Academic Tweets

Almost four years ago, I did tweet, for the very first time of my life:

The goal was to mention a post on my blog (on optimal control). 15,000 tweets later, I wanted to get back on my experience on Twitter, trying to explain why I tweet, and why academics have some kind of legitimacy to be on Twitter (from my understanding of the goal of such a platform) and they should use it by having a Twitter account.

  • How Twitter works?

I guess I should explain what Twitter is, in case some readers do not know it. “Trying to explain Twitter to the non-user has become something like the tech world’s Arthurian challenge, a seemingly impossible task that no-one is able to fully complete” as explained in Theorizing Twitter: Narratives and Identity. But let me try. Rules on Twitter are simple,

  1. you need to create an account, on http://twitter.com/. You have 160 characters for a short bio, and you can use an avatar
  2. then you can starting tweeting, i.e. posting online messages with 140 characters
  3. you can also be passive, and simply follow some discussions… you can type something in the search window, and then you will see all the tweets containing that word (or that sentence), like why do people tweetIt is also possible to follow some hastags (following the symbol) such as , or some people (following the @ symbol) such as @freakonometrics (that’s me).
  4. if you like my tweets (posted under the name @freakonometrics), you can follow me, and I will appear in your so-called TL (or timeline). You will become my follower (of course, if I find your tweets interesting, I might follow you back).
  5. you can also include a picture (one, only). Since a link will be mentioned in your tweet (automatically generated by Twitter), you will have less than 140 characters to tweet.
  6. you can add html links, that will be shortern by Twitter.
  7. if you include a link on a video (say on http://vimeo.com/) or a song (say on https://soundcloud.com/), then, the object will appear directly in the tweet: followers will see the movie, not only the tweet with a link, see e.g.

Then, there are (almost official) codes

  1. you can retweet a tweet, which means forwarding another user’s tweet to all of your followers. RTs are not endorsement (neither are tweets actually)… You can use the retweet button, or use the old fashion RT (for re-tweet) or MT (for modified tweet) if you had to shorten a tweet. This is important to mention how you get some information in case you want to share it with you followers (it is called a mention, and it is like using a reference in a research paper). Another way of acknowledging the account who originally shared the content being tweeted is to HT the account (hat tip)
  2. you can reply to a tweet using the reply button. If you reply to one of my tweets, your tweet will start with @freakonometrics and only your followers also following me will see it in their tweet list. If you want to share the answer with everyone, the tweet should start with a dot, .@freakonometrics. It is also possible to send direct (private) messages… It is also possible to poke another account if you want to make sure that someone reads your tweet.
  3. it is possible to favorite a tweet, by clicking the yellow star next to the message. If a lot of the people I follow favorite a tweet, it will be more likely to appear in the discover window, even if I do not follow that account. It might also be interesting to favorite tweets since they can appear in some widgets you have on your blog. Keep in mind that some tweets are promoted, meaning that some company pay to have more exposure… promote and favorite are quite different…
  4. there are some strange customs, such as the #FF for follow Friday. On Friday, you can share usernames of your favorite twitterers, the accounts you find interesting. I am not a social person, so I do not use that, and I do not know how to react when someone #FF me (usually I simply favorite, which is a simple way to say thank you without tweeting a stupid “thanks“)
  5. because of the 140 character constraint, a lot of strange words can be used on Twitter, such as “OH” which most often means “overheard“… just go on google to find more…

and there are more unofficial codes (here, it will be rather subjective, so comments are opened if you want to criticize)

  1. when someone RT, MT or HT one of your tweets, it is common to favorite the tweet. Maybe common is not appropriate here : it is something people with a lot of followers did to me a few years ago, which helped me, somehow, to get more popular, and I also try to do it.
  2. do not steal tweets: you should always mention the account that originally shared the content. From an ethical point of view, that’s an obvious statement. But from a technical point of view, with the 140 character rule, it can be complex. I mean, if you want to add “HT @freakonometrics” you have only 120 characters left, so either you shorten the tweet, or you keep the tweet as it was and you tweet right after something like “previous tweet, HT @freakonometrics
  3. it is possible to delete a Tweet. I do not know if there are rules here, because I’ve seen a lot of tweets with invalid urls, or big typos… I do delete some tweets. My rules are : (1) if I see a typo (or a problem with the url), I have the right to correct it, so I can write a new tweet, an delete the previous one; (2) if  a tweet arouses controversy (and if it was not the goal, say that with 140 characters, I got misunderstood), then I delete the tweet: I am not on Twitter to argue, only to share some contents (we’ll get back on that point later on).

