Academic etiquette: Tips on conducting yourself at an academic conference

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This is a joint post by Dani Rabaiotti and Jeff Clements. You can find the sister version of this post over at Dani’s website.

Ah! Conferences. A time take in the cool work that others are doing, and share the cool work that you’ve been doing – and a time to relax and network. Well, maybe for some. But a concerning number of researchers (particularly students and early career researchers, or ECRs) are unable to relax and network at conferences because of negative experiences.  While there are a number of factors that can influence one’s experience at a conference, the theme of negative associations with colleagues has emerged as an ongoing issue (see twitter discussion HERE and tweets below). Given this seemingly common issue, I teamed up with Dani Rabaiotti (@DaniRabaiotti) to share experiences and put together the following guide.

What’s the issue?

In a largely unscientific Twitter poll of 488 fellow academic tweeters, only 28% had never had a negative experience with conference criticism, whilst 40% had had a negative experience with criticism that was done respectfully (generally part of conference experience but can be tough!). However, nearly 1/3 of people polled had had negative experiences where others had been disrespectful, or had engaged in an ‘all-out war’ with an audience member.

Sadly, for us as authors, this was unsurprising. For example, Dani has been told she was wrong about her own study species because the questioner ‘had seen them hunting’ (anecdote vs data, anyone?), while Jeff has been publicly told that his work will do nothing for his career and may even hinder his progression. In addition, we have both witnessed some incredibly aggressive questioning styles at conferences. A wide variety of respondents to the Twitter poll also shared their experiences, many of which were, we think you’d agree, pretty awful:

This brings us onto a second issue – one that nearly all of us have experienced – the ‘this isn’t a question but a comment’ during conference QUESTION sessions. Of 387 people polled nearly 1/3 had experienced comment-not-questions lasting more than 5 minutes!

During the question period, if you need to preface your ‘question’ with, “This is more of a comment than a question, but…” and subsequently go on to add your thoughts about the work, save it for after! Likewise, if you know that your question is a lengthy one that will take up most of the question period, save it! Not only does this approach allow others to ask questions (providing the speaker with a broader degree of feedback), but it provides an opportunity for networking and discussion after the talk. This is a much better use of time and is a more productive way of providing commentary feedback to presenters (not to mention that it can facilitate collaborations and potentially enhance a field of research!).

Top tips for conference etiquette:

It appears that negative experiences with peers at conferences are quite common. These experiences can have lasting effects on the people involved, particularly for students and early career researchers. Such instances can be easily avoided by following some simple rules and avoiding conflict. Yet, while a quick google search of “behaviour/etiquette at academic conferences” provides a laundry list of tips for grad students and ECRs, little information is provided for senior researchers on how to engage appropriately with grad students and ECRs, nor on how to conduct oneself during question periods, etc.  To facilitate this, we have compiled a few tips for ‘conference etiquette’, which can be found below (you can also find other tips here, here, and here, among others). We suggest that if a predominance of conference goers follow these guidelines the frequency negative conference experiences can be reduced and research efforts and quality can be enhanced.

Some conference Do’s and Don’ts:
Should you ask that question?:

Open up! On the Benefits of Open Access Publishing

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This post is also published as a guest post on the Canadian Science Publishing Blog. You can access that version of the post here.


During my undergraduate degree, I remember all too well the many times in which I would search for a journal article that I needed to write a paper, only to be stymied by my institution’s inability to afford a journal or publisher. Of course, Interlibrary Loans could help me get my hands on those papers eventually, but rarely was it sufficient. As a result, I ended up spending out-of-pocket for journal articles during a time in which personal finances were dismal.

This reality is commonplace for many students both near and far. For many Canadian undergraduates, access to journals has been dwindling. Particularly in developing nations, scholars-in-training have limited access to journals published by conglomerate publishers. Furthermore, expensive subscriptions to scholarly journals can deprive everyday citizens from becoming more scientifically literate. So, what are we to do?

Cue the open access movement.

