The quest to be savvy in scientific outreach

Doing scientific outreach is indispensible for anyone in this age who is serious in wanting to build and sustain a career in the field of science and academia.

Science has moved beyond “Publish or Perish” to “Publicize or Perish” (See Tom Raynars blog post on this).

Make no mistake, publishing is STILL the top priority, but now doing outreach for our scientific work is equally important. (So it is actually Publish and Publicize or Perish!)

Papers may be published in top tier journals and not get widely cited due to poor outreach, while other papers may be published in journals with more modest impact factors and get more reads and get cited more widely simply because it was well publicized.

But these nuances about being an academic and about scientific outreach were not things I got an opportunity to learn during my doctorate years, at least not in any structured course. Nevertheless, I realized that I have always been interested in reaching out to a broader audience.

But it was not until I had to finally teach a course about scientific outreach that I started to look into the subject in earnest. And what I learnt about using social media was a great eye-opener for me. I have shared all the lectures I developed for the course so far on slideshare and intend to add more posts on other specifics on the course such as using videos in scientific outreach.

I am nowhere close to being a wiz at scientific outreach, but I am understanding a lot more things about the topic.

Some of the things I am now convinced of are as follows:

1) Early career researchers MUST HAVE web presence

Basically, it was impressed upon me the critical importance for early career researchers to have an online presence (as emphasized by Chrissie Painting).

We are a dime a dozen in our general field, yet we are a one and only in our specific combination of expertise. An online presence is essential for helping us to highlight (and also constantly elaborate on and refine) our specific strengths.

This seems obvious, but it is shocking for me that not all postgraduate students are actually building an online identity in their early stages of their research career.

A barometer for knowing where one stands in terms of an online presence would be to do a Google search on your name. When I googled my name, all sorts of things on Star Trek, The Next Generation came up (Because TNG is an abbreviation for The Next Generation). But I OWN the top spot. My photo also comes up first. This is not about being vain or getting famous (although getting famous can certainly be used as a tool to help with ones scientific career). Rather, I think everyone in an academic career needs to carve out a digital niche.

So getting my students to develop or fill out their google scholar, researchgate, Orcid and LinkedIn profiles was the first step. Academia.edu, Mendeley and other are also good to have profiles in, because all these sites do slightly different things. (See more on my slideshare presentation)

2) The website of scientist – the intersection between the professional and the personal

Having a presence on professional sites is actually basic, but it is the first thing that needs to be organized and gotten out of the way.

Having profiles in google scholar, researchgate or LinkedIn is not enough, as they do very to to show what kind of a person you are.

The next step is that we need an interface between the professional and the social, the personal and the public.

And so I think that having a basic site is paramount. This is incredibly easy to set up in places like wordpress or wix (See my slideshare notes on blogging), and I got my students to do up one for themselves during the course.

The personal website is important because it an appropriate place to feature both professional documents and also elaborate on related personal interests.

It can literally serve as a place to put up your CV, a publication list, self-archive your publications, upload videos of work you have done, write about philantrophic causes you are interested in, volunteer work you do, musical productions, artwork, political and religious philosophy (limit this if you want your site to function well as a personal-professional interface), etc.

Headers of of postgraduate student websites from the Institute of Biology, Federal University of Bahia.  Vinicius Patire, Joice Reis, Yuri Costa, Rafael Felix and Michael Awoniyi did their sites in WordPress.

In short, if done well, the personal website can serve as your expanded resume or CV with your personal touch.

I use a free wordpress blog, and even though it is not updated as regularly as I would like, the material I already have on my blog site functions as a static site so that anyone can come to get a sense of who I am and what I do (or have done). And I can feel free to add a bit of humanness to an overtly cerebral profession.

But striking the balance is important.

Because the purpose overlaps with professional objectives, I would not be putting in pictures of family travels (unless it is relevant for some reason), my fanciful meal I had last night, or the most sexy car I hope to own on my website.

There needs to be a guiding principle for what goes into a personal website if the idea is to use it to augment an online presence, and to interface with the public.

On that not, the other thing about a website also is that it is like a meeting point for all my other social media (see below) and professional sites. There are links in my website About me or My Research page to every other online avenue (researchgate, linkedin, etc.) where I have a profile.

3) Outreach to the broader community

Although fundamental, these professional sites may actually do very little to help with scientific outreach to a broader audience.

The personal website can be one of the most powerful engines to reach out to the public, IF you have the talent, energy and time to maintain a blog. I highly recommend blogging for scientific outreach, but I will admit that it is not for everyone.

But the next best, or in some cases, even better, alternative, is to engage in microblogging (see my slideshare notes on the topic). And here I mean social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram, which encourage (in the case of Twitter, mandates) short blurp-like posts.

As with blogging, content is king in microblogging, but it is so much easier to generate content for Twitter and Facebook than to write a full length post for a blog site. And it is also easy to populate your feed with visuals (such as those in this post) made using online tools (such as Pablo and Canva).

It is also much easier to attract views and follows. And building a following is one of the keys to effective outreach.

Still, building content and a following will take time, but it will happen.

A few caveats are that it may be good to engage in more than one. Google+ going down should serve as a sobering warning that nothing online is permanent. And it really does not take too much effort to modify a blurp or add more words to a tweet to post on another microblogging place.

Additionally, most sites can be linked these days through the IFTTT site such that if you post in one you post in the other.

A closing note – reach in first before reaching out

In following posts, I intend to blog more on the specifics of what I learnt and taught during the Scientific Outreach course (I think I learnt much more than I taught). But one of the most important lessons I learnt was that we need to reach in to find where out personal interests interesects with the needs of the world to guide our research and our scientific outreach. Afterall, the reason why most (I imagine) of us wanted to do science started from a personal interest or passion, long before we had any complex scientific words to express it.

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About David Tng

I am David Tng, a hedonistic botanizer who pursues plants with a fervour. I chase the opportunity to delve into various aspects of the study of plants. I have spent untold hours staring at mosses and allied plants, taking picture of pollen, culturing orchids in clean cabinets, counting tree rings, monitoring plant flowering times, etc. I am currently engrossed in the study of plant ecology (a grand excuse to see 'anything I can). Sometimes I think of myself as a shadow taxonomist, a sentimental ecologist, and a spiritual environmentalist - but at the very root of it all, a "plant whisperer"!
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