See http://ryan.cordells.us/s13dh/, or An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists, for some advice on how to start  tweeting. So now that we’ve seen how Twitter works, how can we use it? As academics.

  • Are Academics on Twitter ?

Only « one in forty scholars are active on Twitter » as estimated in Priem et al. in 2011. And let’s face it honestly : academics are mainly skeptical about Twitter. For most of them, it’s for their kids, or perhaps for graduate students (if they have some ideas about what Twitter is). But not researchers. I follow (and am followed) by a lot of graduate students, PhD’s or postdocs, and a few more senior researchers. Most of those senior, prominent scientists, share extremely interesting information! I do not discuss the quality here, simply the fact that, indeed, not everyone is willing to go on Twitter. And be active.

But if not everyone is on Twitter, important people are. At least, in Economics. In January, I wanted to go to the conference of the American Economic Association, in Philadelphia, but I could not do it. That’s where the job market for PhD students in Economics took place. But it was extremely active on Twitter (you got updates following frequently the #ASSA2014 hashtag). From my perspective (maybe also the people I follow), it looked like everyone there was on Twitter during that (major) event.

  • Twitter as a Bookmark

I do spend a lot of time online, reading articles, for work, for fun, and sometimes, I’d like to keep tracks of those articles, or posts on blogs, or articles on http://arxiv.org/, etc. The first motivation to use Twitter is because I need bookmarks. With Twitter, those bookmarks are public. It does not mean that I endorse what I read, it should be understood as « I found that interesting, and I want to bookmark it, to find it, someday ». A few years ago, it was difficult to get back old tweets, like those I posted in 2010 or 2011, so I decided to start my Somewhere Else chronicle on this blog: I simply post all the tweets I wrote, to mention readings worth reading, outside my blog, somewhere else. Like that one:

It is clearly not perfect. I got a lot of tweets with questions following that tweet (but I did not answer them, I shared the graph, I did not create it). The point was « that seems to be interesting, and I’d be glad to find it if someday I want to spend more time on linguistic issues ».

As most academics, I do read a lot. And one of our duties is to share information… This was mentioned in Priem and Costello (2010), « the professional impact of Twitter may be particularly pronounced for scholars given that sharing information is a central component of their work » (see also Letierce et al (2010)). They estimated that 30% tweets sent by academics contains a hyperlink to a peer-reviewed resource (usually a pdf file of a research paper). And it is not necessarily a paper published online 24 hours ago : it can also be a paper rediscovered accidentally, or a technical report written a few decades ago that has just been scanned. @coulmont went back on a « strange experience » (as he defined it) a few months ago, when I (re)discovered a post published on his blog almost one year before, tweeted it, and then a buzz started on that old post. At least, that’s what he told me, we’ll never know for sure if this was because of me, or not (I doubt it actually, there were a lot of good reasons to rediscover that post).

Traditionally, academic visibility is measured using citations, meaning that some work has been accepted by (so called) peers, in the scientific community. Academics need to write to have an impact. But a lot of time is spent on reading. This reading activity is missed by standard citation counts (unless you publish a review, for instance).  On Twitter, you can comment, even (briefly) discuss a publication, some tricks on computer codes, share graphical visualization, etc. It is not like posting an anonymous comment on some scientific blog (actually, several blogs do not have open comments any more). On Twitter, there is some kind of credibility, and not only from the academic resume : people know you and follow you. According to Scott Wagers, « good content is propagated rapidly, bad content is not ». Of course, it is not that simple. There is a time for tweeting, clearly. If you tweet when someone with a lot of followers, then things might grow exponentially fast, and within a few hours, a tweet can be RTd a dozen, a hundred, a thousand times (we’ll get back on the viral effect of Twitter at the end of this post).

  • Live-Tweet in Conferences

Another popular use among academics is to use Twitter for live-tweets, see e.g. How People are using Twitter during conference or the interesting “who is going to read 12,000 tweets?!“. But as mentioned on a lot of blogs, one should be careful about live-tweeting. As recalled in Live-tweeting at academic conferences, « with great power comes great responsibility ». Live tweeting is supposed to be fun, but stay polite, and respectful. And use quotation marks. Getting back on the so-called Twittergate (see An Idea is a Dangerous Thing to Quarantine #twittergate), Aaron Bady, used that interesting image, about Twitter within the academic community « I conjured up the image of an appropriate cantankerous old professor yelling at a bunch of punk tweeters to get off his lawn, like Clint Eastwood in Gran Twittarino ».