Open access publishing – making access to published works free for readers – has recently been adopted by many academic journals in attempt to remove barriers to scholarly works. Open access publishing in academia typically comes in two forms: green and gold. While the ‘green’ option allows scholarly authors to openly share their work through different outlets (e.g. personal webpage, social media, etc.), the gold option provides readers with free access to an article directly from the publisher. This has resulted in the establishment of fully-open access journals (such as the brand new on from Canadian Science Publishing, FACETS), as well as hybrid journals (where the journal offers the option for authors to pay for their article to be open access) Nonetheless, by enforcing an open access method, barriers to accessing scholarly works begin to dwindle and readership can be increased.

While open access certainly seems like a great idea from the readers’ perspective, it comes at an expense to authors – literally. Currently, the cost of making a scholarly article is substantial, generally running authors more than USD $1000 per article. So, is there any benefit from the authors’ side of the coin? It turns out that there is!

The prestige and productivity of scholarly authors is often gauged on citations – when another scholar references the work of a scholarly author in a subsequent article. The more citations that an author gains on their publications, the better. So, for authors, increasing citations is a benefit to authors for increasing the impact of their work and for career development. Interestingly, one way that appears effective in increasing citations is publishing open access.

In a study recently published in FACETS, I was able to show that open access articles in hybrid marine science journals received more citations than articles that were closed access. For my study, I collected citation data from articles in 3 hybrid marine ecology journals with similar impact factors as a microcosm to test for open access effects on citations: ICES Journal of Marine Science (Oxford Press), Marine Ecology Progress Series (Inter-Research), and Marine Biology (Springer). I also controlled for a number of other factors that could potentially influence citation rates, including self-citations, article type, time since publication, the number of authors, and the year that the article was published. I found that open access articles received, on average, 57%, 38%, and 24% more citations than closed access articles in for ICES Journal of Marine Science, Marine Ecology Progress Series, & Marine Biology respectively.

Although the trend observed in my study could be driven by authors’ self-selection to publish only their best work open access, the results are in line with numerous other studies showing a citation advantage of open access articles. In addition, my study only focused on a narrow field of academia: marine science. However, these ‘microcosmic’ studies are important for highlighting the benefits of open access to authors that reside within a defined academic discipline, and more of them are certainly needed.

Ultimately, the consistently-documented citation advantage of open access for authors of scholarly works should motivate authors to publish open access and, in turn, increase the accessibility of scholarly works for students, researchers, and the public. However, the financial burden to doing so is still substantial. Given the documented benefits of open access publishing to both authors and readers, it’s about time that both authors and readers push for reduced costs to publish open access. Alleviating the financial burden to authors will help to stimulate open access publishing and will lead to more efficient scientific communication between scientists and with the public. Such a transition is crucial in an age where scientific literacy is increasingly needed.

It’s time to act now! It’s time to open-up.

Climate change is adding fuel to the Fort McMurray fire – and it’s okay to say that

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If you would like to support the aid in Fort McMurray, you can donate to the Red Cross here, or by texting REDCROSS to 30333 ($5 donation per text message).

View of wildfire from Highway 63 in Fort McMurra, on 3 May, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)
View of wildfire from Highway 63 in Fort McMurray, on 3 May, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

As the province of Alberta declares a state of emergency and tens of thousands of people are displaced, social media is abuzz with shock, sympathy, and support.

While scrolling through my Twitter feed yesterday, I decided to scour the #yymfire hashtag. At the top of the thread was a tweet from @Slate which linked to an article on their site published by @EricHolthaus. In a moment of weakness, I decided to take a gander at the online responses to the article. Almost every response to the tweet included commentary about the insensitivity of associating this disaster with political arguments about global climate change. The fire, the responses argued, is an inevitable result of conditions inherent to the location of Fort McMurray and would have resulted in the same devastation regardless of climate conditions, concluding that it is inappropriate and fallacious to place the extreme loss to the working class people in the region in the context of climate change. I can empathize with these responses – emotions are high and the laceration of this tragedy is fresh. However, knowing that climate science does, in fact, predict increased wildfire occurrence (that is, the event can be scientifically linked to climate change), I’m inclined to disagree with the majority of responses on Twitter.

