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Sharing research on Twitter may lead to higher citations

Science communication is becoming more and more important to emerging researchers.

By TARA SIEBARTH | MAY 01 2018

Having only joined Twitter in 2016, Clayton Lamb is a self-described social media neophyte. It was only when a journal he was submitting an article to asked him for his Twitter handle that he was spurred to sign up.

“I thought, ‘I better get on board, because they are going to be talking about my research and I won’t be part of the conversation,’” says Mr. Lamb, who is a year and half away from completing his PhD in ecology at the University of Alberta.

It was from this interaction that his curiosity was piqued: does communicating one’s research through social media result in higher citations for published research? Along with two other ecologists (Sophie Gilbert, an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Idaho and Adam Ford, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia), Mr. Lamb has published a study on the correlation between altmetrics (alternative or non-traditional impact factors) and citations. The three researchers looked at 8,300 ecology and conservation papers published between 2005 and 2015, culling each article’s citations, altmetric attention score and other descriptive data. They found a strong correlation between citation rates and science communication through social media.

As for which social media channel is best, Twitter is the front runner, since it used by many academics as well as the general public. But Mr. Lamb, who was the lead author, is quick to point out that this study is correlative, not causative. So even if there’s a very strong correlation, it doesn’t mean that more science communication alone causes a higher citation rate, he says. “There’s an obvious leap of logic that you can make: things that are talked about more [on social media] get out to more people, probably get read by more people and then go on to get cited.”

Of course, if you want your research to be popular on Twitter, you better be able to communicate it in a snappy way. “There is a new paper published in my field almost daily. And I can’t read all of those. Social media helps me discriminate between those papers because some people put the effort into doing an infographic or tweet about them and I can get a feel for that paper through that.”

Mr. Lamb, whose research focuses on tracking grizzly bears, says his social media experience has been a bit of trial and error, but he has been learning by following other scientists on Twitter and seeing what they do to communicate their research.

“One thing I would say that is exciting about Twitter is that it gives the public unprecedented access to what science is like for scientists. For example, I was out in the field today catching and collaring grizzly bears, so I might live tweet what I’m doing. At times there is a distrust of science, and this shows us as real people, doing our jobs. It gives people access to scientists that they normally wouldn’t have.”

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