The Role of Twitter in the Life Cycle of a Scientific Publication

Darling, E. S., Shiffman, D., Côté, I. M., Drew, J. A. (2013). The role of Twitter in the life cycle of a scientific publication. PeerJ PrePrints, 1.


Twitter is a micro-blogging social media platform for short messages that can have a long-term impact on how scientists create and publish ideas. We investigate the usefulness of twitter in the development and distribution of scientific knowledge. At the start of the ‘life cycle’ of a scientific publication, twitter provides a large virtual department of colleagues that can help to rapidly generate, share and refine new ideas. As ideas become manuscripts, twitter can be used as an informal arena for the pre-review of works in progress. Finally, tweeting published findings can communicate research to a broad audience of other researchers, decision makers, journalists and the general public that can amplify the scientific and social impact of publications. However, there are limitations, largely surrounding issues of intellectual property and ownership, inclusiveness and misrepresentations of science ‘sound bites’. Nevertheless, we believe twitter is a useful social media tool that can provide a valuable contribution to scientific publishing in the 21st century.

This article maps the role that twitter can play in academic publishing and dissemination.  After a brief review of a variety of social and on line media (“social ecosystems”) used in academic research the paper delves more deeply into twitter. The authors draw on their own experience in marine ecology and conservation and bring in other examples from the broader fields of ecology and evolution.

At the time of writing the article 1/40 scientists are active on twitter. This is a reference from an infographic. However, this number is likely an understated estimate. The infographic itself provides the methodology, the most glaring hole is that they were searching for name matches on twitter and associating those with faculty names on university departmental websites. Anyone not using their own name (@mobilemobilizer, my personal twitter account) would not have been picked up. The authors also cite a reference claiming that “one-third of tweets sent by academics from the sciences, social sciences and humanities contain a hyperlink to a peer-reviewed resource (e.g., a pdf – either theirs or someone else’s)”. So twitter is being used by scholars to promote their own scientific outputs but connect to those of others as well.

The authors identify three ways that twitter can benefit scientific publishing: (1) increasing scholarly connections and networks, (2) quickly developing ideas through novel collaborations and pre-review, and (3) amplifying the dissemination and discussion of scientific knowledge both within and beyond the ivory tower of academia. Twitter is traditionally used for broadcasting and for listening. Importantly for knowledge mobilization Twitter can also be used as a tool for engagement. By supporting scholarly connections and networks and developing ideas, these authors are using it as a tool for engagement within their discipline.

They state, “perhaps the most obvious and important contribution of social media to scientific output is speeding up connections between scientists“. In a knowledge mobilization setting I argue that the most important contribution of social media is the engagement beyond academia. This is evident in the authors’ own experience where 45% of their Twitter followers are non-academics/non-scientists. This is also evident in the case study the authors cite where they describe engagement between researchers and a non-scientist scuba diver. In another example a journalist picked up on one of the author’s tweets wrote and article that was pater picked up by National Geographic. Another tweet was picked up by Discover Magazine. Twitter is a way to connect to journalists who then can significantly amplify your reach by writing in mass media publications.

Do you proactively tweet to media? Do your communications departments?

There is a brief nod to some of the possible risks of social media: ideas being scooped, commercialization and intellectual property issues; misrepresentations of complex ideas as sound bites.  I am glad not much attention was spent on these. Social media do not create these risks. Social media might enhance the exposure of these risks but these risks exist in tradition academic dissemination. These are the new community rules. Social media are increasingly being used throughout academia. We are seeing social media appear in research grant applications and funded as knowledge mobilization strategies. We need to be aware of these risks but not use them as an excuse to avoid using these tools.

The paper spends some time on altmetrics and their controversial use in traditional academic incentive and reward programs such as tenure and promotion. What the article fails to do is go into more depth around assessment and evaluation of activity on Twitter. Most social media practitioners use traditional analytics to assess “impact”. This doesn’t go far enough. Analytics measure activity on Twitter. They do not measure impact, defined as a changed policy process, service or product that benefits end users.

If you are interested in social media for research there are some really good resources beginning to emerge. The London School of Economics has published a guide for twitter in research and teaching and Aegis Media recently published Something to Tweet About which described the use of social media in the non-profit sector.  For more information and analysis of the use of social media for knowledge mobilization see a book chapter that York’s Knowledge Mobilization Unit published in 2012.

Questions for brokers

  1. Note that this article is published as a pre-print in an open access format in Peer J. How are you committing to open access? Is this a necessary precondition for knowledge mobilization? See the LSE blog for more on open access in academic research.
  2. The authors write about marine ecology, conservation, ecology and evolution. Are the results generalizable to other scientific disciplines? How about the social sciences, arts and humanities?
  3. How are you using Twitter as an engagement tool? Are you engaging just within your discipline or your sector? Are you using Twitter to engage beyond your sector?
  4. Beyond analytics, how might we measure the “impact” of our social media activities?

ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche is producing this journal club series as a way to make the evidence and research on knowledge mobilization more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create on line discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read the articles. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.

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