At the same time, I came across Facebook posts from numerous friends linking to a post from a man in British Columbia (that has subsequently been deleted after going negatively viral) expressing his lack of sympathy and karmic association towards a tragic fire in a town that exemplifies the Canadian oil industry and the proliferation of climate change – of course this attitude is highly insensitive and inappropriate.

So is it okay to talk about this fire in the context of climate change when the area affected is so heavily scrutinized for being a major contributor to it? My short answer is undoubtedly yes.

While the proximate cause of this fire wasn’t climate change. Of course, climate change isn’t the proximate cause of any fire – usually it’s something like lightning or some a**hole who doesn’t listen to fire advisories. However, the functional reasons for the fire’s spread and destruction can be largely attributed to record-breaking, abnormally-high temperatures and humidity – and this is going to be something that we face more often in both the immediate and distant future. Stating that isn’t insensitive – it’s factual and it’s our reality. What is insensitive is stating that this tragedy is karmic and to lack sympathy for the people affected. I’d consider those that feel this way as environmental extremists (yes, like religion and politics, environmentalism has extremism too), and they need not be pandered to.

I have many close friends working in Fort McMurray that are impacted by the devastation, and although I firmly think climate change has played a large role in this event, I’d never wish this tragedy on anyone. But discussing and admitting to the factors contributing to these events is a necessary part of adapting and making sure they don’t happen again.

So I will continue to discuss this tragedy in the context of climate change, and feel that we should all be framing this tragedy in the context of climate change, because it is important to. Not only because more people need to be aware of what future climate change means for us as a species, but in order to prepare ourselves for the next event of this magnitude – because it is inevitably going to happen. Such a discussion doesn’t imply insensitivity, nor should it be treated as such.

It’s times like these that I wish I could do more than donate money, express sympathy, and educate people, but that is what I’ve got to offer. My heart goes out to those affected. In the words of everybody’s favorite Cape Bretoner, “best of luck to ya’”.

Common names suck; stop using them

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This afternoon I engaged in a Twitter conversation with some colleagues regarding the use of the term dreissenid in the context of “dreissenid mussels”. Colleague A wanted to know if dreissenid should be italicized. I assured her that it indeed does not, because Dreissenidae is a family of mussels containing 3 genera and is not a single genus (to which she obliged). Colleague B then questioned this and asked what to do if using the term when only referring to the genus Dreissena, whereby I suggested using a more specific term (i.e., Dreissena spp.). Colleague A then responded that she originally wanted to use the term to describe only the genus Dreissena, and that this was common practice. Then I got annoyed (again) at common names in general…

So which is it – does dreissenid refer to the family Dreissenidae or the genus Dreissena?

Figure 1. Total number of dreissenid mussel species when “dreissenid” refers to the family Dreissenidae (16) versus the genus Dreissena (7). Data obtained from MUSSELp (http://mussel-project.uwsp.edu/index.html).
Figure 1. Total number of dreissenid mussel species when “dreissenid” refers to the family Dreissenidae (16) versus the genus Dreissena (7). Data obtained from MUSSELp (http://mussel-project.uwsp.edu/index.html).

The answer is that it’s commonly used for both. Although many scientists may not care about or acknowledge this, the interchangeability of common names across different taxonomic resolutions can be problematic for a number of reasons.

Let’s first look at a relatively simple example. Say I published a paper on “dreissenid mussels” in the Journal of Crappy Nomenclature, and in the introduction made the claim that there are 16 species of dreissenid mussels. Without context, the reader has no idea as to whether there are 16 species within the family Dreissenidae or 16 species within the genus Dreissena unless they search this information themselves (there are 16 species in the family Dreissenidae; Figure 1).

Likewise, let’s say that in the same paper I was to claim that dreissenid mussels reside in supraterranean (above ground) freshwater systems. While that is true for the genus Dreissena, there exists a subterraneous genus of Dreissenidae (Congeria; resides solely in cave river systems). Again, without context, the reader would be left searching such information. Unfortunately, many readers would not recognize the need to search for this information and would likely apply the information obtained from the two statements outlined above in the context of how they interpret the term “dreissenid mussels”, which may be correct or incorrect depending on my definition of “dreissenid mussels”. Thus, in subsequent publications obtaining information from my hypothetical paper on dreissenid mussels, information may be incorrect, but nonetheless become “common knowledge”.

