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Should #SciTwitter Migrate Elsewhere?

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From tweets to toots – the online community #SciTwitter is considering a move from Twitter to an alternative online platform. In this article, Technology Networks explores how Twitter has supported science communication and outreach over recent years and the motivations for migration. We also ask: where are you heading, #SciTwitter?

The impact of #SciTwitter

Over recent years, Twitter has become one of the most popular social media platforms in the world with an estimated ~396.5 million global users*. It has proven to be a productive outlet for the scientific community in particular –  the hashtag #SciTwitter was coined several years ago to reflect the subgroup of users that work within and discuss science on the site.


The publication of scientific research has followed a rigid infrastructure for many decades and can be notoriously challenging. Alongside initiatives such as pre-print servers and open-access journals, the arrival of #SciTwitter provided another avenue for researchers to communicate their work more openly. As its utility became increasingly recognized, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) published an article outlining “Ten Simple Rules for Getting Started on Twitter as a Scientist” stating, “Twitter is strongly recommended for anyone who needs to develop themselves in academia, to learn and to teach, to develop and tighten bonds with researchers overseas and to join the #AcademicTwitter community.”


What is Open Science?

Open Science is an umbrella term that “refers to the movement to make scientific research, data and their dissemination available to any member of an inquiring society,” as described by the ORION project.


“The Twitter model has been enormously helpful for me to share my work widely and rapidly, to get very useful feedback and discussion about my work and for me to discover the work of others that I would not have seen otherwise,” says Professor Brian Nosek, social-cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia, co-founder and director of the Center for Open Science.


Beyond communicating research, Twitter has also enabled researchers from across the globe to connect, form new friendships and even discover job opportunities. Previously, this might have only been possible through attending scientific conferences, which are not always accessible or affordable, particularly for early-career researchers. “Among scientists, it [#SciTwitter] has become one of the primary tools to announce new research findings, job openings and upcoming conferences. As a tool of public outreach, the platform has enabled direct dialogue with the public, particularly on crucial topics such as COVID-19 or climate change,” says Dr. David Brückner, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Science and Technology in Austria who became involved in #SciTwitter during his PhD studies.


However, the future of #SciTwitter looks increasingly uncertain right now, as calls for its “migration” to an alternative online platform increase.

Twitter becomes a privately owned company  

The potential migration of #SciTwitter has been largely prompted by the billionaire Elon Musk’s recent purchase of Twitter, making it a privately held company. Musk had been negotiating a deal to purchase the social media platform for several months, which finally closed on October 27. It’s unclear how he will navigate the Twitter model going forward as the sole director of the company, but concerns are already mounting as to the impact the deal and its proposed rules regarding moderation might have on free speech.


“In my observation, there is a good deal of anxiety among Twitter users, especially #SciTwitter, about the changes that Elon Musk will make, particularly those that are disruptive to the best parts of Twitter for scholarly discourse and sharing. I think the scholarly community is particularly sensitive to changes to moderation standards because many have experienced Twitter when it was more of a “free-for-all,” and I don't perceive an appetite to return to that,” says Nosek.


According to Brückner, the fact that Musk has purchased the platform isn’t the sole motivation for considering a migration – rather, it’s a realization that anyone can seemingly buy it and change the rules, should they have the funds.


Aside from whether the takeover proves to be a “good” or a “bad” move, Twitter users ultimately have even less control over the platform. Rules that dictate how #SciTwitter and other users communicate can be implemented by one (notoriously impulsive) individual. In Brückner’s opinion, this structure isn’t too dissimilar to that of the publishing industry: “Much of academic publishing is by for-profit companies that primarily act in their own interest, rather than the interest of the scientific community. In publishing, community-based non-profits such as the preprint servers arXiv, bioRxiv or the journal eLife have been key drivers of positive change. Since #SciTwitter has become such an integral tool of our work, we should consider if there are possibilities for community-based open-source alternatives,” he says.

Where to, #SciTwitter?

