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r/science Let’s Talk Science Communication (AMA)

Title: An emerging form of public engagement with science: Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions on Reddit r/science

Author(s) and Year: Noriko Hara et al. 2019

TL;DR: Ask me Anything (AMA) threads on the popular social media site Reddit can allow for direct science communication to an expert in a particular field of study, as well as allow for engaging discussion between the host and different members of the audience.


Why I chose this paper: As an avid Reddit user, I myself enjoy AMAs, in particular those related to my own passions. It feels rare these days that we are able to directly engage with an expert, as well as have an opportunity to interact and discuss topics of interest with others who share those interests.

With the rise of social media, science communication has gradually evolved from the one-directional transfer of information from scientists to the general public to a more meaningful, bidirectional engagement. Amidst all available social media, Reddit exists as a notable example of a two-way online communications platform - with the site’s question-and-answer format and its openness to public participation - and even has a dedicated sub-category (i.e., “subreddit”) called “Science” (reddit.com/r/science), where people may discuss various scientific topics. An article on Scientific American deemed Reddit’s science-focused subreddit “the world’s largest 2-way dialogue between scientists and the public”, and other research has listed r/science as a promising area of science communication research between scientists and the general online public.


Hara et al.’s paper details the findings of an exploratory study conducted to learn more about an emerging form of two-way science communication on Reddit called Ask Me Anything (AMA), where online audiences can ask scientists anything pertaining to their field of study, and scientists can directly respond to users.


The Details


This paper explored two descriptive research questions.

  1. What was the experience like to host an AMA in the “Science” subreddit?

  2. What type of discussion did “Science” subreddit AMA participants engage in?

    1. Do questions receive answers?

    2. What are the posters' intentions?

    3. What kind of content features appear?

    4. Who is posting comments?

    5. What kind of responses do posts receive?

Materials and Methods

A survey of 26 questions was distributed to 315 scientists from the r/science subreddit between October 2016 and June 2017. The survey questions inquired about demographic information (i.e., age, gender, race), discipline, experience of hosting an AMA, favourite type of questions, lessons learned, and reasons for agreeing to host. Among the 315 scientists, 73 responded and 70 completed the survey (22.2% completion rate).


The authors selected six AMAs for detailed content analysis (table 1). The disciplines of the selected AMAs were those frequently covered by r/science AMAs.


Table 1

AMA #1

AMA #2

AMA #3

AMA #4

AMA #5

AMA #6

Discipline

Astronomy

Biology

Chemistry

Environmental Science

Geology

Medicine

Topic

NASA

Bird Genetics

Biomedical Nanomaterials

Climate Change

Snow and Ice

Wound Dressing

Number of Posts

227

203

236

248

198

251

Number of Hosts

5

2

1

2

1

6

Selection criteria included session timing, length of discussion, and discipline. The codebook used by the study was modified from a work by Jeng et al., who researched question and answer posts on ResearchGate, an academic social networking site. The five established categories of the codebook for this study were:

  • Poster’s intentions (PI): considers the goals and expectations of the hosts and participants

  • Content features (CF): examines substance of posts

  • Poster’s identity (PID): determines who the author is for a specific post

  • Answer status (AS) and comment status (CS): specify whether questions were answered by the host and/or were commented on by other participants

The Results


The scientists’ perspectives: hosting an AMA in r/science

The majority of survey respondents reported an overwhelmingly positive AMA hosting experience. 95% of respondents answered that their AMA hosting experience was positive or very positive, and 5% of respondents reported a neutral experience. When asked what the most enjoyable aspect of hosting the AMA was, two themes came up: interacting with the public and collaboration with other scientists hosting the AMA.

When asked what the least enjoyable aspect of hosting the AMA was, the four issues raised by respondents included: technical problems, time limitations, time differences, and not being able to address all the questions. However, as 93% of survey participants responded that they would either be likely or extremely likely to host an AMA session again, the drawbacks of the AMA were likely not major issues to the hosting scientists.


The participants’ perspective: AMA discussion analysis

Poster’s intentions

The answer status of posts varied between AMAs. Response rates to questions by the host varied from 18.4% to 74.3%, with the majority ofAMA hosts answering about 50% of participant questions. Of the posts, seeking information and answering a question occupied 50% of the posts for each AMA (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Poster's Intention
Figure 1: Poster’s Intention.

Content Features

Content in each of the AMAs varied greatly depending on the particular AMA, with no clear trend present amongst the six different sessions (Figure 2). AMA #2 Biology and AMA #4 Environmental Science had more posts providing factual information, perhaps due to the topics of bird genetics (AMA #2) and climate change (AMA #4) being more familiar to the general audience.

Figure 2: Content Features
Figure 2: Content Features

Poster’s Identity

The study found that posts by the hosting scientists ranged from 13.4% of total posts in AMA #3 Chemistry to 45.4% of total posts in AMA #6 Medicine. The majority of posts, sometimes over 80% (AMA #3), were made by participants, indicating that the general audience were actively engaged in the AMAs.


Answer status and comment status

The answer and comment statuses were examined for 1) seeking information posts, and 2) seeking discussion posts. Posts coded as “seeking information” were often initial questions - questions that appeared at the start of a discussion thread. These posts received direct answers rather than off-topic comments, and were not commented on once answered. Posts coded as “seeking discussion” were fewer in number, tended to be initial questions, and were not likely to be commented on whether or not they received answers.


The Impact


The main findings of the study highlight the potential that r/science AMAs have as a platform of effective science communication and knowledge dissemination. Scientists who used the platform reported an overwhelmingly positive experience, allowing them to directly communicate with curious reddit users who had inquiries about their particular area of expertise. They also responded that they would happily host additional AMAs in the future, as well recommend hosting r/science AMAs to their colleagues. Bidirectional engagement was also evident, with. The nature of AMAs, however, means that there is no guarantee that all questions will be answered - so while bidirectional engagement was evident, with the majority of AMAs receiving a host-response rate of 50% or more, some posts were left unnoticed, receiving zero comments and/or answers.


While further research is required to better understand the AMA process to help scientists who are interested in using this platform as a means of science communication, this study makes several contributions to investigating AMAs as an emerging form of public engagement in science. Further research could help scientists better prepare to meet the needs and expectations of participants and improve the engagement of their sessions.


Edited by Joshua Buchi and Niveen AbiGhannam

Cover image credit: Figures used under CC BY 4.0

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