Figure 2. Extant Dreissenidae species of the genus A) Congeria (Congeria kusceri), and B) Dreissena (Dreissena polymorpha).
Figure 2. Extant Dreissenidae species of the genus A) Congeria (Congeria kusceri), and B) Dreissena (Dreissena polymorpha).

While the above examples may appear extreme, particularly for those who study these mussels, the points still stand – and for many more taxa than the example herein. Researchers conducting work on species new to them must learn as much about their new study species and related taxa as possible. In this way, using common names interchangeably across levels of taxonomic resolution can easily create problems for these researchers and the propagation of incorrect biological information may result. Furthermore, other problems with common names arise when even more generic terminology is used, like “cushion stars”.

Ultimately, there are two ways to solve the problems outlined above: either define the range of taxa (up front) that a common name being used encompasses, or stop using common names all together. If we are to follow the biological writing rules of Dr. Pechenik (i.e., more concise = better), scientific works would benefit from the elimination of common names (for example, “Dreissena spp.” consumes less space than “dreissenid mussels”, and the former would not require a formal definition). Not only does the use of precise taxonomic nomenclature reduce verbiage, but it would remove the potential for misinterpretation with respect to the breadth of biological processes across various levels of taxonomic resolution. That, and we would negate complex Twitter conversations regarding how to use common nomenclature and have more time to spend on writing our actual papers…

So, in conclusion, just stop using common names. They suck.

An open letter to Dr. Arthur B. McDonald

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Dr. Arthur McDonald was recently crowned co-winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in physics for his work with neutrinos at the SNO Lab in Sudbury, Ontario, helping to discover that neutrinos do indeed have mass. Dr. McDonald was born and raised in Sydney, NS and received his BSc and MSc degrees at Dalhousie University in Halifax. As a fellow Cape Bretoner, this story has affected me on a personal level (in a positive manner, of course), and so I thought I would share my thoughts about it here: 

Dr. McDonald,

I first and foremost want to cordially congratulate you on receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics for your work with neutrinos. The award is an outstanding achievement for anyone, and for it to be awarded to a fellow Cape Bretoner is something that I am elated to proclaim.

Secondly, I wanted to reach out and let you know what the announcement meant for at least one fellow, Cape Breton-bred scientist. I’m currently pursuing my PhD in marine science, and although it is unrelated to particle physics and cosmology, I take an overarching pride in your accomplishments (as does the rest of the island and country). Being from Sydney, I’m sure you know how close-knit our communities are, and how we, as Cape Bretoners, tend to take pride in our island. That sentiment has and always will remain a part of my demeanor, and it is with that that I pen this letter.

Dr. Arthur B. McDonald
Dr. Arthur B. McDonald

Being an academically-minded person from an industrial-minded demography isn’t always an easy thing. While predominantly supportive, family, peers, and notable acquaintances often question the reasons for not settling down with a steady job and a family and are often quite critical of choices and sacrifices made. At times, the pressure from such beloved people that accompanies being a student and/or unemployed at 28 years of age can be overwhelming and stressful – indeed this is the case for many graduate students and early career scientists, and I have found myself at times questioning the very same things as a result. However, your leadership and hard work reiterate not only my reasons for doing what I do, but also reinforce my sheer love and passion for science, the unknown, and gaining a better understanding of the world. Your accomplishments highlight the fact – for me (and many others I’m sure) – that a small-town Cape Bretoner from a coal-mining family can succeed and thrive in the world of science and academia. Moreover, your success and contributions highlight the fact that Cape Bretoners are not preemptively destined for small-town life and a menial existence, but are capable of sheer greatness – something that I think many folks at “home” too often forget.

So from all Cape Bretoners, whether they know it or not, I want to extend our congratulations and gratitude for what you’ve accomplished for yourself personally, for small town Cape Breton, for the country of Canada, and for the world. Without your contributions, we would not be able understand the world in the way that we do, and that is a gift to humans and akin the world over. But as a Cape Bretoner, I want to thank you for making us proud, showing the world what we really have to offer, and instilling a drive for success and knowledge in a small-town kid with an appetite for the unknown.

