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#SciMed Twitter: Why and How

Posted by on Friday, July 27, 2018 in Life in the MSTP, Science Advocacy.

The best description of Twitter that I’ve ever heard is this – Twitter is like a cocktail party. Let me explain:

Twitter can seem messy and complicated sometimes. It is, after all, a huge and jumbled mass of people all speaking at once. It requires a certain unspoken etiquette that can take time to master. And you’ll be sure to meet a wide mix of people, each with their own reasons for attending, be it to socialize or to work.

But, just as at a cocktail party, it is entirely possible to navigate through the crowds to connect with individuals and have stimulating discussions on a variety of topics. In my experience, despite its seemingly chaotic features, Twitter is an exceptional scientific tool to have in your repertoire – one that allows you to expand your network, mingle with specific groups, engage in very focused conversations, and disseminate research.

If you join Twitter, you’re likely to run into many of your Vandy MSTPeers. You may or may not know this, but the students of the Vanderbilt MSTP make up a sizable portion of the national pool of MD-PhD trainees on Twitter. Our program has over 30 students who are active on Twitter, which is more than 10% of the national total of approximately 280 MD/DO-PhD accounts compiled by the American Physician Scientists Association (@A_P_S_A). That’s no small thing! Before we get into some tips about how to use Twitter effectively, consider why all these students (not to mention many physicians and scientists) might be on Twitter in the first place.

One ethnography of medical student Twitter “superusers” found that students’ reasons for using the platform could be grouped into two main themes: widening their access and enhancing their voice.1 The authors found that the students used Twitter to access both content and people. Students said the platform helped them find medical content, opportunities to work on projects, patient perspectives, and communities of support that included not only peers but also virtual mentors. Students also identified being able to engage with peers, physicians, and the public as something that gave them voice. Those in the survey reported that using Twitter helped them shape their online professional identity as well as served to equalize somewhat the perceived divide between themselves and older medical professionals. I think this is a good framework for understanding the various reasons why medical students would want to use Twitter professionally. However, I would add to this that, particularly for MD-PhD students, Twitter can be a place where you have the voice to share yours and others’ research findings and to shape the scientific community’s and the public’s understanding of said research by offering up explainers.

But once you have the drive to use it, how can you use Twitter most effectively? Here’s a short list with some best practices and tips & tricks:

  1. Be professional. From the profile picture you choose to the content you post and from your handle (@) to your replies to tweets, your account is a representation of you to the world. When tweeting, it is good to remember that the Internet never forgets.
  2. Use all the features of your profile. On Twitter, you have both a written bio and a header image to tell the world who you are and what you care about – use them both! Your bio can be especially important in bringing like-minded individuals into your network. Using some hashtags (#) of topics that are important to you ensures your profile shows up in related searches, while adding other handles of groups you belong to (e.g. the official Vanderbilt MSTP account: @VanderbiltMSTP) is a quick way to give your profile some meaningful context.
  3. The fastest way to build your network is by following others. A good place to start is with your Vanderbilt MSTP peers (https://twitter.com/VanderbiltMSTP/lists/current-students/members?lang=en) who are already on Twitter. But most of Twitter is built on loose associations, so it is perfectly acceptable to follow (or follow-back) someone you may not know in real life.
  4. Find your groups. Often, groups of users with shared interests will organize around a hashtag. For instance, MD-PhD students started #DoubleDocs in March 2018 to identify themselves and conversations pertaining to physician-scientist training. Another use of hashtags is that groups may use them to sponsor regular tweetchats (i.e. #WomenInMedicine, Sundays 9-10 PM EST), journal clubs (i.e. the fortnightly #NephJC), or conference content (i.e. #ASCO2018). So, following a few hashtags can help you make connections in areas of interest to you. You can search for healthcare-related hashtags by topic at https://www.symplur.com/.
  5. Retweet others. Retweeting is the best way to help others’ tweets gain visibility and share something interesting with your followers. Retweets are fast, free, and engender reciprocity. Also, retweets (but not likes) can be cataloged and tracked as part of its alternative metrics (as with www.altmetric.com), that show where published papers have appeared in the news and social media. What’s not to love?
  6. Use pictures. Tweets with multimedia get close to three times as many engagements as those with text alone.2 You can add multiple images to a tweet, so tweeting out several figures can be an effective way to demonstrate the results of a paper. Also, adding a picture enables you to tag up to 10 accounts without using up your character limit, which is nice for tagging co-authors to alert them about your tweet.
  7. Pin a tweet. You can pin a tweet to the top of your profile by clicking on the drop-down menu in the corner of a tweet. This is useful for featuring research or upcoming events that you’d like to share with people visiting your account.
  8. Stay organized. Under your profile, you can create lists of people whose content you’re interested in seeing. The list serves as a newsfeed exclusively of the accounts you’ve added. Public lists are visible to anyone on Twitter and the people added to public lists are notified that they’ve been added to your list. Private lists are visible to you alone, meaning that even those included on the list cannot see it or know that they’ve been added.
  9. Come for the science, stay for the public engagement. If your goal on Twitter is to engage a wide audience, don’t be discouraged if it seems like you’re stuck in a science-medicine bubble. If you’re a scientist on Twitter, it’s likely that your followers are largely other scientists until you reach an inflection point of around 900 followers. After that point, scientists on Twitter are increasingly followed by people representing outreach organizations, the media, the public, and even decision-makers in business and government.3

I hope this has given you a taste for the various ways in which Twitter can be used and some strategies that will help you make the most of your time there! If you’d like to learn more about the use of Twitter in academic medicine, here’s a good place to start: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/0142159X.2014.993371.4 Questions about anything here? Come find me in person or on Twitter (@AlexSilverMSTP). Happy tweeting!

  1. Chretien KC, Tuck MG, Simon M, Singh LO, Kind T. A Digital Ethnography of Medical Students who Use Twitter for Professional Development. J Gen Intern Med. 2015;30(11):1673-1680.
  2. Madrigal E, Jiang XS, Roy-Chowdhuri S. The professional Twitter account: creation, proper maintenance, and continuous successful operation. Diagn Cytopathol. 2017;45(7):621-628.
  3. Côté IM, Darling ES, Heard SB. Scientists on Twitter: Preaching to the choir or singing from the rooftops? https://doiorg/101139/facets-2018-0002. 2018.
  4. Choo EK, et al. Twitter as a tool for communication and knowledge exchange in academic medicine: A guide for skeptics and novices. Med Teach. 2018;37(5).