Social networks have now put down firm roots in both the public and private spheres, but what about the scientific community? Evidence clearly shows that social ecosystems are able to provide support to academic research work as well.
One North American scientist in 40 is now active on Twitter, reveals a study published online by Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada. In addition thousands of blog entries have been indexed on research blogging platforms and two million scientists make use of Mendeley, a reference-sharing tool. The four authors of the report point out that the power of social media can radically speed up dissemination of scientific work, but perhaps even more importantly it can improve knowledge-sharing. In order to measure the contribution made by social media, the authors examined the growth of a scientific network through the use of Twitter. They conclude that, in addition to requiring very little investment, setting up a ‘virtual’ network can not only be achieved far more quickly than a network built on interpersonal relationships but it also raises the profile of the research work more effectively.
‘Virtual’ departments comprising people of varying experience
Comparing the relative sizes of physical university departments and the ‘virtual’ departments created by online social networks, the authors calculated that the median number of Twitter followers was approximately 730 times larger than the average number of full-time faculty members in each scientist’s department. The majority of the followers (55%) comprise science students, scientists and scientific organisations. However, the remaining 45% make up a significant minority of non-scientists – interested media workers or members of the general public. These figures seem to show that while in the past research tended to be commented on and added to solely by scientists’ peers, it might now benefit from conversations with and contributions from non-specialists. Citing previous research showing that 19% of links to peer-reviewed articles sent by a small sample of academics were retweets, the authors point out that by contrast nearly half (47%) of all tweets sent by the publication Nature Chemistry (2013) were retweeted on average four times each.
New dimension for feedback
The number of published citations of a scientific study has traditionally been a key measure of its success. Now it appears that tweeting can influence this metric to a considerable extent. The authors quote a previous paper indicating that articles published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research that were tweeted about frequently in the first three days following publication were 11 times more likely to be highly cited 17 to 29 months later than less tweeted-about articles. However, the era of social media also enables the use of alternative metrics, which are more comprehensive and more qualitative than the rather narrow measurement based on citations in other published works. These ‘altmetrics’ aim to quantify the broader impact and reach of scientific work beyond traditional journals. Many are based on data derived from sharing on social media and the volume of downloads for a paper or data repository. Clearly, Twitter can foster online discussion of scientific work, although this approach is still scorned by many professional scientists. Their fears and hesitations may well centre on potential “misrepresentations of science sound-bites” and possible “loss of important nuances” in the desire to broaden the level of sharing and popularise science, say the report’s authors.