Thoughts on Social Media usage in Science, Math, CS, etc.

I’m giving an interview soon on the topic of Social Media in science, collaboration, applied math, etc. at the SIAM CSE conference.

I got prompts for the questions ahead of time and thought I’d throw my thoughts up on the blog, post it on twitter, and see if I get any good feedback.

There were 5 prompts:

1. What would you say are the best uses of social media with regard to scientific discussion and information dissemination?

I feel there are two answers to this question that depend on the type of social media. Blogs are a great place to have in-depth technical discussions or exposes.  Twitter is a great place to post short announcements, news, and have quick back-and-forth idea exchanges.  Email is a much better platform for long-term and detailed technical collaboration (yes, email is a type of social media as far as I’m concerned).

So the way I think of social media is basically by way of analogy to the activities at a conference.

blogging <=> presenting a paper

twitter <=> quick conversations with people

email <=> private 1-1 technical discussions

So the best uses of social media are no different than the best uses of socializing at a conference.  They are to learn about what’s happening with the field, what people are working on, and what they are thinking about.  The biggest difference is that you can do all of these things without attending a conference or even knowing the people you interact with!  

There are some other forms of social media that are changing the landscape slightly.  For instance, 

stack-exchange <=> focused workshop of experts

The kind of question I’d put on Stack Exchange is a particular sticking point in a broader research agenda. e.g. here is a technical lemma I’d like to be able to show, but I’m not sure it’s possible. Rather than asking friends at conference, try posting it to stack exchange!

2. What are the advantages of research-related conversations carried out online as opposed to one-on-one conversations, especially at conferences or other scientific events?

I draw a big distinction between research carried out online — such as the polymath projects — and research discussions carried out online.  

I’m not sure that research discussions are best conducted in a public form, unless the goal is to involve others, as in the polymath projects. For instance, if you run into a technical problem with an approach and think someone else might be able to solve it, I think that’d make a great little blog post or stack exchange question.  These are the kinds of things you’d hear about talking with people at conferences but that don’t make it into papers because the approaches usually don’t work.

What we gain from having these materials online is that we keep a record of some of the research products that don’t make final drafts, but might greatly help out others! Wouldn’t it be fantastic to be able to google search and find that your current approach won’t work?

3. Have social media and online networks helped you in finding potential collaborators or researchers doing similar types of work, and if so, how?

Yes, by virtue of the friends-of-friends phenomenon, I learn about new individuals doing great work in areas I’m interested in.  Twitter is especially good for these types of activities.

4. Do you see social media as a potential platform to spread awareness about the value of applied mathematics to the younger generation and/or the general public?

I think social media is a great way to interact with people in nearby disciplines or in related lines of work. Many of the individuals I interact with on Twitter are involved in startups and other types of development jobs.  These folks are phenomenally talented but aren’t involved in the research community. I don’t go to the same conferences that they do, but I find it useful to keep track of what problems they are encountering. While this hasn’t happened yet, I’m hoping that this will lead to some interesting applications or tech transfer opportunities.

One idea that made it’s way into a grant proposal I worked on in terms of broader impact was sparked by a twitter exchange I had. Again, this really isn’t any different than getting ideas from talking to people at conferences, it just removes the physical and temporal co-location requirements.

5. Would you encourage mathematicians to use informal platforms, such as blogs, to share their research work and stimulate discussion and insights from readers, and if so, why?

See above. I’d encourage them to post things that they have abandoned along with their reasons why. I’ve seen many people start tackling problems in the same area and sometimes the ones that succeed manage to sidestep all of the issues that others ran into by making slightly different assumptions.  

I’d encourage people to write up their research informally on blogs.  This is usually how they end up presenting it, but everyone can’t always see the presentation. These informal introductions and understanding of the work are often crucial for inexperienced researchers to gain intuition about a problem, an approach, or an area.  Again, these aspects are usually removed from the paper and I see these platforms as a way to publish that content for others.

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2 Responses to Thoughts on Social Media usage in Science, Math, CS, etc.

  1. 1. It is probably worth mentioning that Facebook and YouTube are best used for personal and family matters.
    2. I would mention Wikipedia. If the two of us collaborated on a book or article there would be a chain of correspondence in email, debating issues, which only the two of us would see. Such debates are available for Wikipedia articles on the discussion page. It makes it a great resource for exploring the debates behind the science.

  2. dgleich says:

    Your point about Wikipedia is good, I need to figure out where Wikipedia sits!

    Actually, I think YouTube can be highly effective for recording lectures! My dissertation defense is up there and I occasionally run into people who have watched it. I agree that Facebook is better used for private matters, as is flickr, etc.

    LinkedIn is another one I should address too

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