Scientific Twitter

Dear Colleague,

This page explains the purpose of the Twitter account @generegulation, as well as my general philosophy concerning the professional use of Twitter. It’s long but important; please read it if you have time. If you are looking for a ranked list of Twitter accounts recommended for scientists working on gene regulation, have a look at this page (and please return to continue reading about the Twitter philosophy).

First of all, I do understand that Twitter was not designed for professional academic discussions. However, the reality is that we still do not have an appropriate scientific forum comparable to Twitter in terms of the number and frequency of scientific interactions — this is the only reason why we are still using Twitter for science.

So I have been thinking a lot about the culture of scientific discussions online. Some time ago I wrote an article which argued that online discussions of preprints and journal publications may require special (pseudo)anonymisation systems. Later I decided to contradict myself and started discussing science online without anonymisation, using @generegulation account as a proof of principle. This account is devoted to the scientific community interested in quantitative gene regulation. I started actively using it in 2015. Since that time the readership of @generegulation increased to several thousand scientists, and currently about 5 new academic followers are added each day. As you can see from the user polls below, the audience of this account consists of about 28% PIs, 27% postdocs and 30% graduate students, and is very serious about science:

Scientific Netiquette (specific for Twitter):

So I had a lot of great and a few of not so great moments managing @generegulation, which crystallized in a list of rules that I try to follow for professional scientific Twitter use. Even if you are already experienced with scientific Twitter you may be still interested to read the description of my “Twitter philosophy” below.

1) Beware of the sharks. Don’t be blinded by the informal atmosphere when chatting with few close friends on Twitter. This is not a private kitchen, everything is public, and there are sharks that want to eat you (either just for fun or to gain “points” towards their carrier progression, or for some other reasons). Technically, any mistake that you make can be immediately transmitted to thousands of researchers in your narrow scientific field. In this situation, it is very important to make the scientific Internet a tolerant, safe place to discuss provocative hypotheses, make mistakes and feel comfortable while making mistakes. Unfortunately, in the current scientific Twitter culture this is not the case. In practice, as soon as you see that you are dealing with a shark, try to stop the dispute immediately. Do not attempt to have the last word. Whenever possible aim to respond to critique in a more academic manner.

2) Do not become a shark yourself. In my opinion, we should equally respect all colleagues online regardless of their academic titles and the numbers of Twitter followers. It is also important to recognise everyone’s right for an honest mistake. Some people may disagree with me, but I think that a mutual respect should prevail over the impulse to immediately correct science and tell the whole Internet that your opponent has made a tremendously wrong statement. In practice, if you want to correct someone, it is usually more acceptable to reply to the corresponding Tweet, rather than quoting it and re-translating to all your followers. This becomes particularly important if you have significantly more followers than your opponent.

You may also become a shark unconsciously, because many Twitter activities which may seem absolutely innocent in fact make you an Internet bully. Internet bullying is not always easy to detect as it can reveal itself in many forms. The most frequent form of Internet bullying among the scientific community is a joke. Unless the joke is clearly self-deprecating (or not deprecating anyone), it can always be understood in such a way as to hurt the targeted individual. This is both because the number of people who hear your joke is much larger than in a private kitchen conversation, and because these people belong to different cultures where the same words mean different things depending on the cultural context. As a general rule, it is better to avoid jokes that target an individual unless this is your friend whose reaction you can predict. Returning to bullying: The effect of a single joke or a negative statement multiplies when the bullying party has a Twitter account with a significantly larger number of followers, a higher academic rank/recognition, or is acting in coordination with several other Twitter accounts. There is almost nothing that individuals can do if they have become a subject of massive Internet bullying. The group dynamics can easily go out of control. Therefore, I believe that we as a community should be trying to shift the culture to be more tolerant.

3) Do not mix science with politics and business. Many examples demonstrate that it is extremely bad for online scientific discussions when they get mixed with non-scientific agenda. (This also holds true for offline science. For example, you may remember politically motivated scientific discussions between genetics and epigenetics proponents in the XXth Century, which have resulted in imprisonment and killing of many scientists). Some nowadays online discussions have clearly recognizable features of ideologically- or commercially-affected scientific doctrines and ultra-aggressiveness to opponents. One particularly important example of bad science/money mix is the discussion of different models of Open Science functioning. Most scientists who are active online are interested in Open Science. Not surprisingly, all scientists have different views on the future of Open Science, and this is absolutely OK. Furthermore, it is understandable that many of us have strong biases towards this or that flavour of Open Science because we have already invested significant time or money in a particular Open Science direction. While having commercial biases is quite understandable, it is not OK to let these biases reveal themselves in unnecessary heated discussions, or to bully colleagues due to their different opinions (avoid even unconscious bullying, see point 2 above).

Concerning the science/politics mix, many people may say that sometimes it is difficult to separate politics from moral issues. I agree with this, as long as we are talking about non-trivial moral issues arising as science and technology progresses (e.g. the use of stem cells, modifying the human genome or epigenome, changing the copyright rules, etc). But please keep in mind that most of your Twitter followers are the same scientists like you, highly educated people sharing the basic moral principles. There is no need to convince your fellow scientists that science matters (at least, not within our @gene_regulation community); it is also close to impossible to find on Twitter an acting academician who does not agree with equality, diversity, etc. If all your Twitter followers are scientists, it is just a wrong place to do “scientific outreach” and patronise your colleagues instead of a proper outreach target audience. On the other hand, in the cases where politics/money are not related to the questions of fundamental consensus among scientists, you are risking to enter non-productive, non-professional fights. To make the long story short, I suggest to behave online as academic as possible, and avoid going beyond academic issues at all costs. Obviously, I am talking here only about professional Twitter accounts in the field of gene regulation, and not about personal accounts which are not intended for professional use.

4) Do not mix professional and personal (too much). Most social-networking gurus agree that in order to get maximum from the professional online activity you need to interact with people, and for this you need to include at least some elements of your personal life in these professional interactions. Well, I would not argue with these gurus, but I only add a cautious notice: do not overdo with personal. You will find a lot of accounts of scientists whose work you would like to follow, but you are not necessarily interested in their gastronomic preferences, and you do not necessarily want to learn about their uninvited opinions on non-academic issues. Such unexpected personal revelations can be interesting, shocking, or you may consider them as just spam. But sometimes you might wish to hear when people share their joy of being awarded a grant or tenure, or their despair after rejection. So it should be a delicate balance of professional and personal, which in my experience is strongly shifted towards professional. I am personally interested in many things other than gene regulation, but I am not including them in @generegulationTweets. In this regard, my philosophy of professional Twitter use is to split the activities into several accounts in order to respect different professional audiences. For example, another account @ARMRVR is devoted to my work implementing augmented reality technologies in education and science outreach. On the other hand, the issues of Open Science and scientometrics are usually of general scientific interest, and these are included in @generegulation discussions.

        PS. Some technical tips:

If you would like me to re-tweet your announcement or chat on personal matters, please contact by a direct message (DM) or email. E-mail is the best way to reach me if it is about some important issues.

You may also wish to follow our literature Twitter bots (@Nucleosome_Bot, @CTCF_papers, @TF_binding_bot and @DNAbinding).

I also strongly recommend you to follow related third-party accounts on Twitter (listed here).

Also, please join our LinkedIn group “Quantitative Gene Regulation” It is currently quite silent since most discussions happen on Twitter, but this may change in the future.

Finally, thank you for your follow, and let’s support each other!

–Vlad Teif