Are scientists smart when they promote their work on social media? Isn’t this a waste of time, time which could otherwise be spent in the lab running experiments? Perhaps not. An analysis of all available articles published by PLoS journals suggests otherwise.
My own twitter activity might best be thought of as learning about science (in the widest sense), while what I do on facebook is really just shameless procrastination. It turns out that this pattern holds more generally and impacts on how to use social media effectively to promote science.
In order to make this claim, I downloaded the twitter and facebook activity associated with every single article published in any journal by the Public Library of Science (PLoS), using this R-script here. PLoS is the open access publisher of the biggest scientific journal PLoS ONE as well as a number of smaller, more high impact journals. The huge amount of data allows me to have a 90% chance of discovering even a small effect (r = .1) if it actually exists.
I should add that I limited my sample to those articles published after May 2012 (which is when PLoS started tracking tweets) and January 2015 (in order to allow for at least two years to aggregate citations). The 87,649 remaining articles published in any of the PLoS journals offer the following picture.
There is a small but non-negligible association between impact on twitter (tweets) and impact in the scientific literature (citations): Pearson r = .12, p < .001; Spearman rho = .18, p < .001. This pattern held for nearly every PLoS journal individually as well (all Pearson r ≥ .10 except for PLoS Computational Biology; all Spearman rho ≥ .12 except for PLoS Pathogens). This result is in line with Peoples et al.’s (2016) analysis of twitter activity and citations in the field of ecology.
So, twitter might indeed help a bit to promote an article. Does this hold for social media in general? A look at facebook reveals a different picture. The relationship between facebook mentions of an article and its scientific impact is so small as to be practically negligible: Pearson r = .03, p < .001; Spearman rho = .06, p < .001. This pattern of only a tiny association between facebook mentions and citations held for every single PLoS journal (Pearson r ≤ .09, Spearman rho ≤ .08).
In conclusion, twitter can be used for promoting your scientific work in an age of increased competition for scientific reading time (Renear & Palmer, 2009). Facebook, on the other hand, can be used for procrastinating.
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Peoples BK, Midway SR, Sackett D, Lynch A, & Cooney PB (2016). Twitter Predicts Citation Rates of Ecological Research. PloS one, 11 (11) PMID: 27835703
Renear AH, & Palmer CL (2009). Strategic reading, ontologies, and the future of scientific publishing. Science (New York, N.Y.), 325 (5942), 828-32 PMID: 19679805