With best regards,

Jeff C. Clements

Climate change and marine biology: questioning our understanding

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Copyright © Joachim S. Müller, Creative Commons
Copyright © Joachim S. Müller, Creative Commons

At some point or another, you’ve probably read or heard the common headline:

“Climate change threatens ____________ (insert your favorite species).”

But once you’ve digested the doom-and-gloom story, have you ever wondered how we know how climate change impacts various marine species? What is it that scientists do that leads to such claims? Are these claims legitimate? How accurate are they?

When assessing the impacts of climate change on living organisms, most studies employ controlled experiments, where researchers can tinker with one or a number of relevant variables to mimic predicted future conditions and observe how organisms respond to these conditions. There are substantial problems with this approach, however. First, biological responses are typically assessed in the context of only one or two environmental stressors, while we know that a multitude of factors (e.g., temperature, acidification, eutrophication, hypoxia, salinity, etc.) will have independent and/or synergistic biological impacts. Second, over the duration of such experiments, conditions are often kept constant, mimicking average future conditions. Finally, studies typically assess species in isolation, which doesn’t adequately address the community and/or ecosystem consequences of climate change, nor how individual species will respond when residing in their natural habitats. Consequently, I argue that the biological effects of a changing climate are, at present, poorly understood.

Table 1. Summary of studies assessing the behavioural impacts of ocean acidification in the context of co-occurring environmental parameters expected to occur under future climate change scenarios.
Table 1. Summary of studies assessing the behavioural impacts of ocean acidification in the context of co-occurring environmental parameters expected to occur under future climate change scenarios.

The ways in which organisms respond to a given environmental stressor do not solely depend on that single stressor. The interactive effects of multiple environmental stressors can elicit drastically different biological responses. For example, it is increasingly recognized that food availability can modulate the magnitude of effect when assessing the biological impacts of climate change in the ocean, suggesting that, at least physiologically, many species can tolerate a warming and acidifying ocean as long as they have enough energy to do so. In a recent literature review of the behavioural impacts of ocean acidification (Clements & Hunt, in review), we found that 7/8 publications incorporating the independent and synergistic effects multiple environmental stressors (Table 1) in experiments derived different conclusions than when acidification was tested in isolation. Furthermore, the outcomes were all over the board, with additional stressors attenuating, amplifying, or not affecting the behavioural endpoint in question. The problem is that only 8/57 studies actually addressed the effects of multiple environmental stressors – a problem that transfers other biological responses to climate change as well.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that nature is far from stable. Growing up in the Maritime Provinces of Canada, I know that a look out the window from one moment to the next can yield drastically different weather observations. While the term “weather” applies to environmental phenomena over small temporal scales (hours, day, weeks, months, etc.), “climate” refers to the average of those weather conditions over long periods of time (years, decades, centuries, millennia, etc.). Since climate is a function of weather, understanding the impacts of climate change requires incorporating an understanding of the weather that derives the climate. The variability (i.e., the weather) around projected climatic means can modulate the amount of time that an organism experiences environmental conditions above or below a threshold whereby the organism is affected (Figure 1). Unfortunately, few studies take variability into consideration. In the same literature review mentioned above (Clements & Hunt, in review), only 1/57 studies took variability into consideration, reporting a negative effect of acidification + variability, while acidification alone elicited no effect.  Furthermore, studies incorporating multiple environmental stressors and their associated variability are virtually non-existent. Ultimately, a strong understanding of how climate change influences biology requires embracing variability, not dismissing it – otherwise our understanding remains flawed.

Figure 1. Potential degrees of current and projected variability in diurnal oceanic pCO2 where variability increases over time (A) and where variability remains consistent over time (B). Distance between dashed lines indicate the relative amount of time organisms would be expected to spend above thresholds where they would be impacted by ocean acidification. Patterns of variability across ecosystems will differ as a result of differing types and magnitudes of various processes across systems.
Figure 1. Potential degrees of current and projected variability in diurnal oceanic pCO2 where variability increases over time (A), where variability remains consistent over time (B), and where variability decreases over time (C). Distance between vertical dashed lines indicate the relative amount of time organisms would be expected to spend above thresholds where they would be impacted by ocean acidification. Patterns of variability across ecosystems will differ as a result of differing types and magnitudes of various processes across systems.

