Using Twitter to learn economy of words - try to summarize your research paper in 140 characters or less!

A couple of weeks ago, there was a flurry of tweets, tagged with #sci140 hashtag on Twitter. What was that about? People were trying to summarize scientific papers in 140 characters or less. Actually, they had to use less as the hashtag itself took some space.

Almost 200 tweets were made, and they have all been collected (and the winners chosen) in this blog post on f1000 blog.

I found the exercise fascinating!

First, it was quite incredible how many more people chose to tweet well-known classical papers compared to those tweeting their own (thus obscure) publications. I would not call it cheating, but summarizing stuff that's in textbooks is much easier. Why?

First, you don't need to spend another several characters in order to include a link - a must if one tweeted their own paper. Why link to Pasteur, Darwin, Shroedinger, Newton, Galileo, Watson&Crick or Pavlov when everyone already knows what they did? I had to link to my papers when I tweeted them - a tweet was like a press title: not a joke, not a definitive description, but a bait for the reader to get sufficiently curious to click on the link and read the paper itself.

Second, there is so much that one could assume readers already knew about the well-known historical papers (and sometimes entire books!). Tweeting a Classic was more an exercise in witty hinting as to which paper was mentioned than actually explaining it - those who tweeted their own papers had no such luxury: they had to really summarize the papers.

Then, looking at only the tweets summarizing people's own publications, thus obscure publications that could not be just hinted about, it could be seen that they had two distinct flavors. Some people decided to use the space to say what they did (methods) and others decided to say what they discovered (conclusions). Nobody said why the study was relevant or important to lay audience on Twitter. Obviously, the character limit makes it impossible to include all three. Why did people make choices they did? Who chose methods, who chose conclusions, and why?

I found tweets about people's own papers fascinating. Why are these tweets so much clearer about the papers than the actual official titles of those same papers? Can we or should we try to make our papers' titles so short yet so informative as if they will be tweeted in full?

Twitter forces one to think about the economy of words, to become much more efficient with one's use of language. It takes work and thought and practice to get to the point of tweeting truly well. I remember Jay Rosen once saying that some of his tweets take 45 minutes to compose and edit until he is satisfied that the text uses the words for maximal clarity and impact. There is no luxury in using superfluous language and the result can be a crystal-clear statement or description that far outshines the often-wordy original.

Go look at the collected tweets. What do you think?

Then, I want to issue a challenge. All these tweets were done by working research scientists. I would like to see how professional science journalists, writers and editors would tweet those same exact papers, using the same #sci140 hashtag.

Are professional users of economic language better or worse than people who deeply understand the underlying science but were never trained to be economical with language? Go try....

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