Scientific Twitter

UPD (08/11/2022). The article below was written before the big migration to Mastodon. You can find us here as well: @[email protected]

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, so please read it if you have time. 

Before going into details, let me tell you about my dream. Dreams not always come true, but it is good to have them. So I have a dream of a “virtual republic of science” that exists online, where researchers are united by their passion to science and not divided by borders, politics, career considerations, etc. It’s a dream of the Internet as a large “journal club” where interesting, friendly discussions happen without fear of making mistakes.

All right, so this is a dream, and the reality is quite different. First of all, Twitter was not designed for professional academic discussions. However, 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. There is also some inherent controversy in that Twitter is used by scientists because many researchers were attracted to it by things other than science. While these things help bringing people to academic Twitter, some of them are making scientific discussions unnecessarily toxic similar to non-scientific discussions. But this is the reality and we have to deal with it. (NB! Recently we started the Fragile Nucleosome online discussion group outside of Twitter which I hope can solve some of the problems of the Academic Twitter, check it out and continue reading this article).

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. Since my main concern was to improve the friendliness and inclusivity of open discussions, on a number of occasions I interfered in online debates, trying to prevent/stop dangerous crowd behaviors. In doing so, sometimes I was protecting people who were being attacked for their opinions that I did not agree with. Sometimes I was trying to protect people whom I did not know at all, from the avalanche of comments initiated by well-known senior scientists whom I follow and respect. In most cases my message was well-taken, but sometimes it put in temporal danger my own reputation. Well, let’s hope these efforts were worth it. This account brought together several thousand scientists interested in quantitative gene regulation. Since 2015 the readership of @generegulation increased from just 100 personal contacts to several thousand members worldwide, and currently about 6 new academic followers are added each day. All levels of academic seniority are represented: we have about 28% PIs, 27% postdocs and 30% graduate students. Most followers are very serious about science, as detailed in the polls below:

Scientific Netiquette 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 and advocate for the others to follow as well. 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 career 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 recognize 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 resulted in imprisonment and killing of many scientists). Some nowadays online discussions have clear 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. All 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 flavor 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 progress (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 @generegulation 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 @generegulation Tweets. 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. Very recently we decided to go one step further and separate the research of the Teif lab from general @generegulation news. We now have a separate @TeifLab account for our lab’s business so that not to spam thousands of @generegulation followers.

5) The more followers you have the larger your responsibility. While the same “Netiquette” applies to all people, online discussions are very much determined by the power dynamics. This “power” is usually reflected by the number of Twitter followers. Thus, with all its democracy Twitter is very hierarchical. It is particularly pronounced for the academic Twitter, where the community is tightly connected and structured. So in practice, a critical opinion or ad hominem comment of a person with 300 followers has a different weight (and different level of potential harm that it can do) in comparison with the same comment by a person with 30,000 followers. We are all human and all have mistakes, but a mistake of a Twitter user with a small number of followers is not as dangerous as a mistake of a user with many thousands of followers. So people with many Twitter followers have additional responsibility to think twice before every Tweet. The understanding of this fact comes naturally with time that one spends on Twitter, and we can see how some eccentric/ad hominem behaviors on academic Twitter have transformed smoothly into more responsible behavior as the corresponding Twitter accounts have grown from hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands of followers (there are only few accounts in the range of hundreds of thousands of followers and they usually behave quite accurately). Importantly, all aspects of problematic behavior described above (mixing politics/money/personal biases with academic discussion) are exponentially amplified when we are dealing with an academic Twitter account with many thousands of followers. I intentionally do not give any specific examples of “overuse of Twitter power”, but all of us have seen such examples. So, obviously, we need to be kind, and most importantly, remember that kindness needs to scale up as the Twitter account grows. A large number of Twitter followers is not just power but also a big responsibility.

 PS. Some technical tips:

If you would like a re-tweet of you announcement or chat on personal matters, please contact me by 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 some of our literature Twitter bots (@Nucleosome_Bot, @CTCF_papers, @TF_binding_bot and @DNAbinding, @cfDNA_papers, @epicancerpapers), and here is a list of other accounts on Twitter related to gene relation that I compiled few years ago.

Unrelated to this post, consider joining our Fragile Nucleosome community.

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

Vlad Teif

P.P.S. Also, have a look at this very well written post that summarises what I wrote above in a nicer way: “The Hidden Curriculum of Science Twitter