Species interactions can also elicit different responses to climate change. For example, the presence of marine plants and their density/abundance within a given marine system can, to an extent, buffer oceanic pH and mitigate the impacts of ocean acidification to other organisms residing within that system. As such, understanding the impacts of climate change in terms of community- and ecosystem-wide consequences not only provides a broader understanding of the biological and ecological impacts of climate change, but can provide a more accurate understanding of how individual organisms will be impacted by shifting environmental conditions within their natural habitats.

So does this all mean that we shouldn’t worry about climate change? – ABSOLUTELY NOT! Climate change is currently, and will continue to be a huge problem for humans and a plethora of other organisms. However, I do think that the degree to which climate change will be a biological problem is poorly understood. On the bright side, scientists are beginning to recognize these shortcomings and are now working toward a better understanding of how climate change will affect marine organisms. Furthermore, not all studies simply employ highly controlled laboratory experiments; there is field evidence that provides sound information regarding the biological effects of climate change for some species. Ultimately, stamp collecting gets us nowhere – experimental approaches need to incorporate multiple shifting stressors and their associated variability, as well as numerous species (optimally mimicking communities or ecosystems) in order to adequately understand the biological implications of a changing climate. Until then, we will likely remain naive about the ways in which climate change will impact marine species.

Social media and science: using online media tools to enhance research impact

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This post also appears as a guest blog on the COAStNet website. COAStNet is a network of undergraduate students, graduate students, and coastal researchers who are studying, or have studied, ocean science at Canadian institutions. Their mission is to unite Canadian students and scientists in a network to enhance the communication of ocean research and to promote evidence-based ocean policy that ensures healthy and sustainable oceans. You can find them online, on Facebook, or on Twitter.social media blog post image

It was 2007, and my significant other at the time proposed that I join the most recent online fad – Facebook. As a studious second-year undergraduate and an avoider of online chatter, I vehemently declined. Though I was not immediately interested, I began to observe the ways in which she was using Facebook. Seeing her connect with old friends who had moved away, chatting with family who lived on the other side of the country, and discovering online material that may have otherwise taken hours to find, I began to see the immediate benefits of this new online tool. It wasn’t until much later during my Ph.D. research, however, that I began to see (and reap) the academic benefits of social media.

Though it has greatly enhanced communication among the general public, social media can also be of great benefit to specific groups of individuals, including scientists. Although they are numerous, many social media platforms offer benefits that, as collective, scientists are often seeking out in other ways. Networking, collaboration, education, public outreach, research impact – social media can provide researchers and educators with a plethora of opportunities that otherwise may be time consuming to simply get off the ground.

Indeed social media has allowed me to publish collaborative papers with international ecologists, engage in public outreach and education, establish networks that I otherwise may not have been able to, and substantially enhance my academic CV. So how exactly can social media benefit scientists and like-minded professionals and which platforms are most useful?

The benefits

  1. Networking

A critical aspect of academia is networking with your peers. Connecting with peers who share similar research interests can lead to collaboration, new and exciting projects, and can ultimately enhance a researcher’s scientific impact. However, academic networking is often limited to within-department networking, annual conferences/meetings, or through invited lectures and seminars. With the advent of social media, academic networking has been greatly enhanced.

Many social media platforms provide an informal arena for scientists to discuss their research and build their network. In addition, social media provides an easy and fast way to find like-minded researchers. For example, the use of hashtags on Twitter can allow a user to follow a particular topic and find other Twitter users who are engaged in similar discussions. Given the large and growing scientific community on Twitter, this provides a quick and easy-to-use way of finding and reaching out to academics with similar research interests.

Finally, many social media platforms are now used by entire labs, with PIs, students, and interns all contributing to the lab’s social media page(s). This provides a great communication platform for undergraduate and graduate students seeking positions to chat with lab members and get a feel for whether or not the lab dynamics and research suit their needs.