In Nosek’s opinion, the open-source software Mastodon seems to be the “hot ticket.” He’s not alone – a quick search of #Mastodon on Twitter reveals an overwhelming number of threads outlining #SciTwitter members’ plans to migrate there. Mastodon’s self-reported metrics suggest that monthly active users are up 53% to 609k.

What is Mastodon? How does it differ from the Twitter model?

Mastodon gGmbH is a non-profit Germany company launched by Eugen Rochko in 2016 in response to his dissatisfaction with the Twitter platform.


“The key difference is that Mastodon is not run on a single server owned by a company, but it allows you to connect to a ‘federation’ of independent servers (called the Fediverse),” says Brückner. If you join Mastodon, the account is launched on one of these servers, but you can still follow and interact with accounts across the Fediverse.


For instance, a research organization might join Mastodon and establish their own server for all official staff accounts. If you have an account on a “general purpose” server outside of the organization, you can still follow, reshare and comment on its posts. On Mastodon, the equivalent of tweeting is called “tooting”. “I find this a much more attractive vision than all of our accounts being in the hand of a single company,” adds Brückner.


Nosek is running his own “Mastodon experiment” throughout the month of November: “My personal professional interest is in culture change and aligning values and behavior. Changing culture is really hard when the benefits to individuals changing their behavior only accrue when others also change their behavior,” he says. This is what’s known as a “collective action problem”, and the extensive desire across #SciTwitter to find an alternative platform is a perfect example; individuals can migrate, but, if nobody else is there, the move becomes pointless.


Nosek’s experiment aims to lower the risk to individuals moving to a new platform, and to increase the visibility of others that have already made the move. For the month of November, #SciTwitter users are asked to:

  • Post all new content on Mastodon and post links to that new content on Twitter
  • Post no content on Twitter other than those links and discussions about moving to Mastodon
  • Do no retweeting or replying on Twitter, other than content regarding the move to Mastodon


“If people adopt these behaviors, then it will become very visible on Twitter that people have moved and are interacting on Mastodon, and this will increase the perceived benefits of moving oneself. Also, with just a one-month commitment, if Mastodon stinks or the experiment doesn't work, then everyone can return to the status quo,” Nosek explains.


Let’s see what the end of November brings.

Options beyond “tooting”?

So that’s Mastodon. What other options are there? For journalistic due diligence, I asked #SciTwitter  whether there are any other platforms that they are considering for migration. My Tweet pretty much fell on deaf ears. Did everyone leave already?  


Or maybe, right now at least, there isn’t another alternative. The single response I received came from Dr. Yotam Ophir, assistant professor of communication at the University of Buffalo, who replied: “I think the silence here is indicative of the answer. We simply don't know.”


When I propose the same question directly to Nosek, he says that there are many, but “Mastodon is, at least for the moment, the hot ticket.” 

Priorities for an online scientific community

With many uncertainties regarding the future of #SciTwitter right now, the key question is perhaps: is there an unmet need in science that the platform has served, which must continue?


“I think key priorities should be to enliven and broaden the scientific discourse beyond our traditional forums of articles in journals and conferences. To be successful, such a community should promote diversity and inclusion, making sure that everyone feels welcome,” says Brückner. He hopes that, going forward, the online scientific community will continue to grow, and that there will be even deeper and more productive scientific exchanges. Mastodon’s larger character limit (500, vs Twitter’s 280) could enable this.


“It would also be cool to integrate this network more deeply with some of the other developments that have made science more open in the last years, such as preprints and preprint-reviews, where researchers review and comment on preliminary research findings that have not yet been published in a journal,” Brückner adds.


Nosek isn’t sure that #SciTwitter must have an alternative model: “But, if an open source, decentralized service can meet the same need, then I think that is a very healthy thing for social media as a public service,” he says. His organization, the Center for Open Science, builds and maintains exclusively open-source tools and services for supporting scholarly research, including the Open Science Framework.


Are you considering a #SciTwitter migration? Technology Networks would love to hear your thoughts.

 

“Social media is like the local pub. The food quality is irrelevant. As long as the people I want to talk to and hear from are there, I'm happy,” – Nosek.

 

 *As of January 2022.

Meet the Author
Molly Campbell
Molly Campbell
Senior Science Writer
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