Now, to be honest, I have been involved in some live-tweet only once, while I was giving a talk, at the World Social Science Forum, a few months ago

But I usually do not live-tweet, I do not feel comfortable with it (I prefer to take notes in my book, even if I might also write a post on my blog later on, but I always ask the speaker if I can quote what he or she said). « Some worried that having someone tweet their insights before they publish might increase the likelihood that they will be scooped by a colleague — although others regarded that notion as slightly paranoid » as mentioned in the Academic Twitterazzi. « The debate over live tweeting at conferences is, in many ways, about control and access: who controls conference space, presentation content, or access to knowledge? » wrote Roopika Risam in Conference Live Tweets: Twitter Good or #Twittergate?.

Beyond those pseudo-ethical considerations, there is also a more practical reason: in mathematics, it is quite difficult to live-tweet. I mean, it is difficult to write equations in Twitter, and a graph without the formal model is usually useless. There might some interest when there are computation issues, to share a visualization for instance (there were interesting experiences in R conferences this summer, e.g. in Lyon).

  • Twitter to Meet People

It is also possible to start discussions on Twitter. But again, I am not a social guy, so I usually do not like that. I mean, if I share a link to an article, it is because I found it interesting. If someone wants me to go further, or to discuss it, why not…. but Twitter is not the place. I prefer my blog, where I do not have the 140 character constraint.

An important issue in Twitter is to speed up connections between scientists. There is nothing new here. Traditionally, scientists have always interacted with other scientists, in sort of one-to-one interactions, attending seminars, conferences, discussion with colleagues. Using the words of Priem et al (2013), « informal conversations have moved out of the faculty lounge to online social media platforms », such as Twitter. One of the interests is to join somehow a larger « virtual department » with colleagues that are not next door, but who might be far away and in other areas of research. One can even discuss with real people, outside academia. Since I have interests in risk modeling, finance, climate, computer science, mathematics, I can also discuss with people working on stock markets, in insurance companies, in data visualization startups, even journalists. The awesome point is that it becomes possible to interact with open minded researchers. As mentioned in Fox (2012) – slightly changing the title – « blogging [and micro blogging] changed how economics share ideas ».

The first step in the scientific process is to find ideas, new ideas or concepts to investigate, datasets to describe. Following interesting people on Twitter can be the first step. The final step is to communicate findings and to disseminate. The time when researchers were studying the table of contents of journals to find interesting articles is behind us. When disseminating on a blog, we can share codes, graphs, datasets, links to additional material. On Twitter, we have to deal with the 140 character constraint, which makes it hard. One idea can be to use a nice visualization, a graph, a map.

  • Personal versus Institutional Accounts

On Twitter, I mainly follow researchers, only a few institutional accounts. For instance, I like the @HarvardBiz to get updates about their blog, and recent articles. It’s like using RSS feed (except that I am not a big fan of RSS). I might also confess that I have been asked, a long time ago, to be the Twitter Manager of the @StatFr account, of the French Statistical Society. But I quickly faced two problems: it is very difficult to be active on two accounts at the same time, especially when they share the same goal (here, it was just tweeting links to interesting articles, related to statistics – as well as activities of the association). And it is difficult to get a clear guideline. I mean, on my Twitter account, I tweet whatever I like. After a few days experiencing the @StatFr account, I had to argue with the President of the Society because of a link I mentioned in one of my tweet, that was too controversial (but, from my point of view, was mentioning interesting statistical issues). So I have to confess I prefer to follow people, more than institutions or groups.

On the other hand, in all you can tweet, academics behind the nature chemistry Twitter account (@NatureChemistry) went back on 4 years of experience. Among lessons learnt, collectively, it was mentioned that with the 140 characters constraint, « clarity is a virtue », which is indeed of the the things you learn with Twitter. Furthermore, they mention that following important researchers in your scientific community on Twitter is interesting. Not only you can discover interesting information. With personal ccounts, you can also learn more personal information. For instance, it’s always a pleasure to get news and updates from Emiliano,


  • The Impact of Twitter in Standard Process of Academic Dissemination

For academics still skeptical about the use of Twitter, I should probably mention Shuai et al. (2012) which proved (following 4,600 papers) that papers mentioned on Twitter are more downloaded, and more cited (see also Eysenbach1 (2011)). Dissemination using Twitter can help to reach other researchers, in your area, but also journalists, people working in the industry or for governmental organization, even members of parliament… It is hard to follow the sequence, but here how it looks like

publication of an academic paper
(in a journal, or on arxiv)

tweet mentioning the paper

mention in a popular blog

mention in a newspaper


Things can go viral easily with Twitter (again, we’ll get back on this point more specifically soon). But still. It is difficult to clearly understand what  happened (in the newspaper, the researchers are usually mentioned, as well as the blog sharing the information, but that’s all…)

  • Having Fun on Twitter

A few weeks ago, I saw a nice graph, on a blog

and I wanted to reproduce it. With a code as simply as possible. Sure, it’s a geek’s thing to try to write codes as short as possible. But that’s fun, really


It was not worst writing a post on my blog, and with a couple of tweets, I keep tracks of that interesting mathematical problem.

People on Twitter try also – sometimes – to have fun, following some hastags, such as, a few weeks ago, e.g.

(see also here for a collection of great tweets) or more recently #SixWordPeerReview,

  • Gaining Time to Discover Interesting Information

So, clearly, you can save time to discover interesting publications, simply by following interesting people. But, as you may imagine, the difficult point is to follow your TL. If you follow, say 400 people, each of them did tweet, on average 5 times in a given day (including RTs), that makes 2000 tweet to read, if you go on Twitter once a day. Much more if you go on Twitter once a week. To save some time, somehow, it is possible to use dedicated websites such as http://tweetedtimes.com/. Based on your TL and people you follow, it is possible get a subset of popular tweets and links shared those people you follow. I believe that a similar algorithm is used in the https://twitter.com/i/discover page (probably more based on tweets favored than RTd).

  • My Own Experience on Twitter

Now, to share a bit of my personal experience, I should probably mention that I do not have a cell phone, neither a tablet. So when I go on Twitter, it has to be on my laptop. It might be while cooking and preparing the lunch box for the kids, in the morning, just to get quickly the news from the night. It might also be in the office, when some code is running, and I have to wait. Most of the night it’s in the evening. Once the kids are asleep.

If I look at my tweets, you can see that I RT a lot of tweets (the old way), and a few Twitter accounts (even if I have the feeling that only tweets published more than two years ago appear here)

  • Going viral on Twitter

To conclude, I should warn everyone that Twitter is addictive. And it can be exhilarating and dangerous when things start going viral… For instance, a few days ago, I did post a simple map (without proper references, it was mentioned in another tweet since there were two references, one for each map), and then, in 24 hours, there were almost 1,000 RTs (not to mentioned tweets mentioning that tweets that were also RTd),

The interesting side is that it was a nice opportunity to understand how this viral process works, and @3wen published an interesting post on that experience.

  • Possible Conclusion (?)

Being on Twitter is an amazing experience. I met (at least virtually) a lot of people, that I would have never been interacting with if they were not on Twitter. David Monniaux, editor of the great blog http://david.monniaux.free.fr/dotclear/ used to be on Twitter (@monniaux), but – according to the legend I read on Twitter – being on Twitter was time consuming (David used to interact a lot), so he decided to quit. Thus, I am glad that I do have neither a smartphone, nor a tablet! Because I would spend hours on Twitter! With moderation, Twitter is a great tool. But to be honest, it’s a little bit crowded… it is a place to be, but it’s hard to have a discussion with other people, with the 140 characters. I really believe it’s not the place to ask questions, and start a discussion. This is why I also try to go on other microblogging plateforms to interact, more confidential… But I won’t mention them here, I’d like to keep it that way.

  • To Go Further

Twitter for academic and engagement
Using Twitter for Curated Academic Content
Beyond citations: scholars’ visibility on the social Web
Live-tweeting at academic conferences
An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists
How People are using Twitter during conference
Using Twitter During an Academic Conference
Presenting for Twitter at Conferences
An Idea is a Dangerous Thing to Quarantine #twittergate
My Norm is More Normal Than Yours: Academic Tweeting and Loose Fish
“But who is going to read 12,000 tweets?!” How researchers can collect and share relevant social media content at conferences
Don’t Have Time to Tweet-bollocks! Twitter can even save you time as a scientist.
The role of Twitter in the life cycle of a scientific publication, and the associated infographics
Can tweets predict citations? (metrics of social impact based on Twitter and correlation with traditional metrics of scientific impact)
All you can tweet
Twitter as tool for strengthen a scientific community
How and why scholars cite on Twitter
Prevalence and use of Twitter among scholars (on http://figshare.com/)
Twitter as a tool for conservation education and outreach: what scientific conferences can do to promote live tweeting
Understanding how Twitter is used to spread scientific messages

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