The approximate number of users for 5 social media platforms utilized by academics (Facebook=1.23 billion; LinkedIn=347 million; Twitter=288 million; Academia.edu=18.2 million; ResearchGate=6 million). Numbers represent the total number of users in 2014 reported by each social media site.
The approximate number of users for 5 social media platforms utilized by academics reported for 2014 (Facebook=1.35 billion; LinkedIn=347 million; Twitter=288 million; Academia.edu=18.2 million; ResearchGate=6 million). Values for Facebook and Twitter represent the total number of active monthly users (source: statista.com); value for LinkedIn represents the total number of users (source: statista.com); values for Academia.edu and RG represent total number of users reported by each site.
  1. International collaboration

As mentioned above, academic networking can often be limited to short periods of time spaced far apart, which can make collaboration difficult. Searching institutional websites and highlighting individual researchers for potential collaboration can also be time consuming for researchers and often gets pushed aside as a result. Furthermore, graduate students don’t often get opportunities for international collaboration due to financial constraints and a lack of an established reputation within their fields.

One of the biggest academic benefits of social media is that it offers a fast and convenient way to build international collaborations and expand scientific research. This allows not only established researchers to expand their research, but can also allow keen graduate students to engage in collaborative research projects (whether they be international, national, or local), gain additional publications, and substantially enhance their academic CVs.

  1. Education and public outreach

Academics and scientists share a common responsibility to educate. Designing and delivering courses, giving public lectures, and reaching out to various public groups is critical for enhancing the scientific literacy of those around us who do not directly engage in the faculty of science. However, the aforementioned duties of researchers can be extremely time consuming, which can limit the ability of scientists to educate to the fullest extent possible.

With its massive outreach potential (Figure 1), social media can serve as a fantastic public outreach and educational tool. For example, David Shiffman, a Ph.D. student at the University of Miami has used Twitter and Facebook to spread education and awareness about sharks to an astounding number of social media users (>5,000 Facebook followers; >20,700 Twitter followers). Furthermore, social media platforms can be used to increase engagement in the classroom. Given the familiarity that today’s students have with platforms like Facebook, students may be more likely to engage with and share additional material through social media outlets rather than traditional classroom platforms such as email or classroom management tools (Clements, unpublished data).

  1. Research Impact

The ways in which academics and researchers are evaluated are limited and, in some ways, flawed. Scientists are often assessed on the number and the quality of their research publications. Given that quality is often gaged by journal prestige (which is most often a product of impact factor, which comes with its own variety of flaws), additional ways of measuring scientific impact are always welcome (of course, within logical reason).

Recently, social media has been established as a metric for scientific impact. Termed “altmetrics”, a variety of statistics surrounding peer-reviewed publications that appear on social media can be extracted and used to gauge the online impact of a given publication and, in turn, its authors. Indeed many journals now include an altmetric section for published articles, including the prestigious journal Nature (among numerous others; Figure 2) Furthermore, social media platforms designed specifically for scientists, such as ResearchGate, have developed their own algorithm to derive a single metric of scholarly impact for an individual researcher within the ResearchGate community. Though these metrics do come with their own set of problems and limitations, they also highlight the ways in which scholars can utilize social media to enhance their scholarly impact and outreach within and outside of the academic community.

Figure 2. Examples of altmetric pages for three separate scientific journals which publish coastal research: Nature (A), Journal of Shellfish Research (B), and Estuaries and Coasts (C).
Figure 2. Examples of altmetric pages for three separate scientific journals which publish coastal research: Nature (A), Journal of Shellfish Research (B), and Estuaries and Coasts (C).

The platforms

Though many social media platforms exist (see here for an exhaustive list), some are better suited for scientists and academics than others. Furthermore, the variety of needs that individual researchers may want social media to aid in can be optimized by using certain platforms. Though not exhaustive by any means, a list of social media sites commonly used by researchers (from Van Noorden 2014), along with their optimal use, is provided below:

  1. Facebook

Facebook is one of the most common social media sites and is often credited with initiating the social media revolution. Though it does not necessarily make networking or collaborating much easier for a researcher (Facebook has implemented hashtags, but they are not commonly used), it is a tool that can optimize public outreach and communication (though some studies suggest it is not suitable for this purpose; e.g. Fauville et al. 2014). In addition, Facebook groups can serve as a classroom tool for individual courses and can greatly enhance the engagement of undergraduate students (Clements, unpublished data).

