Tweet success: How to boost your online impact - 21 August 2013 - New Scientist
Tweet success: How to boost your online impact
Traditional citation scores can't track the online impact of scientific research ? it's time for scientists to get social media savvy
- 18:00 21 August 2013 by Colin Barras
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The conference program had not been kind. Joshua Drew's talk on shark biodiversity was buried in an afternoon slot on the penultimate day of the week-long Ecological Society of America 2012 meeting in Portland, Oregon. Ten years ago, the slot would probably guarantee the speaker a small, sleepy audience and a poor scientific impact. But not anymore.
Drew, a biologist at Columbia University in New York, took to Twitter to preview his presentation. A journalist attending the conference saw the tweet, turned up to the talk and blogged the study.
"The paper took on a life of its own," says Drew. Within a matter of days, his research had been covered by a number of popular science websites, reaching a large and international audience. And all from a single tweet.
The web, and particularly social media, is a powerful tool for spreading the word about new science. But is online success a sign of quality science? And should it matter for a researcher's career?
It has never been easy to measure scientific quality. At the moment, grant money and job offers are directed toward researchers who publish papers that go on to be cited by many other publications. Successful scientists have higher numbers of citations ? and a higher citation score ? than unsuccessful ones.
"There's clearly a strong correlation between citation and scientific impact, but it's not perfect," says Paul Wouters, who analyzes measures of scientific success at Leiden University in the Netherlands. A medical paper that details an important new procedure could save hundreds of lives, for instance ? but if it is not cited in other publications, its citation score would remain low, and it would be considered a flop by this standard.
Wouters notes that one measure of success is not enough to judge scientific impact. "We need to think about portfolios," he says. "We should get away from the idea of the single, perfect indicator."
That's where the online world comes in. The rapidly growing number of users of social media, and other online tools, could provide an additional ? or better ? way to measure scientific impact. These tools extend far beyond Twitter ? blogs, social networks and sites dedicated to sharing research are experiencing soaring membership rates (see "Your social media toolkit").
Those most convinced about the importance of this alternative, online scientific influence ? sometimes called the altmetric impact ? have even put together web tools that monitor and measure the buzz a new study generates online.
Heather Piwowar at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina and Jason Priem at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill built one of these tools in 2011.
Their creation, ImpactStory, pools data from blogs, online forums and social media into a simple graphical dashboard. Scientists can then watch the citations and discussions their research is generating in real time, and on a single screen.
Collecting altmetrics is the easy part ? more difficult is to convince scientists that the information gathered from these online sources matters. This is particularly difficult when many of today's senior scientists have built their careers the traditional way, by publishing highly cited research papers.
Quirky or quality?
Altmetric skeptics argue that a big impact online is often a matter of shrewd marketing rather than quality science, says Mike Thelwall at the University of Wolverhampton in the UK.
Adding a provocative title is one easy way to send a study shooting up the altmetrics charts. "An in-depth analysis of a piece of shit: distribution of Schistosoma mansoni and hookworm eggs in human stool" generated huge altmetrics scores when it was published in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases earlier this year.
But for its fans, there's more to altmetric success than that. Earlier this year, Thelwall and Cassidy Sugimoto at Indiana University Bloomington found that research papers widely discussed on Twitter, heavily posted to Facebook, or discussed on internet forums and blogs are statistically more likely to be cited in scientific papers at a later date. In other words: altmetrics may measure scientific quality in the same way traditional citation scores do.
Funding bodies are starting to take note. "Altmetrics are resonating with the people actually funding scholarships," says Priem. He has been invited to talk about the power of altmetrics to the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
Both organizations are keen to explore new ways of making sure they spend their money on research that makes a big impact, he says. It is possible that they may eventually use altmetric data to inform their allocation of grant money.
That can only be a good thing. Citation scores are the gold standard for measuring scientific impact only because the scientific community at large has elevated them to this position. But they cannot measure a scientist's full worth. If altmetrics do nothing else, they encourage us to rethink the way research is assessed ? and that very idea could have a huge impact on science.
This article appeared in print under the headline "Tweet success"
Your social media toolkitThere are hundreds of ways to connect with your peers online. So, which are the sites worth using?
One in 40 researchers is now active on Twitter, a microblogging site that allows anyone to build a network of contacts and send short messages. You can use Twitter to reach out to the top names in your field and establish an online reputation.
More formal networking opportunities abound on professional networks such as LinkedIn and ResearchGate, with the latter boasting a science-focused membership of three million people.
Want to spread the word on your research before it has been published? Researchers are increasingly turning to personal blogs for this purpose. Others are uploading preprints, videos, figures and datasets to Figshare, a site that hosts the work of thousands of scientists. Most publishers do not consider uploads to Figshare as "prior publication" so will not use them as reasons to reject a paper later submitted to them.
Mendeley allows users to build libraries containing the research most relevant to them and share these libraries with colleagues.
Once you've developed an online presence, you can use altmetric tools to work out how effective it is. Sites like ImpactStory and Altmetric pull together information from many social networks, blogs and websites to quantify the online activity a study is generating and present it at a glance.
Colin Barras is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Tweet success: How to boost your online impact - 21 August 2013 - New Scientist
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