytics of who opened (and hopefully read!) your link. There are other shortener services available as well, including ones by Google, Hootsuite, and others.   

Retweets and Likes of your tweets by others will often gain you followers. Likewise, your retweets (RTs) and “Likes” of others’ tweets can also gain you followers. The more followers you have, the more your tweets – and tweets of your own articles – are seen, so aim to have followers pertinent to your science and many of them. Yes, there will be questionable bot followers that you can easily block whether on phone or desktop. See image below for screenshots of blocking:

Use images in your tweets whenever possible as they increase the visibility of your tweet in your followers’ feed. Tweets with images are more eye-catching and usually get more Likes and Retweets. A little trick in the Twitterverse is that images can be used to share text beyond the 140 limit. Type your text in an image and attach it to your tweet. It’s a great way to get around the 140 character limit. 

For a Twitter Glossary of Terms, see this link from the Twitter site, which has other helpful info too:

FEAR OF SELF-PROMOTION – Some say that their science should speak for itself. Well, no. If no one knows your research is there, your science cannot speak. You must speak for your science, sending it out into the world, making it visible using social media. This does not mean that you stand on a digital soapbox and shout. The science community on Twitter shares and discusses their research tastefully, earnestly, and without being cliche or spammy.  

Sharing a journal link to your published article on Twitter and including a descriptive hashtag is important for visibility and impact. Your tweet will oftentimes be retweeted, increasing the reach of your work to other scientists.When you increase your reach and visibility, the likelihood of your research being cited is increased. 

IT TAKES TOO MUCH TIME! – In this digital age, we often acquire new things to do – sending and answering email, reading and learning online, even remembering to charge our devices and update software, among other duties. Participating on social media is another one of those new duties we’ve acquired, and we must make time for it.  

It isn’t necessary to read all the tweets in the onslaught that is Twitter. Dip in and out during the day and evening. Use Twitter lists to follow key accounts that are most important to you. Use your smart phone Twitter app to participate from time to time when you have free moments. Use it when waiting in line, when awaiting results, when watching television during a commercial. You do not need to stay glued to Twitter. Nobody has time for that! Use Twitter when you can, but do make it a habit!  It is a great way to stay informed of new research, to stay connected to your community of scientists, to follow news, and to network with other scientists. Five or ten minutes here and there throughout the day is time that can be found by anyone to use Twitter. 

UNSURE OF THE PURPOSE OF TWITTER – With the thousands of articles published, journals themselves do not have the capacity to market your specific work. As McKinsey & Company stated back in 2011, “We’re all marketers now”It is up to each scientist to gain visibility for their research, to discuss and explain their research to scientists both in and out of their fields, and to the media and general public. Participation in Twitter allows scientists to reach audiences not available before. Not everyone attends your presentation at conferences, your circle of colleagues may be small, and your research may be niche with an inherently small audience. Twitter enables you to broaden your reach and visibility, and your research can gain citations by other scientists just by the nature of your sharing it with the larger community. As the saying goes, “Don’t hide your light under a basket”. Let it shine for all to see! Tweet it!

Springer Nature now encourages sharing of content by researchers and makes it easy and legal to do so with their new initiative. This initiative is available for all of Springer Nature’s owned journal portfolio and 1000 co-owned and partner-owned journals. They now provide authors and readers with shareable links to view-only PDFs of peer-reviewed research papers. The shareable links can be posted on social media platforms, authors’ own websites, institutional repositories, and on scholarly collaborative networks. Open-access articles can be downloaded, printed, and saved by everyone. Subscribers can do the same for subscription articles.

As exciting as Twitter and other platforms are for sharing your published research to the scientific community, the media, and the public, be sure to be mindful of the embargo policies of the journal. These are important rules to follow as disobeying them may cause you trouble in publishing in the future. Embargo policies are found in the Instructions to Authors section of each journal. Here’s a link to Nature‘s Embargo Policy as an example of special guidelines for authors relating to communication with other scientists:  

Nature does not wish to hinder communication between scientists. For that reason, different embargo guidelines apply to work that has been discussed at a conference or displayed on a preprint server and picked up by the media as a result. (Neither conference presentations nor posting on recognized preprint servers constitute prior publication.)

Our guidelines for authors and potential authors in such circumstances are clear-cut in principle: communicate with other researchers as much as you wish, but do not encourage premature publication by discussion with the press (beyond a formal presentation, if at a conference).”

Elsevier has a Journal Embargo Finder for self-archiving embargo periods that you may find helpful: :

Other examples of embargo policies: 

Journal of American Chemical Society (JACS)

Journal of Gastroenterology

So now you are ready to participate and engage with the scientific community on Twitter! You’ve learned why it doesn’t have to consume a lot of your time, and why it is important and essential to your research visibility to participate and speak for your work. Twitter can be a lot of fun too! Be sure to follow SciTechEdit International on Twitter! @SciTechEdit

This has been a guest post by Miller Finch of, Social Media for Scientists – and others! Follow @MillerFinchSM


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