Giving Psychological Science Away Online

Speaking of Science

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APS is dedicated to giving psychological science away. Science writer Jason Goldman offers advice for sharing psychological science online.

The most urgent problems of our world today are the problems we have made for ourselves. They have not been caused by some heedless or malicious inanimate Nature, nor have they been imposed on us as punishment by the will of God. They are human problems whose solutions will require us to change our behavior and our social institutions.”

So begins late APS William James Fellow George Miller’s oft-cited 1969 American Psychologist paper, “Psychology as a Means of Promoting Human Welfare.”
He continues, “Our responsibility is less to assume the role of experts and try to apply psychology ourselves than to give it away to the people who really need it — and that includes everyone.”

In many ways, the rapid evolution of the Internet and online social media has provided psychologists with a better platform for “giving away” psychology than ever before. In an average scientific conference or undergraduate classroom, a psychological scientist might be able to reach an audience of several hundred individuals. By writing about psychology for a print magazine such as Scientific American or Discover, that scientist might reach an audience several orders of magnitude larger. Still, a monthly distribution of over a million subscribers for a national print magazine barely approaches the monthly usage of online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

“More than half of Americans say they talk to people online more than they do in real life,” biology graduate student Christie Wilcox points out in a Biological Bulletin editorial, and in 2010 the Internet passed print newspapers as the number two source of news. (Television is still number one.) And here’s another impressive statistic Wilcox mentions: 48% of kids and teenagers find out about news through Facebook, and many check it in the morning on their smartphones and tablets before they even get out of bed.

The writing is on the (virtual) wall: If we want to give psychology away, we have to do it online. Many chapters in the newly published Science Writers’ Handbook will prove relevant to the psychological scientist who wants to communicate accessibly about science for a nonexpert audience.

Here are five reasons why getting online is more useful, more effective, and less of a time suck than you may realize.

Think Global, Act Local

Students are often reminded that they could make big changes in the world by starting in their own neighborhoods. It doesn’t take much effort to share a bit about psychology on Facebook, and you can start with your existing Facebook profile. If you’re like most other scientists, many of the folks you’re connected to on Facebook are not other scientists — they’re high school friends, family, members of other communities in which you may participate, and so on. In other words, you’re probably already connected online with people to whom you can “give psychology away.”

Online Water Cooler

With new journals cropping up all the time and more and more papers being published, it can be hard to just keep up with new findings outside of your own small niche. By following other psychologists in your field and related fields, you can keep your eye on what’s in the psychological zeitgeist. A good place to start would be “The 100+ most followed psychologists and neuroscientists on Twitter,” which can be found at www.bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-100-most-followed-psychologists-and.html. Once you’re comfortable, it’s time to chime in with your own thoughts in 140 characters or less. It’s especially important to share those comments with scientists in other fields. After all, psychology has suffered a bit from a damaged reputation among the sciences in the past few years. In many ways, it is of critical importance to “give psychology away,” even just to other scientists!

Meeting Students in Their Spaces

Like it or not, the undergraduates populating our lecture halls are digital natives, and the laptops are not going away anytime soon. So why not incorporate social media into the classroom? Each semester, University of Connecticut evolutionary biologist Margaret Rubega requires her students to be on Twitter (they can create a new account if they’d rather not use their own personal account) and to post anytime they observe an intriguing bit of bird behavior. Students can earn up to three points for each tweet by including specific kinds of information. By using the hashtag #birdclass, everyone can see what Rubega’s students are up to. Possibilities abound for adapting this idea for undergraduate psychology courses, and the idea can be modified to allow for online office hours, online discussions, and more.

Social Networking Is Still Networking

Not everyone loves going to conferences to find collaborators. Some are shy about networking or nervous about introducing themselves to senior investigators. Blogs and social media make it easy to connect with other scientists. Recently, marine scientist Karen James asked those of her Twitter followers who were active researchers what sorts of benefits they’d seen from blogging and social media usage (you can see the conversation at storify.com/kejames/scientists-how-has-social-media-helped-you). Typical responses were “discovering (and being discovered by) potential collaborators,” “invitations to give research seminars and other talks, or to chair/moderate conference sessions,” and “direct access to important people in science and government.” But the value of online networks expands beyond the sorts of things that fill a CV. One researcher said that her online network provided “an incredible amount of support and camaraderie, which has been especially helpful during my recent career transitions and a transatlantic, urban-to-rural move.” All it takes to start is to read and respond to a handful of tweets, Facebook updates, or Google+ posts each day. You can even do it on your smartphone.

Digging Deeper

If you want to be a bit more substantive than Facebook updates or tweets allow, you might consider blogging. Writing a high-quality blog post — even a short update of just 500 words — takes time. But content from blogs can have far-reaching impact. Writing in PLoS Biology, biologists Holly Bik and Miriam Goldstein point out that “blog content can be widely disseminated, linked via search engine terms, and provide an ‘expert’ information source that is accessible for years to come.” For the marine biology blog at which Bik and Goldstein are contributors, they say that “most users arrive at the blog via generalized search queries such as ‘deep sea’ and are directed to archived posts with informative content.”

Blogging also has immediate personal benefits. Throughout graduate school, I wrote one to two blog posts about psychology and cognitive science nearly every week. Consistent blogging helped me refine my persuasive writing and improve the structure of my arguments, an important set of skills for any scientist. It also helped me establish a writing routine. After writing 1,000–2,000 words each week for several years, hammering out a 10,000-word dissertation over the course of several months was a relative breeze.

Jason G. Goldman is an organizer of ScienceOnline Brain, which will take place in Los Angeles, July 18–19, 2014.

Observer Vol.27, No.3 March, 2014

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Comments

I find George Miller’s 1969 message as inspirational now as when I read it as an Oberlin undergraduate psychology major, and I am sympathetic with the thrust of your argument that online venues have underdeveloped potential for “giving away” psychology. The challenge is to use these online tools to convey with integrity the findings of psychological science in a clear, understandable fashion that has a high probability of being used wisely.

Throughout graduate school, I wrote one to two blog posts about psychology and cognitive science nearly every week. Consistent blogging helped me refine my persuasive writing and improve the structure of my arguments, an important set of skills for any scientist. It also helped me

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