Conflict of Pinterest? Social media and conflicts of interest in scholarly peer-review

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peer review

In 1665, the concept of scholarly peer-review was introduced by Henry Oldenburg, the founding editor of the scientific journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (National Academy of Sciences, 2009) – a highly regarded journal that continues to publish high-quality science today. In general, the process of peer-review involves submitting one’s work to scrutiny by topical experts in a given field of research. Such a process is meant to serve a gatekeeping function, preventing the propagation of sub-par or incorrect scholarly information among research disciplines, thus ensuring that only accurate and truthful information populate scientific knowledge. Although it was introduced more than 350 years ago, scholarly peer-review remains a cornerstone of contemporary science and an important component of ensuring the validity and rigor of the scientific process.

While many factors play a role in ensuring ethical and responsible peer-review, and the process itself is far from perfect, avoiding ‘conflicts of interest’ is an important aspect of peer-review—that is, ensuring that reviewers provide honest and unbiased critiques on a piece of scholarly work. With respect to peer-review, conflicts of interest can present themselves in any situation where a reviewing researcher of a piece of scholarly work may be financially, professionally, or personally involved with the authoring researcher(s). Such intimate connections between reviewers and authors, including personal relationships (romantic or otherwise), can potentially result in a lack of critical judgement during peer-review and result in a breakdown of scientific integrity. Although scientists are typically diligent in avoiding conflicts of interest, novel and unfamiliar ways of making personal connections have the potential to create situations of conflict that scientists may misjudge and deem non-conflicting.

One relatively novel way of establishing contact is through online social media. While social media primarily serve a social purpose, many platforms have been utilized by scientists for outreach and communication purposes (among others; Van Noorden, 2014Collins et al., 2016). One platform that has been highly popular among the scientific community is Twitter. With Twitter, users can tailor their following to include other users with shared interests. In a world of online communication, however, people with common interests can often feel emotionally and personally connected with online contacts prior to meeting and engaging with them physically. For example, online dating has become a primary way of meeting potential partners, and contacts often feel an emotional connection prior to meeting. Furthermore, 64% of people maintain that common interests are the most important factor in driving online connection. As such, while the maintenance of close personal relationships requires physical contact (Dunbar, 2016), feelings of personal connection can be established from online communication with individuals sharing common interests. Thus, because scientists often share similar views and have become active on social media in recent years, it seems likely that virtual relationships (albeit non-romantic ones) through social media have the potential to create conflicts of interest, despite the many benefits of social media for researchers. This is particularly applicable to platforms where scientists can tailor their following to have a high proportion of followers with common research interests, such as Twitter.

This downside to social media and science became apparent when I was recently invited to review my 16th manuscript of 2017. I graciously declined to review the manusript for two reasons: 1. I didn’t really have the time to review the manuscript and felt I’ve put in my time so far this year, and 2. I felt that I may not have been able to give a fair and unbiased review of the manuscript because of a close connection with the primary author via Twitter, despite never meeting the author in person. Since declining the review, I’ve spent quite some time thinking about this idea and have honed in on a few key questions: how often does #ScienceTwitter get asked to review the work of close Twitter followers, how do potential reviewers respond in such situations, and does this have the potential to compromise the integrity of impartial peer-review? Preliminary results of an admittedly unscientific survey of #ScienceTwitter (with a low sample size, for now) can shed light on the former two questions, and suggests that it is not uncommon for scientists on social media to be asked to peer-review the work of close Twitter followers. Furthermore, when asked to review the work of close followers, #ScienceTwitter users overwhelmingly accept to review the work—indeed I have reviewed the work of Twitter followers in the past.

This, to me, seems inherently problematic yet not widely recognized, and further underscores the benefits and need for a fully-blinded peer-review system (or maybe a fully-open peer-review system). The question remains, however, as to whether this truly constitutes a conflict of interest and if it can indeed introduce bias into the peer-review process. I have some ideas for addressing the latter question (but will need the help of some progressive and enthusiastic journal editors) and plan to pursue the Twitter poll in a more formal fashion.

So, I want to know what you think – do you envision social media a source of conflict of interest in scholarly peer-review and how big of a problem do you think it might be? Let me know what you think in the comments section below!


Collins K, Shiffman D, Rock J (2016) How are scientists using social media in the workplace? PLoS One 11: e0162680. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0162680

Dunbar RIM (2016) Do online social media cut through the constraints that limit the size of offline social networks? Royal Society Open Science 3: 150292. doi:10.1098/rsos.150292

National Academy of Sciences, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (2009) On being a scientist: a guide to responsible conduct in research, third edition. The National Academies Press, Washington. 63 pp.

