Illuminating optogenetics and the role of researchers on social media.

Scientist using Twitter on his mobile phone in the lab.

Should scientists and science communicators use Twitter? That’s the question researchers at UBC’s National Core for Neuroethics and the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health answered by way of an investigation into the online conversation around optogenetics. Their paper, published today in Neuroethics, shines a light on the way academics are using social media to communciate their research.

First discovered in 2005, optogenetics is a process by which researchers use light to target or control neurons which have been genetically altered to be light-sensitive. Optogenetics is an exciting tool for scientists, as the ability to stimulate or silence specific neurons without damaging them offers opportunities for gene therapy, brain mapping, disease treatment and more. It’s also controversial in some circles, due to the ethical implications of bioengineering and the human brain.

Under the leadership of Dr. Julie Robillard, the team looked at the way optogenetics has been discussed online, specifically via Twitter. The researchers analyzed a sample of 1000 distinct tweets mentioning “optogenetics” over a one-year period and found that the conversation was dominated by academic researchers, often with accompanying links to third-party news sites or peer-reviewed journals.

“What this shows,” says Dr. Robillard, “is that on Twitter, scientists have been owning the narrative around their own research in this area. This is a great time for neuroscience communication, specifically, with social media democratizing the way researchers connect and share their findings.”

“As scientists, we are often concerned about the way that our research results are taken out of context, or over-simplified or hyped,” Dr. Robillard explains.

“Our findings show that discussion on optogenetics – itself an occasionally controversial topic – was fairly neutral, likely because of the number of neuroscientists taking part in the discussion. In this way, our results are positive: we’re able to show that by having researchers involved in the discussion around their own research, we are able to better protect our findings and mitigate some of the misinterpretation and sensationalism that can occur when researchers are not involved in the conversation.”

Dr. Robillard’s team is hopeful that increased representation of scientists and science communicators on social media will lead to more responsible, nuanced reporting of research discoveries in traditional media and online.

“Social media can be a great tool for disseminating scientific knowledge, especially when the researchers themselves are engaged,” says Dr. Robillard. “Our data support the need for scientists to be involved in communicating their research, and to be active participants in neuroscience discussions online.”

“I spend maybe five, ten minutes most days – but not every day – checking in on social media,” Dr. Robillard says. “By contrast, I’m easily spending an hour or two every day on email. Social media is proving to be a low-investment, high-reward platform for academics, and a great way to connect with and stay connected to others in your field and beyond.”