Communication of science as an integral part of research, not an unnecessary add-on.

Tweeting birds: online mentions predict future citations in ornithology. Finch, T., O’Hanlon, N. & Dudley, S.P. 2017. Royal Society Open Science. 4: 171371. VIEW | OPEN ACCESS

Once your research is published you want it to be discovered by those you want to take notice of it – peers, stakeholders, funding bodies or policy makers – you want your paper to be seen, read, and fingers crossed, cited.

A huge amount of time and effort is invested in scientific research, especially in the push for publication. This is inevitably met by a feeling of elation and accomplishment mixed with “it’s all over” once you receive that hoped-for acceptance email. But that shouldn’t be the end of it! There is still important work to do.

The way scientific research is found by others has changed in the internet age, with everything rapidly moving online – publication, dissemination and discovery – meaning the individual researcher now has an important role to play in promoting their own research.

Scientists are increasingly taking to social media to share and disseminate their research as well as using it to keep up to date with other researchers’ work. Whether through sharing a Tweet linking to the published article or explaining their research article in a blog – this allows their research to be more discoverable not only to those in their own field, but to a much broader audience, including the general public, journalists and stakeholders.

Measuring online attention of research
Traditionally, the quality of a research article is measured by the number of citations it builds up over time. However, there can be a long time lag between an article being published and that article then being cited by others. The online attention that published research receives is an alternative or complimentary indicator if its impact which is more immediate.

One way in which this online attention can be measured is through Altmetric Attention Scores (AAS), which quantifies the online attention of a research article including mentions by news media, public policy documents, blogs, Wikipedia and social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook. These mentions are collated in real time which allows a more instant way of judging the engagement around an individual research article (although it is important to recognise that it cannot distinguish between positive and negative attention).

Research communities on social media
Some research areas are more engaged with social media and online science communication than others. Weak positive relationships have been found between this online attention, in particular mentions on social media, and future citations in some broad research areas, for example Ecology and for PLOS ONE articles. Ornithology is one field where people have embraced the use of social media, in particular Twitter, and where take up and use is continually growing.

On Twitter this is largely due to the use of the #ornithology hashtag to promote all aspects of ornithological research via Twitter. Hashtags on Twitter collate all mentions of a particular tag and these can be saved by the user for quick access to all tweets on that topic. In addition, most of the leading journals in our sector have established themselves on Twitter (and other social media platforms) and help to drive the research focus of our growing community.

The online ornithology audience is broad, encompassing researchers, conservation practitioners, amateur naturalists, birders, and interested members of the public. This means there is a lot of interest in ornithology research amongst scientists and non-scientists alike. With the ornithology community already being seen as a mature audience, those researchers taking up social media to promote their research now have a ready-made community and audience to tap in to.

Online mentions and citations: is there a link?
Understanding that we have such a well-established and mature audience on Twitter, we wanted to explore whether all this Twitter activity around published ornithological research was measurable, and whether or not online activity translated in to citations of the research articles being promoted.

We looked at the AAS of over 6,000 research articles published in 10 ornithology journals between 2012 and 2016. Even over this relatively short period the AAS of articles have increased, which might be expected given the increased use of social media during the same five-year period.

Figure 1. Over the five years we looked at, we found that the mean Altmetric Attention Score across ornithology articles increased. View full paper

An important finding was that Twitter was by far the most important contributor (75%) to the overall AAS of ornithology articles followed by news media (13%), blogging (8%) and Facebook (2%).

Figure 2. It wasn’t surprising that Twitter, as the social media platform of choice within ornithology, was the largest contributor to ornithology articles’ Altmetric Attention Scores. What was a surprise was just how dominant this platform is for our subject area. View full paper

Looking at a subset of ornithology articles from these ornithology journals as well as in broader ecology journals, published in 2014 and cited by late 2017, we found a positive correlation between online mentions (measured by AAS) and the number of future citations. This relationship was strongest for articles published in journals with a lower impact factor. Articles published in higher impact factor journals appeared to be highly cited regardless of online activity.

Figure 3. The association between Altmetric Attention Scores, journal impact factor and probability of being cited. The lower the journal impact factor the greater role social media activity, particularly Twitter, plays in an article’s probability of being cited. View full paper

We can’t establish whether articles which received more online mentions were cited more due to this increased attention, or whether more ‘citable’ articles get more online mentions because of their higher quality/relevance. However, either way, it appears that AAS can provide a more immediate measure of articles future scholarly impact in ornithology.

In addition, promoting scientific research in a field which has such a broader interest outside academia can be argued to be important in itself with benefits to wider society, especially due to the diverse online community ornithology has, who are likely to be ‘impacted’ by research articles without ever citing them.

Given the academic and societal benefits promoting your research can have, there are several ways in which an individual can publicise their work online. Twitter is the most important being the largest contributor to ornithology altmetrics, and arguably being the easiest way to share links to published articles online.

Things you can do to promote your own research

    • Tweet – the single biggest impact you can make to the online attention of your research
    • Post on Facebook
    • Blog about your research

see #theBOUblog

  • Add references to your published research on Wikipedia

All of these easy to do activities are covered in more detail in our paper.

With all the energy and time that you put in to your research, publicising and promoting your published ornithology article should be viewed as equally important with benefits to the individual, science community and wider society through outreach, education and conservation.

For a bit of fun, based on the analysis used in our paper, Tom has worked out that our paper should be cited 13 times by 2020. Fingers crossed!

Figure 4. Predicted citation of our paper.

Learn more about communicating your research using social media

We have many articles on this website on the benefits of using social media for research. Here are a few, and many more here.

Twitter #masterclass 12 – Twitter best practices
How social are ornithologists? – an IBIS Viewpoint article and NOAC2016 poster
Let the BOU work for YOU . . altmetrics
Let the BOU work for YOU . . blogging
Let the BOU work for YOU . . on social media
The benefits of blogging about your research
Making social media and the web work for you
Social media is relevant to your research
Presentations from the BOU’s ‘social media in ornithology’ workshop at #EOU2015
What do you mean you ‘don’t know how to optimize your paper for SEO?!

Blog with #theBOUblog

If you want to write about your research in #theBOUblog, then please see here.

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