The NASW panelists praised the informal “peer review” that vigorous global online science communities can quick bring to bear on new research or news stories, quickly sniffing out potential errors, poor science, or poor science writing. Silberman calls it “a rapid response immune system.”

But what about the online audience? Is this a case of preaching to the converted, with like-minded social media science enthusiasts talking to one another?

Just the opposite, contends Zivkovic. “I think we are reaching larger public audiences because of the concentric circles. We tweet and retweet, so it’s spreading information to people who may not be actively seeking science content,” he said. “We are throwing out science to people who would otherwise not know science is cool and fun and interesting and relevant to their lives.” In contrast, he sees dedicated online science media sites as often pulling in the other direction, attracting audiences that are already interested in science.

While many journalists have gotten to know their colleagues online, professional gatherings like the NASW meeting have the added benefit of bringing the virtual and real worlds together. Zivkovic bumped into science journalist Boonsri Dickinson at the conference hotel, and off they went for lunch.

“That was nice. I’ve known her online, on Twitter for more than a year,” he said. “So many people I have met here for the first time in person.”

Note: Twitter handles for the science writers mentioned above are: @BoraZ, @b0yle, @deborahblum, @stevesilberman, @marynmck, @edyong209, and @russellcris. Hashtags for this session at #sciwri11 #sciwrilife. A compilation of ScienceWriters11 tweets can be found at this Purdue University site.

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.