Scientists on Social Media: Oded Rechavi

Meet the king of science memes.
Interview
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Oded Rechavi is a professor at Tel Aviv University who primarily works on transgenerational inheritance. His research in this field, as well as a range of other topics (such as using genetics to piece together fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls), has led to numerous awards and publications. However, he is also widely known for his witty Twitter account on which he highlights some of the quirks of working in academia, such as the peer review process or what happens when you finally perform that dreaded control experiment. Here we talk to Oded about how Twitter has impacted his academic career and how he thinks it is changing the publishing system.

Image credit: Tchelet Feldman (CC BY 4.0)

What inspired you to start using Twitter?

I initially joined Twitter to spread the word about a paper we published in 2016. At first, I just didn’t get it and thought I was really bad at it – I didn’t know anything about social media and wasn’t even using Facebook. I still use Twitter to discuss papers (it’s the best platform for learning about new science), but my account became popular when I started making jokes about academia – that escalated quickly...

Your Twitter account has over 55K followers. How did you gain such a big following?

It’s now more than 60K, but the exact number isn’t important – what matters is that I’ve now passed Mike Eisen (editor-in-chief of eLife)! I’ve tried to understand the secret to a successful tweet, but the truth is I can never tell in advance whether something will work or not. Sometimes I know for certain that a tweet has no chance, but I post it anyway because it makes me laugh.

How do you come up with ideas for content?

Whenever I have a thought about academia (which is often) or see a funny video or photo, I feel compelled to tweet it – I really can’t control it! I don’t think about the captions for too long and usually come up with something in a few seconds (I erase a few seconds later when I realize it’s not funny). I have a few catchphrases that fit with many photos and videos which I use all the time, like “it’s more of a comment than a question”, or “it’s only a temporary space until we find a place for you”. I also enjoy coming up with esoteric stuff that I know only a small number of people will get. For example, when I joke about scientists getting off at the wrong train station when going to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

How has your social media presence impacted your academic career?

It’s opened up many opportunities. First, it has increased the visibility of my lab’s research significantly. Now, when I tweet about a new preprint it can get around a million impressions. It has also led to some amazing collaborations with people that I would not have met without Twitter. I’m sure I’ve made myself a few enemies too because people don’t understand my jokes or think I’m not serious enough. My tweets have probably raised a few eyebrows in evaluation committees – but I survived, so I guess the good outweighs the bad.

How does it feel to be reaching so many people?

It feels good to have so many people read my nonsense, especially when I get positive feedback. Most of the people I interact with are incredibly nice and supportive. In fact, right before the pandemic, I invited all my friends on Twitter (many of whom are now real friends) to participate in an in-person conference called the “Woodstock of Biology”. Anyone was welcome, regardless of their specific field or how established they were; the only condition was they had to present unpublished work. Each presenter had a walk-up song, five-minute limit and just one slide. All the talks were live tweeted and the reactions on Twitter were projected onto a screen next to the presentation. It felt like a party, and was a very democratic (and funny) celebration of science, a real alternative to the standard conference model where the same people get invited every year.

Are there any drawbacks to having such a large following?

The downside is that once in a while someone may misunderstand a tweet and react poorly, and that ruins my mood. In the past, some people have got offended because they mistakenly thought I had it in for their particular field. I try to joke about every new trend, it’s never personal!

As your following has grown, has this changed how you use Twitter?

I think so. I try to be really careful with what I say because I am not looking to offend anyone, and when your tweets reach lots of people, the chances of that happening increase. It’s a horrible platform for debating and for subtleties, since “no one can hear you whisper” on Twitter. I’ve learned not to go near certain topics because it’s just a recipe for disaster.

In your opinion, how is social media changing the way research is communicated?

Twitter is revolutionizing science communication. It amplifies preprints and allows for open and dynamic discussions of manuscripts. This provides a viable alternative to the current peer-review process in which a paper is evaluated by only two or three anonymous “experts” before publication. I think the stars are now aligned for a new model of publishing to emerge: preprints will be evaluated and curated by multiple journals in parallel, and then reviewed post-publication via online discussions happening on platforms like Twitter.

How do you think social media is changing people’s perception of science?

I hope it helps people see that scientists are just human beings. What I’ve learned from Twitter is that many scientists – although not all of them – really want to laugh about the day-to-day and weirdness (and injustices) of academia. I have few agendas to my tweets, but one of the main things I try to achieve is to make science less pompous. You don’t need to be serious all the time for your research to be taken seriously. I think if social media helps science appear less pretentious, it will increase the public’s trust in us.

What advice would you give to researchers who want to grow their presence on Twitter?

Honestly, just be yourself. People will only be interested if they see you do something authentic that is unique to you.

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