How scientists are profiting from Reddit


A hallway at Reddit's office in New York, with a large Reddit logo on the white wall

Reddit’s many ‘subreddit’ communities provide channels for discussing science and are of curiosity to social-media students.Credit score: Amy Lombard/New York Occasions/Redux/eyevine

It has been virtually 18 months since Elon Musk bought Twitter, now referred to as X. Because the tech mogul took possession, in October 2022, the variety of every day lively customers of the platform’s cell app has fallen by round 15%, and in April 2023 the corporate reduce its workforce by 80%. Hundreds of scientists are lowering the time they spend on the platform (Nature 613, 19–21; 2023). Some have gravitated in direction of newer social-media alternate options, resembling Mastodon and Bluesky. However others are discovering a house on a system that pre-dates Twitter: Reddit.

The location was based in 2005, initially as one all-encompassing discussion board the place customers (referred to as redditors) may publish content material resembling hyperlinks, texts, photos and movies. Nameless person upvote (or downvote) and touch upon one another’s content material, deciding on what performs nicely sufficient to achieve others’ feeds.

As we speak, Reddit is split into communities, known as subreddits, every with volunteer moderators who assessment content material. These subreddits have names that start with ‘r/’ and are dedicated to all types of topics, resembling literature, solo journey and Washington DC. Reddit is recurrently irreverent: r/bushes is for folks to share content material about marijuana, whereas r/marijuanaenthusiasts is the place to take a look at bushes. It’s typically harmful — some communities have amplified conspiracy theories. And there are subreddits dedicated to science, starting from the broad r/science to extra particular ones, resembling r/bacteriophages.

As of December 2023, in keeping with Reddit’s personal statistics, the location had 73 million every day lively customers, greater than 100,000 lively communities and had amassed over 16 billion posts and feedback. In February 2024, it was the eighth most visited web site on the earth, forward of each Amazon and TikTok (see go.nature.com/3tugxbq). And on 20 March, the corporate floated on the New York Inventory Trade, the place it was initially valued at US$6.4 billion. With most researchers now needing to pay to obtain helpful quantities of information on X, Reddit is one other choice to survey the Web hivemind. Though modifications made final 12 months threaten researchers’ means to tug knowledge as simply as they as soon as did, Reddit says entry to its knowledge continues to be free for non-commercial researchers and teachers.

“Because the social-media panorama began altering, we actually began occupied with the opposite areas in addition to Twitter that individuals are utilizing,” says Nicholas Proferes, a social media researcher at Arizona State College’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences in Phoenix, who co-authored critiques on the usage of Reddit for analysis1,2. Right here, Nature stories on how Reddit is offering scientists with continued avenues for connecting with different researchers, gathering knowledge and interesting with the general public.

Networking and collaboration

Yvette Cendes’s journey on Reddit started in 2014. Cendes, who’s at present a postdoctoral scholar on the Harvard–Smithsonian Heart for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, discovered herself with some downtime throughout her PhD research in astronomy, and began poking round on the platform. She got here throughout a thread during which customers have been panicking over how imminent γ-ray bursts from supernovae have been going to wreak havoc and kill folks — one thing that she knew to be unfaithful. She resolved to leap into the feedback and clear issues up, and this was the beginning of her science-communication profession.

Since then, Cendes has made a reputation for herself on Reddit and even created her personal subreddit, with almost 17,000 members. “It’s an excellent strategy to get good information on the market,” she says.

Scientists additionally use Reddit to get suggestions and methods from different scientists. The r/biotech subreddit options information about biotechnology improvements and profession recommendation; r/datascience is a neighborhood particularly for data-science professionals. There’s even a subreddit dedicated to electron microscopy, from which customers can search steerage on the expertise.

