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The Benefits of Twitter for Scientists

A new study suggests Twitter activity is correlated with higher citation rates, at least for ecological research. But that doesn't mean scientists should necessarily expect a Twitter account to bring them more citations. What benefits can researchers expect from a presence on social media?

January 13, 2017

Macroscope Communications Ecology

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Despite frequent claims to the contrary, social media tools such as Twitter can be incredibly valuable for scholars. My own research (and years of personal experience) has shown that if properly used, Twitter makes it possible for scholars to follow along with cutting-edge research in their discipline as it is presented at conferences on the other side of the world, to directly share their expertise with policy makers and journalists, and to get feedback from expert peers as they work on their own research projects.

New research from the writers of the Fisheries Blog has revealed another professional benefit of social media usage for scholars. “We found that the number of tweets about a primary ecology research article was significantly correlated to the number of citations that the paper received,” said Brandon Peoples, assistant professor of fisheries ecology at Clemson University and the paper’s lead author. This new analysis notes that Twitter activity related to a paper predicted citations more than the 5-year impact factor of the journal where that paper was published, at least for ecology-focused journals.

This PLoS One paper, “Twitter predicts citation rates of ecological research,” is not the first to address this question, and past studies have found mixed results. However, Peoples noted that his new study took a different and more complexapproach. “Several studies have looked at the relationship between various altmetrics, measures of activity on, for instance, Facebook, Twitter, or blog posts) and citations. Most of them have used simple bivariate correlations and have found weak relationships,” Peoples said. “What we did differently was account for other important sources of variation in the same model: time since publication, journal impact factor, and random variation among journals. This allowed us to identify the ‘signal’ of Twitter over the ‘noise’ produced by the other variables. You can’t do that with simple correlation analyses.”

Other researchers caution reading too much into these results. “Tweets can be manipulated too easily by a coauthor with a high number of Twitterfollowers,” said Trevor Branch, associate professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington. “I regularly tweet about my papers. This has a big influence on the altmetric score, since my tweets are often retweeted and each retweet counts as another tweet.” He notes that he has 4 of the 10 papers with the highest altmetric scores for the journal Fish and Fisheries, but that none of those papers are among the most cited. (As a scientist with lots of Twitter followers, I agree; many of my papers are among the most tweeted in the history of those journals, but they are certainly not the most cited).

Peoples points out, “Our research suggests that Twitter and citations are related, not that tweets cause citations. I wouldn’t advise researchers to tweet about their research simply to increase citations. Tweeting about your paper will help to introduce it to the online community, but it probably won’t be well-discussed on Twitter if it’s not interesting.” While Twitter doesn’t automatically increase citations, it is changing the way that scholars communicate with one another, with journalists, and with nonscientists of all kinds.

Social media tools have changed how science is communicated, and so Peoples believes they can be incredibly useful for the scholars who learn how to use them. “Twitter provides a global forum where scientists from all career levels can meet and discuss—a kind of conversation that is hard to find in a traditional conference setting,” he said. “As a scientist, you should always be prepared to publicly defend critiques of your work. But on Twitter, it happens in real time. If you tweet your paper, be ready to discuss it instantaneously in front of a global audience.”

While Twitter is not a shortcut to increasing the number of citations for your paper, researchers who effectively use this communications tool will experience numerous other personal and professional benefits. Twitter has made me a better scientist, a better communicator, and a better educator. If you have any questions about how to use Twitter more effectively, youcan find me in the Twitterverse at @WhySharksMatter.

[UPDATE on 1/16/17: An earlier version of the graphic gave an incorrect number for the relationship between the median number of Twitter followers and the median size of a university department. It has been corrected to 7.3.]

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