Enrico Coiera: Science as Haiku (Or how to get a PhD in 20 tweets)

It’s easy to dismiss Twitter, a network that links people using messages of 140 characters or less, but it fills a genuine social gap. If Facebook is an archipelago of islands held together by social ties, Twitter is the shifting current that bathes them. Where Facebook is faithful, Twitter is promiscuous.

Teaching thinking skills to young researchers is hard, especially when their brains are busy multitasking with Twitter, Facebook, and their lab book all at the same time, and when they demand information in tiny bites, not lengthy academic excursion.

I decided to experiment with Twitter to see if it could be turned from distraction to instruction. Could Twitter be used as a channel for distributing serious and original content? Serious tweets usually point to a lengthier document. I wanted to see if all that needed to be said, could be said using this modern day Haiku, the very short form of Japanese poetry. Could the skills needed to come up with a doctoral thesis be taught in 20 tweets? So was born “the origin of the theses.”

What underwrote my messages was a desire to share the joy of discovery. Great research ideas rarely pop out of nowhere. That ‘aha’ moment happens in a brain that makes connection others cannot, or has a child’s capacity to see things as they are, not as textbooks say. The first 10 tweets described ways likely to lead to original thoughts, and the next 10 described mental blocks that can derail that process. You can pass your own judgment on my efforts below.

It’s too early to talk about outcomes, for example Nobel prizes generated by the Tweets. However my Twitter “followers” have more than doubled, from 60 to over 140. To give some context, my small following is well shy of the Dali Lama (3 680 000), Stephen Fry (3 933 000) and BMJ Deputy Editor Trish Groves (1 225). Amongst my followers however are heavy hitters with very large followings. By the magic of networks, my 140 directly connect me to their audience of about 120 000—a massive increase in reach.

The exercise however had one very unexpected side effect—the dawning realization that in the eyes of many of my esteemed peers I was engaging in something frivolous, profane, or quite possibly both. I thought I was a late adopter of social media (SoMe), but in my peer group, that’s not the case. Right now, many senior research colleagues tell me that they don’t want to try, or don’t get this new medium. Some viscerally reject it because it is driven by the values of the ecosystem and survival of the fittest, not professional credentials. They’re comfortable with email, surfing the web and smart phones. They might even do Facebook—but Twitter seems a bridge too far. Yet those journal articles most discussed on Twitter soon move on to be highly cited in the literature—surely a reason for ambitious academics to take an interest. This process of post-publication review has its champions, and some like Richard Smith even see it superseding pre-publication screening.

There is a generational divide here just waiting to happen if we let it. Younger scientists and clinicians are natural users of SoMe and some feel their senior colleagues are missing in action. Some thought leaders in my field are actually already there and I take delight in following neuroplastic minds like Sir Muir Gray or Trish Greenhalgh. For other senior scientists who jumped in early, SoMe have been a bruising experience. Consider Professor Ian Hickie’s reaction to the critical Twitter stream he received from the editor of the Lancet.

Twitter is not peer-reviewed literature.  It is a process, not an outcome. It enables social sense making, and new tools are appearing all the time to help fold different content into these discussions, and indeed find different ways of having discussions. Twitter is only an unfiltered stream of words in the same way that walking into a crowded room is. Define your interests, find who shares them, learn a few simple rules about how this micro-society works, and you are quickly inside the room. It would take a whole separate blog to explore the related topic of how SoMe are being used to engage patients in their care.

Twitter turns out to be a very engaging science broadcast medium, and gives real insight into ideas as they break, and access to the individuals behind them. Maybe if experiments like mine proliferate, new SoMe technologies will change how we explain science, and how we do science. This is not so radical an idea. If you have read Thomas Kuhn, you’ve already met the idea that science is a social process, with competing tribes at war until one theory wins. Popper would be proud of this notion, and probably would have tweeted regularly, as would Einstein and Newton. I think Wittgenstein actually did.

The #originoftheses in 20 Tweets

1. See the world as it is, not as theory says it is. Naïve viewing of data sees the unspoken common or what is hidden in plain sight.

2. Question the assumptions. Ask heretical questions. What if everything I believe is wrong? Question authorities, held views.

3.  Read widely. Adapt discoveries or solutions in other domains to your own. How would that work here?

4. Every set of papers are somehow contradictory. Seek out and treasure  inconsistency in definition, measure, or narrative.

5. Draw. Diagrammatic reasoning can trump analytic for insight. At talks visualise as you listen and “see” the research gap.

6. Pick foundational ideas that either change how we see or engage with the world. The rest is insider baseball.

7. The wine rack. Make a place for younger ideas to mature. Periodically draw from rack to see if ideas are ripe.

8. Explaining to others provokes unexpected thoughts. Write. Explain. Blog. Excite non-experts. Use analogy.

9. Lead don’t follow. Value novelty. If a topic is hot in journals it is probably too late. There are even more papers under review.

10. Invert the problem. How might this process or relationship work in reverse? How is that possible?


11. The never-ending paper. Concept drift as peer review avoidance tactic.  Loop: draft, change ideas, trash draft, repeat.

12. First best. Don’t stop once you get an idea. Better ones lurk beneath. Explore the space, the next step in the logic.

13. Whiteboard syndrome: Link chalk to cheese and logical type errors will subvert the finest analyses http://bit.ly/12lAJ

14. I’m certain failure of belief is the biggest barrier to innovation. How can someone like me possibly have a great idea?

15. Don’t overwork it. Daydream exercise silence free up bkground mental process connecting dots. Ideas appear from “nowhere.”

16. “But the evidence suggests.” EVERY idea is somehow wrong, not just yours. Don’t yield to criticism, refine.

17. Don’t drown in the literature. Start with an opinion, correct as you read. Unguided reading = exponential confusion.

18. Kitchen sink thinking accommodates all possible factors but overfitting data doesn’t work. Filter, prioritise, simplify.

19. In a loop? Frivolous experiments can probe the hypothesis space in unexpected ways, breaking deadlocks.

20. Perfection. “There must be a flaw” “I will be found out!” Remember all great work is “abandoned not finished.” Even the #originoftheses

Enrico Coiera, is director of Centre for Health Informatics, Australian Institute of Health Innovation, University of New South Wales.

Twitter: @enricocoiera