Twitter vs blogs and science advertising vs discussion

I read and write a lot of science outside the traditional medium of papers. Most often on blogs, twitter, and Reddit. And these alternative media are colliding more and more with the ‘mainstream media’ of academic publishing. A particularly visible trend has been the twitter paper thread: a collection of tweets that advertise a new paper and summarize its results. I’ve even written such a thread (5-6 March) for my recent paper on how to use cstheory to think about evolution.

Recently, David Basanta stumbled across an old (19 March) twitter thread by Dan Quintana for why people should use such twitter threads, instead of blog posts, to announce their papers. Given my passion for blogging, I think that David expected me to defend blogs against this assault. But instead of siding with David, I sided with Dan Quintana.

If you are going to be ‘announcing’ a paper via a thread then I think you should use a twitter thread, not a blog. At least, that is what I will try to stick to on TheEGG.

Yesterday, David wrote a blog post to elaborate on his position. So I thought that I would follow suit and write one to elaborate mine. Unlike David’s blog, TheEGG has comments — so I encourage you, dear reader, to use those to disagree with me.

First, it might be useful to learn more about how the best of these twitter threads are written. For this, Lynn Chiu has a nice post — that reads more like a twitter thread itself — on why she loves reading twitter threads on papers. Her ten features of a good paper thread are:

  1. Give a glimpse of the emotions that motivated the paper.
  2. Give a more realistic picture of how scholarly reasoning works.
  3. Admit failures and show mistakes
  4. Embrace ignorance as part of the scientific process.
  5. Walk us through the paper’s ‘winning strategy’.
  6. Give credit by explicitly highlighting the people that did the work.
  7. Walk us through the paper without compromising rigour, dumbing down, or resorting to hyperbole.
  8. Use plain language and avoid unnecessary jargon.
  9. Give realistic rather than hyperbolic implications.
  10. Link to the original paper (and other sources).

Lynn Chiu’s reason for highlighting these features is rather subversive and very exciting to me. These 10 points show good scientific method — something that standard academic publishing has become too stifling to allow. For her, they embody Stuart Firestein’s philosophy of ignorance and failure as the engines of sciences. Mainstream publishing and the culture around it is not capable of reflecting these important drivers of science so we have to turn to new media like twitter.

This is something that sits very well with my own views of failure and falsehood as primary and capital-T Truth as stifling. And why I like to develop many of my ideas on the blog. Why I use the blog as a discussion platform that is not possible through papers, and not as an extension or advertisement for papers. Why I think of the blog as a tool to do science rather than share science.

But this is not how many people read Lynn Chiu’s 10 points.

Instead, many seem to have read it as a how-to guide for science communication. Or, even more sinister, as a way to optimize our alt-metrics and advertise for our papers. A way to do free marketing work for scientific publishers. If we already write, review, curate, and edit for free — why not also do our own free marketing? After all, this might be that rain dance that gives us that slight edge in an insecure academic market.

And if we come at paper ‘advertising’ from this perspective then why not? Let’s advertise on both twitter and blogs. Why not throw in Reddit? Let’s optimize our conversion rate and eyeballs reached. Let’s completely lose sight of Lynn Chiu’s radical message and instead along with being good scientists become great marketers in mixed media. Write our papers in one voice, our blogs in a second, and our twitters in the vulnerable voice of a parasocial relationship with our adoring followers.

I don’t want to accuse David of embracing the above view. David has an earnest commitment to science communication that is driven by a passion for sharing the adventure of science. As far as I know David, I know that he is not driven by these careerist calculations.

But sometimes I am.

And I don’t think I am alone.

I see lots of people doing ‘science communication’ just because we think it will be that extra edge that makes our paper noticed in the information overload. That one tick that will land us the next step in an extremely shaky career ladder.

This perspective tends to treat ‘the public’ and other scientists as consumers. Maybe semi-active ones that can retweet, share and like. But still, an ‘other’ that we try to trick with nice rhetorical flourish (“be vulnerable and tell a good story”) into appreciating our work.

From this perspective, advertising a paper feels like a way to talk at my audience. Rather than a way to listen.

And when I fall into this cynical perspective, I feel like I am not doing good. Like I am serving the interests of myself or my class above those of the people.

And I don’t want to do this.

So this is why I was opposed to using blogs for paper advertising in my twitter discussion with David.

On TheEGG, I feel like I am still ‘doing science in the open’. I feel like I am using the process of writing for this blog as a way to develop new ideas. I feel like the feedback I get from readers (either directly through the blog comments or indirectly through popularity and discussions elsewhere) filters into my research.

Of course, given that the research I do often ends up in papers, there is a lot of content overlap between what I write here and what I write in more mainstream academic venues. And I will eagerly reference or link to my published work if it is relevant. But I try not to write here just for the sake of promoting my more careerist objectives. I try to write for TheEGG for the sake of TheEGG. And for the sake of developing ideas.

As such, I don’t want to use my blogging to advertise my papers.

I also want to encourage more bloggers to follow a similar path. I want other scientists to view blogging as not subordinate to — or worse yet, a distraction from — mainstream publishing, but as a legitimate — and often more effective — means of discussion and development of science. Hence, I want others to also prioritize discussion over advertising.

That said, no matter how heretical my views may seem at times, I’m still a professional academic. I still take pride in a paper that has finally ‘made it past the finish line’. And I still want to share that excitement with my friends and colleagues. So I will continue to tweet about papers and even make the occasional thread.

In this regard, I liked a particular point that Dan Quintana raised in his argument for twitter threads (over blog posts):

By dividing a paper into a series of 280 character bite-sized ideas, we can test which specific points in our work resonate with people the most. This can be a way to listen to the public. An extra (even if minor) line of evidence for determining which future directions to pursue. If a particular point draws the most likes/retweets/comments in a thread then maybe that is a point that is worth elaborating on in the future.

In practice, this is a hard signal to interpret. At least in the case of tweets like mine that only generate a modest amount of engagement.

But hard is better than impossible. Such fine-grained division is not possible with blogs.

What about the points that David makes in favor of blogs? His four advantages of blogs are:

  1. Web access is more wide spread than twitter.
  2. Blog posts are less transient than twitter threads.
  3. Blogs are easier to find, edit, cite, and link to from another webpage.
  4. Blog content is not at the mercy of a single corporation.

I am not convinced.

Just because web access is more widespread than twitter, doesn’t mean that a blog post is read more than a tweet. In the case of TheEGG, it might be the case that the blog has a bigger following than my twitter. But there are plenty of tweeps who have much large following on twitter than their blogs. For example, I would be surprised if David gets more readers with his blog than his twitter, but he can correct me. And for engagement, I think it is even more biased towards twitter. Even on TheEGG, more feedback comes through twitter than direct comments on the blog (and even more feedback is on Reddit). Finally, to read a twitter thread, one doesn’t need an account and can follow any link to the thread as they would with a blog post.

Twitter does suffer from searchability issues. But the transience disadvantage seems exaggerated. Again, picking on David as an example: his blog has migrated through several platforms and urls in the past years. I think that his twitter account has been the same.

More generally, there are many dead blogs on the internet. Many from people who continue to be active on other forms of social media.

It is true that blogs are easier to cite, especially in an academic setting. So I do think new ideas should be developed or at least fleshed-out on blogs. But it will be a great problem to have when academics are thinking about how to cite blogs vs. twitter. Right now, it seems that most simply don’t cite either. Even if one was directly responsible for their ideas.

Finally, the monoculture and the corporation. As I’ve writen before, I think that software monoculture is a huge problem. It is a big issue to persistence and robustness of communication systems. But I don’t think advertisement threads need to be all that persistent. For example, I was very active on G+ and I am sad to see it go. I wrote posts there that are much more involved than any tweet I’ve written. But I seldom feel like I’ve missed much by their disappearance.

As for papers specifically: I think that we greatly over-estimate their half-life. There are a few papers that we read decades later, but I doubt that most papers are read by more people than their authors, reviewers, and editor. And even then not always completely by all. It makes sense to identify and preserve exceptional work, but trying to preserve everything seems about as useful as the Library of Babel. This goes double for the advertisements of those papers.

In the end, though, David closing points are important: the more the merrier. For example, just to get David’s attention I will have to tweet this blog post. More seriously: good science communication and discussion is possible in any medium. Why even focus on just twitter and blogs? There are also podcasts, videos, pub chats, and reading groups.

What matters is not so much the medium of our engagement. But that we are after earnest communication and discussion. We need to aim at the levels of papers, blogs, and tweets to not promote our accomplishments, or advertise for our results but to open dialogues. If papers are failing us in fostering discussion then we should embrace Lynn Chiu’s radical message and turn to twitter threads, or blogs, or op-eds, or podcasts, or preprints. Or reform the culture of academic publishing.

Don’t advertise your paper with a blog post. Don’t advertise your paper with a tweet. Don’t advertise your paper. Instead, open your work for discussion. And listen.

About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and Department of Translational Hematology & Oncology Research at Cleveland Clinic, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My mind is drawn to evolutionary dynamics, theoretical computer science, mathematical oncology, computational learning theory, and philosophy of science. Previously I was at the Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, and the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University. In a past life, I worried about quantum queries at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at University of Waterloo and as a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at National University of Singapore. Meander with me on Google+ and Twitter.

3 Responses to Twitter vs blogs and science advertising vs discussion

  1. Artem, as usual your posts give more thought to the topic than mine so I won’t even try to address its entirety but I will say that these twitter threads that motivated us both are, to me, not about self-promotion.
    Scientific papers play a very important role but they are usually not the most exciting vehicle for discussion. When people discuss their own papers on twitter threads and blogs I don’t see that as a blatant exercise of self-promotion but as a way to use the published paper to produce a more lively narrative. One could even produce a variety of blog posts to talk about different results or aspects of said paper. We write papers to communicate something we found, a blog post or a twitter thread is one way to enhance that communication and maybe the problem is that I don’t see one (blogs) to be that different than the other (twitter) for that purpose.

  2. Now…going to other more specific points.
    Yes, my post didn’t initially allow for comments, it does now and also I have added a link to this post. Isn’t it nice you can edit posts in ways you cannot with tweets?
    Talking about permanence: you are right and my blog has been in Blogger (until I got tired of Google), WordPress and, more recently, Square Space. But to me this is a huge strength rather than a weakness. I own my own domain and WordPress was happy importing my Blogger posts in the same way that Square Space was happy using my WordPress ones. I might change platforms as much (or as little as is your case) as I want and it doesn’t matter to anybody else.

  3. Pingback: Blogging community of computational and mathematical oncologists | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

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