Having an effective online presence is becoming a vital part of professional life. Scientific careers are no exception, explains Angela Hopp in this month’s edition of ASBMB Today.

Published in the membership magazine of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the editorial highlights reasons to showcase one’s work on the web and why scientists reap benefits from engaging in online discourse.

I’m convinced that scientists can benefit from creating and maintaining online personas.
— Angela Hopp, Editor, ASBMB Today

From writing for newspapers to teaching media writing classes to editing ASBMB Today, Angela’s view of science communication is from the typewriter side of the news desk. But it’s also from a nonscientific background. This perspective gives necessary balance to scientists’ interpretations of their work, which can often be technical (viz. difficult to digest) and made known only by publication as a scientific paper.

“Creating an online presence … is pretty important today, regardless of your field,” argues Angela in the article.

The essence of the editorial is that, in the competitive, modern-day job market, a professional online presence is a must. It can provide a real boost to a career in science, and I contributed my thoughts on this issue in the article.

I have maintained my personal website for several years, initially as a glorified online CV and eventually as a forum to discuss my research. I’ve found that online commentary of my work results in its wider broadcast: among scholars and the public.

With the drive to disseminate research to the public in an accessible form (not least as a part of most funding applications), it is clear that effective outreach activities, including online communication, are an integral part of scientific research. (This drive also calls for open-access research outputs, which I won’t discuss here, but which have been debated extensively elsewhere.)

The term “impact” is used a lot nowadays (sometimes in quite vague contexts) to describe the influence and potential rewards of research. However you interpret the term, increasing public engagement with research and enhancing the learning of others are areas of societal impact that clearly benefit from online scientific communication.

As examples of personal websites run by scientists, the article features my website and those of Dr Dave Bridges – a principal investigator at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center – and Dr Samuel Furse – a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utrecht.

Samuel has also written a how-to article on the practicalities of designing, building and maintaining a research website and blog, which features in the same edition of ASBMB Today.

So you want to communicate science online? // Image from Bik & Goldstein (2013) PLoS Biology 11, e1001535

Getting the most out of social media depends on how well you use them, of course. As more scientists dip their toes into (or dive head-first into) online communication of their work, more pointers for potent professional portfolios are emerging.

Earlier this year, a very useful introduction to social media for scientists was published by Holly Bik and Miriam Goldstein in the open-access journal PLoS Biology. Written from the perspective of actively blogging scientists, the article offers advice on many approaches to constructively communicate science online. Their advice to new users of social media is to start by setting up a personal research website. This will begin the process of establishing that crucial online presence.

What used to be seen as shameless self-promotion is now an essential component of any scientist’s professional skill set.
— Geoff Hunt, Public Outreach Coordinator, ASBMB
(from Hopp (2013) ASBMB Today, Editor’s Note)

A recent article by Sharon Ann Holgate in the online career magazine Science Careers highlights the advantages and disadvantages of an online presence for young researchers. “It’s important for young scientists to know how social media could affect their research and career,” explains Sharon in her article. “Use it wisely and it may open up networking opportunities and even help you land a job.”

In a blog post, Bora Zivkovic, a biologist and the Blog Editor at Scientific American, agrees: “People got jobs and gigs on Twitter that started their careers.” His post is filled with ideas, tips and links to help with scientific writing, especially using blogs and social media. The Social Networking for Scientists wiki is also a great resource, with information on social networks, altmetrics, citizen science and more.

But the temptation to exaggerate the implications of one’s work should be avoided, warns Monika Maleszewska in a column in this week’s issue of Nature. “What’s clear is that budding researchers must learn how to promote their work, and perhaps even become trendsetters – without resorting to hype.”

The path of online scientific communication must be sensitively navigated. For career development, for reaching out to a new audience and for engaging the public in science, though, it can be a worthwhile journey.