  1. Twitter

Like Facebook, Twitter is an extremely popular social media site with an enormous amount of followers (Figure 1). However, Twitter offers some additional benefits for academics that Facebook does not. Alongside public outreach and education, Twitter utilizes the hashtag to link users to common topics being discussed within the Twitter community. Given the large and continually growing scientific community on Twitter, following hashtags related to your research can allow for extensive networking and collaboration. Furthermore, the large numbers of users coupled with the fact that tweets must be short and to-the-point (140 characters or less) make it a very efficient and useful tool for public outreach and education.

  1. LinkedIn

Acting as a platform for professionals, LinkedIn allows researchers to connect with other professionals to increase networking and potentially lead to collaboration. However, LinkedIn is likely better suited for researchers looking to hire employees or graduate students, as individual profiles essentially serve as CVs. On the flip-side, graduate students and employees can use this social media platform to connect with researchers that they may be interested in working with.

  1. Academia.edu

A great site for displaying and sharing work, Academia.edu allows researchers to share their publications with the academic community and follow like-minded researchers. This platform is great for sharing work with others and building academic connections, but is not overly useful for public outreach or finding graduate students (researchers).

  1. ResearchGate

The most used social media site by scientists (Van Noorden 2014), ResearchGate acts much in the same way as Academia.edu. ResearchGate allows researchers to upload and share their publications and network with other similar researchers. Furthermore, you can upload research before it is published, which can help to expedite the communication of scientific knowledge/research and provide a basis for additional peer-review. Students can also join the ResearchGate community to find publications and network with researchers.

The real uniqueness of ResearchGate, however, lies in its novel approach to quantifying scholarly impact. Unlike the h-index or other metrics of impact, the “RG Score” takes into account various aspects of a researcher’s work and uses them to represent that researcher’s academic impact. The fault in this, however, is that it is biased toward researchers that are actively engaged in the ResearchGate community, and individual RG Scores can become inflated fairly easily (for example, my RG Score is higher than my PhD supervisor’s, yet I haven’t finished my PhD).

Though the RG Score may be flawed, the collaborative nature of ResearchGate is of great benefit to researchers at all levels of their career. For example, I have personally established an international collaboration with Iranian ecologists working in the Caspian Sea, which has led to two publications in well-known journals.

  1. Others

Other social media sites promoted directly at scientists include Mendeley, a site much like ResearchGate, and FigShare, a fantastic site where researchers can openly share data which is published on the FigShare site with full attribution to the researcher(s) who publish their data there (indeed the use of the data must be accompanied by a citation).

Optimizing use

Along with the descriptions above, Van Noorden (2014) outlines the ways in which scientists use social media. The already-large and continually growing scientific presence on social media is a testament to its utility within the scientific community. However, being careful to not let such platforms dominate your time is an important aspect to consider when contemplating joining social media as a researcher or lab group. As such, strategically choosing a few platforms to best suit your research needs is key to establishing a solid social media presence while not substantially decreasing productivity or academic output.

Aside from individual researchers, scientific societies and organizations can benefit from using social media. Many coastal organizations (e.g. CERF, NOAA) utilize social media to connect with their members and, more importantly, recruit new members. Social media can also serve well in the promotion of an organization’s events, such as conferences or meetings. Contests and special events being held by organizations can also be promoted through social media – a great example of this was the 2014 NOAA photo contest.

Ultimately, it is up to the researcher to decide which social media platform suits him/her best. Social media can be of great benefit to scientists, but needs to be utilized appropriately in order to maximize its utility for individual researchers. If these aspects are taken into account, social media can serve academics and like-minded professionals very well, acting to enhance their careers and scholarly impact in a variety of ways.


  1. Van Noordern, R. 2014. Online collaboration: scientists and the social network. Nature 512: 126-129.
  2. Fauville, G., Dupont, S., von Thun, S., and Lundin, J. 2015. Can Facebook be used to increase scientific literacy? A case study of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute Facebook page and ocean literacy. Computers & Education 82: 60-73.