Van Noorden, R (2014) Online collaboration: scientists and the social network. Nature 512: 126-129. doi:10.1038/512126a


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 (
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 (

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.

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 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; 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; million; ResearchGate=6 million). Values for Facebook and Twitter represent the total number of active monthly users (source:; value for LinkedIn represents the total number of users (source:; values for 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.


A great site for displaying and sharing work, 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 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.

Is it time for scientific language to change?

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DNA Sequence (Flickr Creative Commons: JohnGoode)
“But evolution is just a theory!” A common argument heard all too often from staunch opponents of Evolutionary Theory. However, evolution is the fundamental theory essential to modern-day biology – without it, our biological understanding of the world crumbles. So if the entirety of our understanding about biology rests on the back of a “theory”, how can we be sure that we know much about biology at all?
Just a theory; Just a theory… If you want to make a biologist cringe, tell him or her that evolution is just a theory. Yet, if you told a random stranger on the street that evolution is ‘just a theory’, they would probably agree with you and disregard its validity. This suggests that the definition of “theory” means something much different to a biologist than it does to a non-biologist. But “theory”, at least in ecology, really only has has a single definition; so why the discrepancy? The answer inherently lies in the interpretation of “proof”.
In science, with the exception of mathematical proofs, nothing can be “proven”. That is, 100% proof of something cannot be obtained. This is because science works on the principle of disproving prior ideas. As ideas are tested, and are failed to be disproved, they gain more and more evidential support for their existence and truth. Once enough evidence supporting the reality of an idea surmounts, that idea becomes a theory. As science continues to test a theory and continues to fail disproving it…it stays a theory. But why? If so much evidence supports a theory, why does it never become a fact? This is because there is always a chance that even the most well supported theories could be disproved. As unlikely as it may be, science must rest on the idea that all theories have the potential to be disproved.

Theory; Theory… But if something has the potential to be disproved, doesn’t that mean we’re unsure about its truth? Sure, if that something has very little evidence supporting it. But when something has a lot of evidence weighted overwhelmingly in one direction, the confidence we can exude in expressing its truth increases. Take a homicide investigation, for example, where the suspect was seen running out of a murder victim’s house 30 seconds after shots were fired, carrying a gun and covered in blood. Upon investigation, the man’s blood-covered clothes were retrieved down the street from the crime scene and DNA analysis confirms that the blood on the clothes was that of the victim. The suspect has no alibi and footprint analysis confirms that it was indeed the suspect who ran out of the victim’s house after the shots were fired. Several hours later, the police get a confession from the suspect that he/she committed the murder. Now, there is a chance that the suspect was inside the house saying hello to the victim, someone else shot the victim, covered the suspect in blood, the suspect stole the gun from the killer, ran away, ditched the clothes because they were dirty, and confessed because the police forced a confession; but this is a very unlikely scenario. In a homicide case as clear-cut as this, the evidence would “prove” that the suspect was guilty and would face the subsequent consequences.
Scientific language is often lost on the general public (Flickr Creative Commons: AJCann)
Scientific language is often lost on the general public (Flickr Creative Commons: AJCann)
The overwhelming evidence in the homicide example above is akin to the amount of scientific evidence supporting Evolutionary Theory. Although the suspect in the homicide would be “proven guilty”, scientists are reluctant to say that evolution (or any other theory for that matter) is proven. In essence, this is contributing (but is not the only contributor) to the lack of understanding amongst the general public as to what a scientific theory really is, and opponents of solid scientific theories (e.g., evolution and climate change) often manipulate the word “theory” to undermine scientific understanding. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “The theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity, is a scientific fact!” A theory is a fact! Yet the general public all too often grasps the word theory as something that is untrue, unsure, and extremely likely to change – this is not the case.
So is it time for science to shift its use of the word theory to something that can’t be manipulated to undermine concrete scientific concepts? Maybe, but science is the closest that we, as humans, can get to complete objectivity. Although absolute objectivity cannot be obtained, science allows us to try and explain how the world works with as little human bias as possible. As such, keeping some degree of skepticism, however small that degree might be, is critical to the faculty of science. Consequently, this minute degree of skepticism will always be exploited by those who argue against scientific reasoning. Ultimately, scientists should try and do a better job of communicating their science in a clear and concise way to keep the general public informed of the solidity of such “theories”, while the school system must equally inform children of what a scientific theory really is and why we know that “theories” are true accounts of the way certain things work.
But this is just a theory…