From Latour to Twitter: Social Media and the Scientific Enterprise

I have a love/hate relationship with Twitter – it feeds me with scientific knowledge, I learn about new developments in science and I stay in touch with friends and their interesting projects. But it also gives me anxiety and low-key FOMO: I see research papers and op-eds being published that I have had in my head for months, people celebrating grants and prizes that I didn’t get, and meetings and conferences described in a way that I am sure I missed the most important meeting of the year. And, being an epidemiologist, there is the usual COVID-19 vitriol from trolls and #doyourownresearch “researchers”.

So, in that sense, #AcademicTwitter is in no way different from normal Twitter. Why then am I going to advocate that Ph.D. candidates should all become (semi-)active Twitter users on an upcoming course of the Dutch Society for Thrombosis and Hemostasis? The answer starts with Latour’s “Laboratory Life”.

In this book, the authors partake for quite some time in academic research at the Salk Institute. This approach makes up a useful sociology insight into a single lab – What goes in? What does it produce? How do the people in the lab work towards shared or individual goals? What are those goals anyway? But with “The Construction of Scientific Facts” as its subtitle, I think we should think a bit bigger. After all, can a single lab from 1986 paint the full picture of how we do and organize our research in 2022?

From this book, I take that science takes place in a much broader context than a single experiment, lab, or even institute. It is this broader context and the interplay between all players that I want to help improve, slowly but surely, with the QI program that wants to “improve the way we do and organize our research”. Let us take a look at how social media plays a role in this goal: since a large part of how we do research is online, individual scientists need an online presence. Various online platforms have popped up in the last decade, ranging from author disambiguation services to scientific profiles, and open science platforms. These platforms are tools for science, and therefore should be in the toolbox of every scientist. It is also very useful for meta-research if I might add. However, they often lack the connectivity with peers and members of the public that is needed to debate that other question – how do we organize our research?

The Scientific Enterprise is subject to change. Especially with recent technological, methodological, moral, organizational, and societal developments driving the rate of change, how we will organize our research ten years from now will be different from today. To understand the rate of change, we only have to look at this 10-year-old report from the royal society that calls for a more open scientific enterprise and compare it to the current implementation of open science practices, later reports, as well as the “recognition and rewards” movement in Dutch Academia.

That debate, that helps shape the future of the Scientific Enterprise, is of course part of symposia, meetings, conferences, and small talk at the water cooler. But it is also held online – on social media, especially on Twitter. So, for that reason alone, I think that all researchers should become “active” on Twitter. Please note that it depends on your goals whether active here means actually means actively engaging – sometimes just knowing what the debate is all about is more than enough. Actually, take your time, and actively ask yourself some questions to help identify your goals before you actually start with social media. Make sure that how you are going to use social media is in line with those goals. Make it is a nice place to spend your time usefully, that you consume content that is in line with your goals, and that you only post what you want to share. After all, despite that it is part of the online scientific enterprise, academic social media is still social media.

My slide-deck for this talk can be found on OSF:

A fair warning – I think you should determine your goals before you start to develop your online presence, otherwise, you will end up dancing TikTok dances almost 4 hours a day without even realizing it. (picture is part of the slide deck on OSF: