A conversation with Professor Matt Fox about social media , podcasts, Twitter and the role of communication in science and research.

Will podcasts and social media replace academic publishing?


‘Will Podcasting and Social Media Replace Journals and Traditional Science Communication? No, but…’ is the perhaps controversially titled paper by Professor Matt Fox and his team at Boston University School for Public Health. And, if the answer is no, what role can they play in the future?


In this episode, we talk about the current state of academic publishing, the risks and opportunities presented by social networks for science and scientists, and how we can integrate digital outreach into scientific practice.


Listen to Matt on The Free Associations Podcast and Serious Epidemiology Podcast, or follow him on Twitter.


Original Article: doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwab172



This transcript is automatically generated.


00:00:11 Will

Hello, I’m Will. Welcome to ResearchPod.


00:00:15 Will

‘Will pod casting and social media replace journals and traditional science communication? No, but…’

That is the possibly provocative title of a paper by Doctor Matthew Fox and his team at Boston University School for Public Health and to peek behind the curtain of things here at ResearchPod.

As soon as I saw it, I just had to speak to Matt and find out more about what he thinks over the future for online research communications, what kind of opportunities and risks there are for engaging with professional and public audiences through social media, and to what extent the future really is digital.


00:00:53 Will

Matt, hello. Thanks very much for joining us. By way of introduction, could you maybe tell me, and everyone listening at home, a little bit about yourself, some of your professional and podcasting background?


00:01:06 Matt Fox

Yeah, so I’m Matt Fox. I’m a professor of epidemiology and global health. That is epidemiology, particularly focused on HIV and issues around improving access to, and outcomes from, HIV care in in South Africa and Sub Saharan Africa in general. But I also have a keen interest in epidemiology and epidemiologic methods.

And it was through that, you know, desire to work on better communicating both epidemiologic methods, but just epidemiology in general, which has become such a hot topic now that we’re in the coronavirus pandemic. That got me into podcasting and social media and trying to use those to communicate, what, you know, I think are really interesting topics but can sometimes be fairly complex.

And we try to break those down and make it simpler for people.


00:02:03 Will

And when we say social media, that’s a pretty big topic. What kind of channels, what networks are we talking about specifically here?


00:02:11 Matt Fox

Yeah, in terms of social media, it’s really, I’m really talking about Twitter, you know. I use Facebook for personal, but not for professional.

And so it really comes down to Twitter being the the main social media channel that I’m using and it’s become the go-to medium for communicating about the pandemic and therefore, you know, it’s the majority of where I spend my time.

I started off using Twitter well before the pandemic and was using it largely to communicate with the the rest of the epidemiology community.

But you know, once the pandemic took off, there became this interest in epidemiologists’ opinions on what to do about the pandemic, and so that sort of lead to trying to use the platform to try and counter some of the myths and disinformation that’s out there.


00:03:09 Will

And boy howdy, has there been plenty of both. Now my personal background is in science communication and digital media, and it feels like disinformation is at an all-time visibility peak. Whether that’s an all-time content peak, if there is more coming out rather than just more that’s being louder, I’m not so sure.


00:03:32 Matt Fox

In terms of intentional misinformation, and strategising around, you know, how to spread misinformation and disinformation, I would certainly agree with you. I think it is, because we haven’t had the platform and the technology to be able to spread it, but I mean there’s ample evidence that the the groups that are anti-vaccination have been intentionally using the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to sow distrust in all vaccines and have been very very strategic about using social media to to do that, so I would certainly agree with you. I think we’re at certainly at the all-time high in terms of intentional spread of misinformation.


00:04:24 Will

For the day to day perspective of an epidemiologist perhaps listening to this, I have been wondering, to what extent is the digital realm, those social media interactions, what people are facing in the clinic actually dealing with human beings rather than, you know, the faceless Twitter icons.


00:04:45 Matt Fox

Yeah, I think this is a really interesting thing because the more time you spend on social media, the more you can be convinced that everything you see on social media is representative of the larger world that we live in. And to a certain extent it certainly is, but I think we also a bit overestimate how much influence it has. You know, you can see one post that contains misinformation and you can be led to believe that you know everything out there is misinformation, that everyone is seeing it, and everyone is believing it, and that’s probably not true.

On the other hand, we certainly know that, you know, when healthcare providers are interacting with those in their care, they’re certainly encountering much more of the, ‘I heard this on, you know, I heard on Twitter, I saw it on Facebook’ type responses to attempts to give people good information around the vaccines.

Or, you know, social distancing, protecting yourself from COVID, and all those things, so it is definitely having an impact on actual behaviour. I just think we don’t know exactly how much yet.


00:06:04 Will

I remember seeing a statistic – this was a couple of years ago now, so it might not be as true as it was then – that only actually about 7% of the entire world is actually on Twitter. And that really helped to kind of ground my own personal use of social media, like this does not represent all of the world.


00:06:22 Matt Fox

I think there’s some truth to that. Of course, I do think that, you know, even if a person is not on Twitter, they are often hearing, you know, connecting with people who are getting information from social media. I don’t want to limit just to Twitter because Facebook has a probably an even larger role that’s playing in terms of spreading misinformation currently. So, I don’t think that the reach is only amongst those who are directly getting their information from the platform.

I think it’s radiating out from those who are on the platform to those who are not on the platform, but I certainly do agree that we probably think it’s having a bit more of an influence than it is, and it is definitely worth keeping that in mind.


00:07:13 Will

The paper that led me to you and your work in your podcast from the American Journal of Epidemiology was looking at whether social media and podcasting could replace journalist or traditional media, and if not, then what kind of role they could play. And to kind of cut through to the quick of it, there was the three key reasons for why an epidemiologist should be on social media, or be engaged.

And I wonder, if you could just tell the audience at home a little bit about the paper and the lessons from it.


00:07:42 Matt Fox

Yeah, so I’ve been working with a number of colleagues over the past few years, on trying to sort of be thoughtful about what we’re all doing on social media and whether or not we think, you know, social media is actively changing the way that people are communicating with colleagues and communicating with the general public.

And I encounter a lot of colleagues in the world of science, but in particular, in the world of epidemiology, who are still not on social media and are pretty sceptical of it because they think of social media as just a den of negativity and a place it is, you know, sort of full of cruelty, and why would you ever want to get involved in that?


And you know, of course there is, you know, there is absolutely true to that and we talk about it in this paper, the ways in which social media is has been used for harassment and particularly for minoritised communities and scientists from minoritised backgrounds too, are experiencing a lot of harassment .


00:08:53 Matt Fox

But at the same time, I think that failing to get involved in social media and engaging with the conversations is, you know, is really leaving some people behind because they don’t want it to get involved.

So, you know, social media is now where many of the conversations around the most current methodologic developments are going on within my field. But I suspect within most fields in scientific academia, beyond academia really, but, you know, within the scientific community.

For those of us who are in institutions that are smaller, that are not the very very large research institutions, getting access to those who are the leading scholars in the field you know, was typically a very difficult thing to do.

You really could only do that at academic conferences, or maybe you reach out by email and are lucky enough to get somebody’s attention, or maybe you write something and and somebody responds, sorted through the journal system, but that is all changing very rapidly and now a lot of these conversations are happening much faster, and they’re happening on social media, which means that you know if you are, let’s say you’re a student in a field and you’re not at one of these, you know, within my field, you know, sort of the top four or five institutions,


00:10:26 Matt Fox

You can now still access and understand the conversations and the type of discussions that are going on at those institutions, even from far away. And so I think what we’re doing with social media is, we are democratising that information. At the same time, we are also opening that up to a much broader set of views, and we’re opening it up to the public.

Not everything that we talk about within our field is is something that’s going to be of interest to the general public, but you know, often academics can get mired down in minutiae that probably don’t have a great impact on peoples lives.

And if, you know, epidemiology is really a social movement that is designed to improve health, then ultimately we need to be responsible to the general public, not just to ourselves. And so getting additional feedback from the general public, I think, you know, only helps us in making sure that what we’re doing is grounded in the real needs of what people are experiencing in their daily lives.


00:11:36 Will

And with that flat access within institutions, between institutions, and from public accessibility to those institutions that are those researchers, there is – coming back to something that we mentioned before – the balance of risk and reward that there are those opportunities, but there also possibly some risks of misinterpretation, wilful or otherwise.

I guess are there any cautions for aspiring science communicators or epidemiologists who are think about dipping their toe into the pool of social media, how to best kind of manage expectations around that?


00:12:11 Matt Fox

Yeah, it it’s such a great question. I mean, because many of us are quite used to communicating with our colleagues in a way that is fairly informal. And, you know, Twitter and social media kind of increases that. We are often making sort of jokes that when you know somebody or are perfectly fine because they know the spirit in which you are communicating, but can come off as quite harsh to anybody who is not familiar.

And certainly if you are using humour, which is so difficult to communicate, or sarcasm, which you know is, we can argue that there’s there’s very little benefit to being sarcastic or dismissive in social media because it always is going to lead to hurt feelings, even if it’s not the person you’re sort of directly being sarcastic to.

And then if you’re just sort of using it as a way to be dismissive about the way that things are being communicated, let’s say around COVID and the disinformation being spread, you know, all you end up is preaching to the choir in a sense, you sort of, you know, the people who are already convinced, you know, love to hear you make snarky comments about misinformation. But does it really help those who are really trying to sort out what is fact from fiction? I suspect it probably doesn’t, so I think you have to go into it thinking of everything that you post in the way that it is truly for public consumption, even though you may intend it to be a conversation within a select community of, you know, say, academics who may understand a lot of what you’re talking about.


00:13:50 Matt Fox

You just have to be very aware of the fact that you know the general public can and will read this, and so even though you may not want to communicate everything in a way that is specifically designed and targeted towards a lay audience, you have to be very aware that a lay audience may be paying attention, and may interpret things that you say in a way that it’s very different from the way you mean it.

I also think, you know, you have to be very careful in just sort of thinking through anything that you say online is probably going to be heard by different groups of people very differently, and therefore, you know, trying to be as clear in your communication as you possibly can should be part of the goal of any social media interaction.

That’s really difficult thing to do, of course, because you are very limited in Twitter on the character length that you can put into a tweet. You can tweet Twitter threads, but honestly, most people are only going to read the first few. And then, you know, let’s say you say something that is not quite what you meant. You could of course always go back and adjust what you say by clarifying later on.


00:15:02 Matt Fox

But often it’s too late at that point. People will hear the first thing you say, and if it gets you interpreted in a light that you didn’t mean it, or – I shouldn’t say interpreted, it probably was poorly communicated, if people heard it that way – the initial tweet is the one that people are going to see and remember, and they’re often never going to see your correction.

And you see this all the time. You see often people critiquing, let’s say those whose opinions on, let’s say you know, for example, masks at the beginning of the pandemic were in support of then government policies on not needing to mask, who then came back and very very clearly said I was wrong, I was wrong.

People don’t hear the ‘I was wrong’, what they hear was, ‘You were wrong in the beginning, and you never really took back that position’. So you do have to be very careful.

Science is something that tends to evolve over time when we’re in a situation like we’re in now, but you don’t really have that luxury to to change your opinion and have everybody hear it, so you do have to just be very careful about the way you communicate.


00:16:09 Will

But in terms of walking that line and reaching either underserved audiences, or people whose part in conversations could be taken combatatively. Instead of just dunking on them with a viral tweet, do you have any success stories or stand-out moments in the past couple of months, the last year and a half, on Twitter or through the podcast where you have surprised yourself, and maybe surprised the audience with how a message has been communicated well?


00:16:38 Matt Fox

It’s an interesting question because I think that often we don’t really know when we’re communicating well because the feedback often comes when we’re communicating poorly.

In some sense, what I think people do is they look at a message being, you know, liked a lot and shared a lot as a sign that they have communicated well.

But I think that’s actually probably a poor approach to trying to determine that, because often things that are getting liked or shared a lot are getting liked or shared just because people agree with the sentiment, not because it it communicated it in a way that was particularly effective. So you know, I think, it’s tough to share probably success stories. It’s much easier to identify the times when you know things went went poorly, because that’s when you get the the most feedback, you get the most pushback, and the most critique.


00:17:38 Matt Fox

I do think that when when something that you have spent a lot of time on, thinking through very clearly about how you want to communicate, gets to a fairly large audience. It is certainly gratifying in the sense that you know you are trying your best to get really good information to people. And, while you don’t know exactly what the impact is, you do know that it’s getting in front of a lot of eyeballs in ways that it wouldn’t if you just expressed this in a, you know, in an academic article or, you know, gave a talk somewhere.


It’s really reaching a much larger audience. So, I would say that, you know, the ways in which we typically focus on the sort of the Twitter metrics can be a pretty mixed bag, but you know it’s certainly an indication of of reach, even if it’s not an indication of of necessarily really good communication.


00:18:36 Will

And for any epidemiologist, listening to this who wanted to get involved, there’s lots of different ways you can measure something, and lots of different yardsticks for success.

For the ones who are reluctant to engage with social media for many good reasons, some of them not so good like the attitude of either ‘I’m too busy’ or you know, ‘I’m a senior lecturer at somewhere, I have comms teams for that, I have interns for that.’

Is there something that you would like to have acknowledged or something you would like to reach to those people and say ‘Here is why you should care,’ or how to build those investments into a communication strategy for a department or for a project.


00:19:16 Matt Fox

It’s a really important thing, because you’re right that you know. Certainly some people have communications teams that, you know, do a lot of the marketing of the research, but ultimately what we want to do is engaging in conversations with people because…

We know, public health 101, that just giving people information is not enough to change behaviour much of the time. You need to give people good information, but you also you need to help support them in making the decisions that ultimately will lead to better health and so it’s a process, it’s not a one-way street.

I think that the best thing that people can do is just to open up a Twitter account and start following people that they are interested in and with no commitment in anyway to to actually engage it. But that, what that does is allows you to see the kinds of communications that are going on and then make an informed decision as to whether or not you want to engage. You know, I think some people for them that will be enough to get them going, and to jump in.


For other people, you know, there will be a, certainly, they’ll look at the negativity that’s on social media and just say I don’t want to get involved in that, and that’s that’s perfectly fine, but at least then you have a really informed opinion about what the medium can do, when you look at the ways that other senior researchers and senior public officials are using the platform to engage with the larger community.

So, you know, I think it’s really part of the responsibility of being in public health is to communicate effectively and therefore there is no right now, no better way to do that than through social media.


00:21:14 Will

The title of the paper again, that led me to you was, ‘Will podcast in the social media replace journals and traditional science communication? No, but…’

The lingering question there, that ellipsis of what part they play in the future. I wondered if you had any ideas of, you know, either an idealised future or something that people should be wary off and try to avoid in their communication strategy.


00:21:34 Matt Fox

So, the traditional way that scientists communicate is through journal publications. It’s a form of currency amongst academics is getting your paper published in the very high impact journal. But there there is so much consternation right now within the scientific community around the failings of that academic journal system, in a number of different ways.


Partly in that it’s the ivory tower mentality of, ‘I put it in a journal and then it’s everybody else’s job to communicate it’ and you know, figure out what it means and how important it is, which I think is a fairly outdated approach. But on top of that, I think there’s also feeling that journals historically were seen as the arbiters of what is both important science and good science.


And I think, you know, the pandemic has taught us that that is definitely not always the case, and that there are a lot of failings with the current system. As several people have pointed out on social media, if you were designing a system for determining what is good science and then how to get it out to the academic and the lay community, the journal system that we have now is not what you would design today. It’s a legacy of history when, you know, the Internet didn’t exist and we didn’t have other ways to effectively communicate.


So if you were building it now, you wouldn’t build it this way. And I think that social media is having a strong influence on changing the way that journals are operating and helping determine whether the the current system that we have for journals is what we will have in the future.


00:23:20 Matt Fox

We were writing this in a journal, so we wanted to talk about the influence of journals and science communication.

And social media is also changing the way that we teach students. Academia is changing because of social media. There is much more access to information about how to teach better or also just, you know, information students can access on their own.

Do we think that the model where students come into a classroom get lectured to for an hour, and then go home and read reading after reading is the best approach, you know, do we want to think about listening to podcasts or watching online videos? Or a better way for students to access information than the traditional sort of lecture based format?


I think all of this is going to change in the future, and I think it’s going to be driven by conversations that happen on social media, because you know, again, the rapid post-publication review of journal articles is now happening on Twitter. You will get the really quick feedback on all of the most important and influential publications for coming out, through conversations on Twitter, and you’ll get them in a much more nuanced way than you will.


00:24:40 Matt Fox

If you wait for someone to write the letter to the editor, that maybe months down the road when you’ve already forgotten about the publication. So you know, I think we can be pretty certain that that social media is going to change academia in general over the next decade, exactly how, I think we don’t know for sure, but I think academia 10 years from now is going to look very different from the way that it does now, because of this much more free access to information and communication.


00:25:14 Will

Fingers crossed it’s not going the way that Twitter is going, and everything is either spam, or American politics.


00:25:21 Matt Fox

Let’s hope, let us hope that is not what it turns into!


00:25:25 Will

Well Matt, thank you so much for your time this morning. If people like what they’ve heard from you and want to hear more about your podcast in your research, what would be the best way for them to find you online or through any other means?


00:25:36 Matt Fox

Yes, so you can find me on Twitter at @ProfMattFox and I tend to tweet out a lot of things that we have going on. And I also have two different podcasts that you can look up too. Free Associations Podcast – you have to Google Free Associations Podcast in order to find it, but it’s a podcast that we do that is a a journal club podcast looking at kind of the most recent big health studies and we critique them and talk them through. And then I have a second podcast which is called Serious Epidemiology.

That’s one much more targeted towards epidemiologists and methods, but both are out there on the web and you can find either of them with a quick Google search.

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