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How We Retweet Science

We like studies that tell us about ourselves and world events, but hey, we also like a good laugh.
The title page from the first issue of Nature, the most frequently tweeted journal, in 1869. Image via Wikipedia

In the age of social media, we can gauge how influential something is—a book, a website, a journal article—by how often it gets shared. Or at least that’s how many of us think. A study published in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology demonstrates that such an assumption may not necessarily be true of scientific journals.

A group of researchers sought to examine the use and dissemination of scientific journals on Twitter. What kinds of articles get shared? Which journals garner the most attention? Does sharing correspond to a larger influence in the scientific community? To answer those questions, the researchers analyzed the nexus between Twitter and 1.4 million biomedical articles from the 2010 to 2012, found on PubMed and Web of Science.


Their results showed that although the number of articles being tweeted over time is increasing, the total number of articles tweeted is still relatively low, at 9.4 percent. Despite that, out of the 3,812 journals analyzed, 97.7 percent had obtained a tweet for at least one article. (The other 2.3 percent must be really niche.)

Journals with the highest Twitter coverage tended to fall into the category of general science or medicine, followed by psychology, nutrition, and sexuality. Of those, Nature reigned supreme over Twitter, acquiring the superlative of “Most Frequently Tweeted.”

Naturally, having research shared is a good thing, as it helps support discourse and the dissemination of current information. But what makes science shareable?

The researchers list the 15 most tweeted articles and find that they can be characterized in three ways. Some are “curious or funny,” like the article “Penile fracture seems more likely during sex under stressful situations.” Some are health-related, like “Minimum amount of physical activity for reduced mortality and extended life expectancy.” Others touch upon disaster, such as the paper entitled “Cesium-137 deposition and contamination of Japanese soils due to the Fukushima nuclear incident.

Beyond delineating Twitter coverage and citations, the researchers also address whether or not tweets correspond to greater influence in the scientific community based on the number of citations of an article in peer-reviewed journals. Regarding this, the researchers write, “Given the low correlations found here on a very large data set of both tweets and citations… we argue that Twitter citations do not reflect traditional research impact.”


This makes a lot of sense for two reasons. First, many scientists haven’t acclimated to using Twitter as a means of publicity just yet—an earlier study cited by the re demonstrated that only one in 40 use Twitter. Additionally, Twitter speaks to a wider audience, not just scientists. So while a piece may take off in the Twittersphere, that doesn’t necessarily reflect it taking off in academia.

As interesting as this is, one thought that popped into my head as I was reading the piece is that another approach to a study of this nature could include posts like this one on science-related blogs, rather than direct links to the journal article itself. Even if the URL attached to an article might not get shared a lot itself (paywall, anyone?), write-ups addressing the article may get more tweets.

Rehashing the last year at Motherboard, I can think of several posts off the top of my head that fall into the most popular categories as outline by this study. Curious and funny? We’ve got “Dads With Bigger Balls Care Less About Their Kids” and “Science Proves That Life Is One Big Action Movie.” Health-related? “Obesity in America is Three Times More Deadly Than We Thought.” Studies about disasters? We’ve got “Only Twenty Percent of the Top Tweets During the Boston Marathon Were True.” All these articles were tweeted by us and then by independent readers.

Similar conclusions were reached by a recent report from a British metrics company looking at the shareability of research publications. Highly shareable papers came from a broad spectrum of science, with the weird, surprising, and timely generally doing the best. (As is the case with just about anything published online.) But that study also found that the level at which papers themselves were shared paled in comparison to how much corresponding news reports get spread around.

It's long been the same situation: Some research gets all the headlines, while much of it is left by the wayside. If anything, the rise of specialist blogs and social tools has given more research room in the spotlight. In any case, since the social web is largely dominated by non-scientists, using social metrics to try to decide the worth of research isn't ideal.

Ultimatelly, the new study suggests that while Twitter popularity may not translate to scientific impact, it does give us some measure of what those beyond the bounds of academia care about the most. And here’s what we learned: we like studies that tell us about ourselves and world events, but hey, we also like a good laugh.

H/T Businessweek