Ethics part 1: Social media ethics for scientists – setting a new standard

Researchers use social media to communicate, network with others, and get ideas. In the coming weeks I will sketch out my model for doing this in a healthy, meaningful and decent way

People talk about getting sucked into the academic rat race.

Time to do some heavy thinking

It is as if university institutions are set up to foster competition between you and your fellow researchers in terms of papers published, grants given, and citations counted.

But there is one type of academic competition that is – as I see it – a dead end. It is a competition that you are never going to win. And in the long term, winning may actually be losing.

It is the competition between you and your fellow academics on social media. As someone who helps academics, I recognize it in myself also. I am embarrassed about it, and I fight it: The compulsive returning to the LinkedIn app to see if my post got another ‘like’. The clicking to see how my comment lifted the view count got on X. The hidden satisfaction in seeing my new Bluesky account follower numbers grow.

You can just opt out of it

The good thing is. You can just opt out of it.  Even better: You can use social media to make the other competitions in academia more meaningful also.

And I have now made it my mission to design my workshops around doing just that. Helping scientists use social media for networking and getting ideas, but in a sustainable and ethical way.

I will admit to sometimes being a part of the problem. Institutions order my social media workshops because their scientists want to increase their reach. And the workshops do just that.

Turn for the worse

A few years ago, I even inadvertently tapped into this (unhealthy) competition when I set up my TwiLi Index which ranked Nordic scientists on their LinkedIn and X (formerly Twitter) following numbers and centrality.

It started off as a bit of fun. And most of the time it was (and is) — indeed – fun.

I had made the index to do a good thing. It was, and is, an experiment to help otherwise marginalized scientists

The TwiLi Index also had a good purpose. It gave visibility to researchers, often international or junior, who had huge impact but who were not visible in a traditional Nordic media space that all too often focused on their own celebrity local-language speaking senior scientists.

But each time I released the TwiLi index I was swamped with emails and messages from people who wanted to boost their own score.  Worse: Some of the emails were from people who denigrated specific other researchers, who they put down and wanted me to relegate.

It was not a pretty sight.

New model

The TwiLi index implicitly, though not explicitly, seemed to assess scientists’ relative status and the centrality of their research, not just their success on social media.

I had made the index to do a good thing. It was, and is, an experiment to help otherwise marginalized scientists. But the TwiLi Index also draws people into an unhealthy competition, where the premise is that higher numbers are better numbers.

This, and the hundreds of conversations I have had with scientists at my workshops, has got me thinking about developing a model for social media use that takes on a more mindful and ethical approach.

Based on my TwiLi Index and workshops, I already had a tripartite model for the three basic functions of social media for scientists: Communication, Networking and Ideation.

How can scientists exploit social media without letting social media exploit them?

But in my new model, each of these functions have corresponding self-care and ethical dimensions.

In the following series that I will post over the coming weeks I want to unfold my thinking on this.

Feedback appreciated!

My second blog post is about the basic functions of social media for scientists and unfolds the tripartite model. Scientists use social media for a reason: It helps them communicate, network with others, and get inspired.

My third blog post will be about the self-care approach to scientists’ social media use. How can scientists exploit social media without letting social media exploit them?

My final blog post will take on ethical obligations. What are the ethical grounds for social media use as a scientist? How can we use social media as a power for the good, and without harming others?

I hope you will read and reflect with me! And I appreciate any comments or thoughts!

Does your department, faculty or university need to boost the international impact and career of your researchers? Here is more about my courses in social media for researchers. See other Mike Young Academy services here.

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