Scientists and social media: Can you tweet your way to impact?


By Priya Mistry, Editorial Assistant, The Physiological Society, @Pri_Mis

Twitter has over 313 million active monthly users and Facebook has over 1.71 billion. Research has shown that social media can increase the number of journal article downloads . So why do some academics and research scientists still avoid these platforms?

Social media has become a global forum allowing people to share ideas, make new connections, and create new research paths at an international level. Can using social media actually affect the impact of research? If so, how can we measure its effect?

As a scientist in your field, it’s in your best interest to share your work and other related topics in your field. So how exactly can social media help you?

What is social media?

Social media platforms come in all shapes and sizes. How do you know which ones are right for you and your target audience? The most popular platforms are Facebook and Twitter, however, there are many, many others covering different niche areas and demands.

Online networking tools specifically for scientists include ResearchGate, Academia.edu and Mendeley, and these have millions of users. Reddit, a social news and discussion website, is so popular with scientists that Nature and PLOS have collaborated with them, allowing editors and authors from the journal to engage with verified accounts or ‘flairs’. The ‘subreddit’ r/Science has over 13 million subscribers, suggesting a demand for a more informal platform of science discussion.

Why should I engage?

You’re an academic, a professor, a PhD student, a science professional and you’ve been getting on fine without social media. So why should you engage online?

To network with peers

The community feel of online networking keeps you in touch with the latest scientific research and allows you to discuss and debate new ideas and developments at an international level. ‘Hashtags’ are a type of label used on social networks to categorize posts. During conferences, tweeting and following the conference hashtag can help you keep up with highlights.

For Public Engagement

We should communicate science to the public as it allows them to make informed decisions – issues around global warming and vaccines are examples of where this communication is important. 79% of the British public said they trust scientists to tell the truth, in contrast to 25% who trust journalists. Scientists have a responsibility not only to communicate their own research, but also to represent the scientific community, and engage the public to help them understand and appreciate science. Social media is an effective way to reach out to the general public and have a direct impact on them.

For Self-Promotion

You have put your blood, sweat and tears into creating a research paper that has just been accepted. You want your paper to be easily found, read, and ultimately cited. You are the best person to promote your article; you know the most about your research and the significance of it.

ResearchGate and Academia.edu are excellent ways to share your research with other academics. Sharing your work on Twitter and Facebook will help further your discoverability. While academic networking profiles and LinkedIn are useful tools to use as a ‘digital CV’, you also need to think about your digital footprint. If you Googled yourself, what would you find?

According to a recent survey by recruitment company Careerbuilder, in addition to looking at a CV or cover letter, 60% of employers use social networking sites to research candidates and 41% say they are less likely to interview job candidates if they are unable to find information about them online. Social media activity can be part of your digital profile. Showcasing your work and knowledge in this way can help you with recruitment and self-promotion, not to mention that it’s free!

How do I start?

Here are a few steps to help you get started:

  • Start off small: Create a profile, look at hashtags and browse what’s already available. Twitter is a good place to start. It’s quick and easy to set up and you only need to think of 140 characters for each tweet.
  • Follow your interests: Once you’ve set up an account, ‘follow’ or ‘add’ (depending on the platform you use) other accounts. You can follow your peers, your role models, relevant companies or institutions, and us (shameless plug )!
  • Engage: Only engage on social media when you feel comfortable. Some may find this easier than others, but don’t be discouraged if you find that your profile is looking a little bare or taking a while to get attention. Practice makes perfect!
  • Post optimally and consistently: The lifespan of a tweet is about 18-24 minutes – this means that your tweet is ‘pushed down’ the feed and is less likely to be viewed after this time. You should try to post at optimum times (mornings, lunch time and after work) and post consistently if you would like a bigger following.
  • Download the apps: Having social media apps on your phone means access to your profile is at your fingertips. This will make it easier to post from wherever you are.
  • Be yourself: Don’t be afraid to show your personality; giving your account a personal touch and sharing your interests can help distinguish you from countless other social media accounts
  • Have fun!

Once you get the hang of it, social media can be useful and quite enjoyable. You’ll find yourself constantly checking your profiles in no time!

  • Be responsible: Remember to be mindful of what you post and share. Opinions and discussion are welcome on these platforms, but posting provocative photos, discriminatory comments or negative remarks about a co-worker can affect your career.

How can I measure success?

As a scientist, you are hard-wired to track, analyse and evaluate anything you do. Luckily, tracking posts online is easier than you think. Links created via Kudos (an author service to help improve the reach of articles) can be easily tracked and analysed so you can see who’s been clicking and sharing your posts. Many publishers, including Wiley, have integrated Altmetrics onto their research papers, which gives articles a score based on popularity and the rank of the media on which it has been shared. The score can also be used to check how well your paper is doing on social media and you can find trending research by looking at articles with high Altmetrics scores. Twitter and Facebook analytics are another easy way to track the number of views and clicks your posts have received.

According to a study from the Journal of Medical Internet Research, articles which were highly tweeted about were 11 times more likely to be highly cited than those with no tweets. A paper from PLOS ONE has also shown that social media posts on a research article increase the number of people who view or download the paper, proving that social media can help to increase reach. In contrast, a study in Scientometrics showed a weak association between the number of times an article is tweeted and the number of citations. While tweeting may not be the cause of citations, Twitter can help predict which articles will be successful and can give you an idea on how well your article will do.

Conclusion

In this day and age of the internet, it’s difficult to keep your research distinctive, especially with around 2.5 million articles being published a year. Why not give your paper, and yourself, a boost by engaging online. Citations are not always the end goal and you can extend your impact beyond the papers you’ve published. Knowledge is only useful if shared!

Originally published in Physiology News 106, 32-34

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