Portrait of of Yvette Cendes

Yvette Cendes discusses astronomy as a science and a profession on Reddit.Credit score: Floris Looijesteijn

Not everyone seems to be as forthcoming with their names and credentials on Reddit, which may make networking a bit more difficult than on different websites, says Cendes. However the pseudoanonymity will also be helpful. Teams resembling r/labrats provide secure areas for scientists to debate their analysis or dilemmas with others of comparable backgrounds (and these teams are typically utilized by science journalists searching for article concepts). The anonymity supplies some safety for folks to publish with out worry of retaliation, and to hunt counsel. In a single dialogue, for example, a person laments how their principal investigator printed a paper based mostly on their analysis with out giving credit score, and considers hiring authorized assist.

Reddit will also be an ideal jumping-off level for early-career scientists or these attempting to pivot between specialties. Kevin Ortiz Ceballos, a graduate scholar at Harvard College’s Division of Astronomy, occurred upon one among Cendes’ posts about how you can turn out to be an astronomer again when he was in secondary college. He credit it with serving to him to modify from literature to physics and ultimately astrophysics. Participating in conversations about skilled astronomy earlier than getting into the sphere himself was an enormous asset.

“The truth that Yvette made it so accessible gave me the instruments I wanted to take the mandatory steps to review and put together what I wanted to get into astronomy grad college,” he says. The 2 have since related in particular person, and even collaborated on a mission that was lately submitted for publication.

With all of its subspaces, Reddit may be overwhelming at first. Cendes encourages potential customers to take it slowly, discover the communities they’re most fascinated about and go from there — placing key phrases within the search operate and skimming the completely different subreddits that come up.

Analysis and evaluation

The data embedded in posts and feedback from Reddit’s hundreds of thousands of customers will also be a treasure trove for researchers learning on-line behaviours. In 2022, NASA collaborated with grasp’s college students on the College of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, to make use of Reddit knowledge to find landslides (see go.nature.com/3tlum6t). The crew scraped the location for mentions of ‘landslide’, earlier than analysing and validating related mentions so as to add to the NASA landslides database. In accordance with the crew, this verification was wanted as a result of a Reddit publish concerning the music ‘Landslide’ by the rock band Fleetwood Mac would possibly “give us perception concerning the modifications and challenges of life, however it doesn’t do a lot for international catastrophe detection”.

A 2021 assessment2 in Social Media + Society, co-authored by Proferes, chronicled 727 manuscripts printed between 2010 and 2020, that made use of Reddit knowledge. These research spanned all types of disciplines — from pc science to drugs to social science.

One purpose that Reddit is ripe for analysis is that there are few bureaucratic hurdles to clear in contrast with what’s required for different research involving human beings. “It’s a publicly accessible net discussion board within the US and so shouldn’t be thought-about to be human-subjects analysis,” says Proferes. Institutional assessment boards view Reddit analysis as “exempt from moral assessment”, he says.

Nonetheless, Proferes and his co-authors emphasize the necessity for intentionality and sensitivity when accumulating knowledge from the location. Contemplate a subreddit resembling r/opiates. Knowledge on substance use are sometimes troublesome to obtain from in-person interviews or different social science strategies, however due to Reddit’s anonymity, individuals are extra open to sharing such data on the platform. Nonetheless, utilizing the subreddit for analysis could possibly be seen as invasive by a neighborhood that considers itself a semi-private nameless assist community. Sure communities on Reddit are additionally cautious of scientific researchers.

The 2024 assessment co-authored by Proferes1 lists a few of these issues and suggests steps resembling obfuscating usernames in printed work and collaborating with moderators.

“Academia and knowledge populations have a really sore historical past of, frankly, teachers coming in and simply taking,” says Proferes. The net neighborhood “shouldn’t be getting any profit in any way. It is extremely exploitative. There’s some actual historic causes, too, why people could also be extremely suspicious or doubtful about researchers coming in, even in these digital areas.”

Portrait of Sarah Gilbert

Analysis findings derived from Reddit posts must be shared with customers, says Sarah Gilbert.Credit score: Steven Shea

“It’s very easy once you’re working with these massive knowledge units to simply consider the information factors in them as literal knowledge,” says Sarah Gilbert, analysis director of the Residents and Expertise Lab at Cornell College in Ithaca, New York, and a co-author of the assessment. “Spending time locally and studying the norms and truly studying it, it turns that knowledge into folks. It provides a greater sense of who’s going to be included, extra like human-subject analysis.”

