Social Media Drives Research Citation Numbers

As social media faces increased scrutiny over privacy and how data is shared, it may have a new reason to keep going—albeit one that most users probably wouldn’t find share-worthy.

Researchers at the University of Alberta have been studying science communication in the social media age and found that the number of times a study or report is cited can directly correlate to how visible it is on social media.

“There’s a compelling signal that citation rates are positively associated with science communication through social media,” said Clayton Lamb, a University of Alberta PhD student and a lead researcher of this new study. “Certainly, Twitter provides an accessible and efficient platform for scientists to do a majority of that communication.”

“The good papers that get pushed on social media are what end up on people’s minds and eventually as PDFs in their reference manager.”

Lamb, along with Sophie Gilbert and Adam Ford, set out to see if there was any association between what’s known as altmetrics—alternative impact factors that consider outside avenues surrounding scientific discoveries, such as social media shares—with the citation of over 8,300 ecology and conservation papers published between 2005 and 2015.

The three researchers behind the study routinely use Twitter to share their findings and studies, so it was not exactly a shock to find that there was a positive correlation between engaging on social platforms and how one measures scholarly activity.

“There’s a big hype when a paper comes out, but then there is this underwhelming lull for a year or two as you wait for citations to accumulate, so you don’t really know whether your science is reaching people,” said Lamb. “We quantified whether science communication may correlate with more citations. In the case of ecology and conservation science, it looks like it does.”

Twitter and Scientific Papers

It’s hard to gauge whether these kinds of trends would ring true throughout all scientific fields. These researchers come from ecology and environmental conservation backgrounds, and through sharing their work, there is a hope to influence public policy and inform the public as to how the world is changing around them. Essentially, the contents or abstracts of these kinds of reports may be a bit easier to digest or share via a tweet than a report on neuroparasitology or cliodynamics.

On top of that, scientists and researchers typically follow one another on social media platforms, leading to increased visibility from the right kind of audience, so it does make sense that shared work through Twitter will fall on more eyes than through traditional journal methods. However, recent studies have found that half of ecologists’ followers are actually non-scientists, so there’s a bit of a difference in who may be consuming the data.

“Ecologists and conservation scientists are dealing with applied problems that the public cares a lot about. So when science gets stuck in the circles of academia and doesn’t make it out to the public, it’s doing that publicly funded research and its potential applications, a disservice,” said Lamb. “In this era of alternative facts and some mixed messaging surrounding science, data-driven scientific information offers a light of truth. Twitter is one of the ways we can help share science with policy-makers, other scientists and the public.”

The new study will be fittingly published in the upcoming issue of PeerJ, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. But you should probably just go follow the researchers and check out the data on Twitter.