Science and social media – why you should care (+ a rant about unreasonable blogging expectations)

Update 27/2/13: See Phil’s comment below – he recommends using active voice and first-person narrative in scientific papers – not present tense as I previously claimed

Last week I gave a presentation to 3rd year students as part of a Biodiversity Conservation (ENVS3039) lecture at the ANU. Phil Gibbons (one of my PhD supervisors) is convening the course, and aims to give students a solid understanding of science communication in all its forms.

Phil opened the lecture by giving a short and sharp outline of how to write a scientific paper, bluntly stating that in his trademark good humour that “undergrads are crap writers – in this course we’re going to change that.” In the student’s defense I will say that we are trained to write badly in high school science class – it still takes at least a 4 year Bachelors + Honours degree to stamp out these bad habits (writing in past tense passive voice, 3rd person narrative etc)!

David Salt, editor of Decision Point magazine gave the students some pointers on how to write for a wide audience – by using plain English,  an active voice, keeping things short  and simple, varying sentence and paragraph lengths, and above all, being enthusiastic about what you’re writing (which means you want to write about something you care about).

For my presentation, Phil wanted me to focus on blogging and tweeting, as part of the course assessment  requires students to write at least one blog and tweet during the course. Based on the ‘show of hands’ poll at the beginning of class it seemed that about 3 (of 68) students had a twitter account, about 6 read blogs (1 or 2 had a blog of their own). So it seems very few are currently using social media (other than Facebook!) very actively.

The main thing I wanted to communicate to students was really just to have a go at using social media to engage with science. It can be quite daunting to someone just starting out with social media to be faced with a raft of ‘do’s and don’ts’ – e.g post at least once a week, make sure what you write is exciting/interesting/funny, don’t make it too long, etc etc.

Of course all of these guidelines make sense if you want to have a “successful” blog – by which “success” is defined as a large, engaged audience. But if you’re a student or young scientist just starting out, these expectations can be a huge barrier to starting a blog in the first place. Just last week someone said to me:

“I would  really love to start blogging again, but then I think that once I start I really should post at least every week or two, and I’m not sure I can do that – so I haven’t posted anything.”

Therein lies the problem. If you’re new to blogging  or science communication, you can’t expect yourself to be an amazing blogger from the get go – that’s like expecting yourself to have the knowledge and experience of a Professor when you’re still a student! I say all this because these unreasonable expectations held me back from having my own blog for a long time.

I know that by “good blog” standards that my blog is pretty crap – I don’t post regularly, don’t really get any comments, but my average daily view is still about 5-10 unique visitors. That’s totally OK by me. I decided when I finally started this blog that I would be doing it first of all for myself – forget about pleasing an audience, and focus primarily on blogging for my own goals – improving my science communication, and in a small way, getting my research out there. Once I decided this it was quite liberating!

I am happy with my blog – at this stage of my career (i.e a rather confused just starting out PhD student) I think it’s perfectly OK. For some bizarre reason, I do still have people tell me how much they like my blog –  I think it’s perhaps a good conversation starter when meeting people for the first time over email or in person. The mere fact that I have a blog/website to call my own is more than what many of my colleagues have, but I think many of them would have a blog/website/twitter account if their perceptions were different.

So, that was my key message – have a go, and don’t get too hung up on ‘do’s and don’ts’, lest you place unreasonable expectations on yourself. Social media is meant to be fun way to engage with science (or whatever your interest is), and other like-minded people who you wouldn’t otherwise get to meet in person. I think it’s fantastic that Phil has incorporated social media into the course, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the students post on their blog ( in the near future.

9 responses to “Science and social media – why you should care (+ a rant about unreasonable blogging expectations)”

  1. Hi Megan – does Phil really say not to use the past tense? How does that make any sense at all?! Surely a methods section needs to be in the past tense, at least.

    1. Hey Martin, I’d imagine he would mean use present tense throughout the paper – since flipping between past and present tense within the same paper wouldn’t make much sense. The methods in my papers are in present sense – i.e “we analyse the data with this method, we calculate this”, etc. Agree it’s slightly counter intuitive (I have a terrible habit of switching between tenses in the same paragraph!) but it’s what I’ve been told to do by all my supervisors. I don’t think there’s a strict rule on this though, just a general trend towards this style of writing.

      1. Definitely something to think about…I write everything in the past tense (& active voice), largely because that’s what I was taught by my supervisors. Maybe it’s time to rethink that practice.

  2. I said use active voice and first-person narrative! Nothing about tense. However, I must say that tense is a most confusing thing when writing a science paper. The author guidelines for Conservation Biology state that anything published is present tense and the research you did for the current paper is past tense. So, Evans and Westgate (2013) claim (present tense) I am misleading students on tense. However, I said (past tense) nothing of the sort!

    1. Apologies Phil – I was clearly confused between active/passive voice and tense – have updated the post accordingly.

  3. Dear Megan,
    I have just started with my own website, and my blog part of my website is supposed to get a kickstart this week.. To cut a long story short, I have been grappling with whether I will be able to keep it up. Ideas are not a problem – with so much interesting research going on, science communicators have an overload of information!
    Your blog put down a lot of my own thoughts, and helped me reach that peace for myself: I want to blog for myself, and not for Google Analytics :)
    I guess all I am saying is: thanks :)

    1. That’s great to hear Sandhya, thanks for letting me know, and good luck with your blog!

  4. […] Gibbons, a  colleague from The Australian National University, told his class “undergrads are crap writers“. Now, that won’t endear you to your students, unless you have Phil’s lovely wry […]

  5. […] are some great posts about the benefits budding researchers can gain from blogging, like here, here and […]

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