Gilbert additionally recommends sharing no matter printed analysis comes out of trawling by way of Reddit knowledge with those that offered the data. “Hopefully what you learnt is helpful to the neighborhood to allow them to see knowledge is used for one thing,” she says.

Connecting with non-scientists

Reddit could be a method for scientists to make use of their experience to reply any questions most of the people may need, says Cendes. She is an everyday on r/area, educating customers about matters such because the James Webb Area Telescope.

Kelly Zimmerman, a PhD candidate in ecology at Montclair State College in New Jersey, has related with and educated different customers on Reddit. When she began on the platform about 12 years in the past, she largely used it to seek out journal articles of curiosity on r/ecology and r/biology. However, like Cendes, she observed how curious customers have been about scientific matters that have been in her space of experience, and she or he now typically engages in discussions on subreddits resembling r/whatisthisbug.

Though she beforehand used X, Zimmerman thinks that Reddit supplies a extra partaking expertise. “I felt like I used to be simply speaking right into a void — there wasn’t plenty of response on Twitter,” she says.

A method for scientists to strive their hand at science communication on Reddit is thru ‘ask me something’ (AMA) periods, during which researchers reply customers’ questions in their very own time. Moderators pull in verified researchers to offer responses — even famend theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking participated. (To schedule an AMA with r/askscience, you’ll be able to e-mail the moderators.)

With each AMAs and normal dialogue boards, there’s an artwork to creating positive that data is communicated successfully and succinctly. “We’re attempting to maintain it as scientific as attainable, however in layman’s phrases, in order that non-scientists can perceive cutting-edge science that’s popping out proper now,” says Zimmerman, who additionally moderates some science subreddits.

Nathan Allen, an artificial chemist based mostly in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and a former moderator at r/science, likens it to writing a persuasive e-mail. “On Reddit, you’ve got to persuade most of the people that this has some normal curiosity to them, and also you’ve acquired to develop it and construct the message and ensure folks keep on level,” he says. “You get plenty of follow writing concise explanations of sophisticated issues that individuals who aren’t essentially scientists are in a position to digest and perceive.”

When utilizing Reddit in any capability, Zimmerman encourages scientists to verify to learn the principles earlier than making a publish or remark, and to thoughts their manners, simply as they’d on every other social-media platform. “Be well mannered,” she says. “Simply since you’re an nameless username doesn’t imply try to be impolite to different folks.”

Jennifer Cole, a biologist and anthropologist at Royal Holloway College of London, notes that utilizing Reddit for scientific communication shouldn’t be with out its issues. Moderators do plenty of work behind the scenes and infrequently face a torrent of abuse for attempting to keep up requirements, says Cole. And though utilizing folks’s actual names may help with credibility, it may possibly additionally make teachers and specialists targets for harassment and abuse. Though the location doesn’t present assist for customers who expertise abuse, a spokesperson for Reddit famous that the platform has insurance policies to ban each harassment and the sharing of private or confidential data, and that these insurance policies are enforced by the interior security groups.

It will also be used to unfold falsehoods. R/conspiracy has repeatedly posted misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines. Local weather deniers are additionally current on the platform, though a decade in the past the science discussion board particularly banned local weather change deniers. Requested about misinformation, the Reddit spokesperson stated that as a result of Reddit is ruled by upvotes and downvotes, high quality and correct data are likely to rise to the highest.

Interviewees agree that Reddit is at its core a social media platform, and social media has the potential to be poisonous. However when scientists interact, there’s additionally plenty of nice scientific communication and debunking of misinformation. “Don’t be afraid to speak to the folks,” Zimmerman says. These “who should not scientists are simply as curious as we’re. There’s nothing particular about being a scientist. We’re like everyone else, and typically people neglect that.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *