Friday, 8 May 2015

How Articles Get Noticed and Advance the Scientific Conversation - The Official PLOS BlogThe Official PLOS Blog


How Articles Get Noticed and Advance the Scientific Conversation

By Victoria Costello, PLOS Senior Social Media & Community Editor

The good news is you’ve published your manuscript! The bad news? With two million other new research articles
likely to be published this year, you face steep competition for
readers, downloads, citations and media attention — even if only 10% of
those two million papers are in your discipline.

So, how can you get your paper noticed and advance the scientific conversation? 

One word: Tweet.

Tweet (n.) is an online communication of no more than 140 characters
(often containing links), transmitted on the public “social network”
known as Twitter. When you Tweet (v.), you enter a conversation of
Twitter users.
In a PLOS BLOGS guest post, Gozde Ozakinci (@gozde786), a
lecturer in health psychology at the University of St. Andrews,
Scotland, offered an exemplary use of Twitter in a research workflow.

I dip in and out during the day and each time I have a
nugget of information that I find useful. I feel that with Twitter, my
academic world expanded to include many colleagues I wouldn’t otherwise
meet. … The information shared on Twitter is so much more current than
you would find on journals or conferences.
Of course, Ozakinci and her Twitter-savvy colleagues are still the minority among academic researchers.

An odd coupling, with baggage

To most scientists, for whom an initial meeting with Twitter is the
opposite of love at first sight, this conversation may as well be
happening on another planet. At first glance, they find Twitter facile, a
time suck, beneath them — and go no farther. Missing from this
dismissive view is an understanding of Twitter as a neutral medium for
communication (280 mil monthly users) that is quickly gaining currency among
a leading edge of researchers who are exchanging science news and
information, data files, feedback on articles, methods, tools,
jobs, grants and more — across continents and disciplines.

If you are among the uninitiated, and have a research article coming
out soon, how might you join them? A priori, if your
goals are to exploit this medium for your own ends and advance the larger scientific conversation, some conventional wisdom must be jettisoned.

The first thing to let go of is the quaint idea that your science
should speak for itself. Second is the fear, still rife among
scientists, that the act of communicating research beyond institutional
walls puts your reputation at risk for the “Sagan Effect;” or, in more current pop culture terms, that you’ll become the science equivalent of Kim Kardashian. A recent Google+ Hangout from SciFund Challenge, titled Using Social Media without Blowing up Your Scientific Career, offers testimonials from some real life scientists to challenge this outdated view.

By joining the scientific conversation on social media you’re not exactly breaking new ground. A 2015 PEW poll of AAAS members (scientists and others) found that 47% had used social media  to follow or discuss science. Going deeper, in an August 2014 Nature
survey, some 60% of 2500 research scientists polled regularly visit
Google Scholar (~60%) and ResearchGate (~40%); and, to a lesser extent,
Google+, and Linked-in to post CVs and papers — essentially
engaging in a one-way form of scholarly communication; talking, not
necessarily listening.

Farther ahead on the social media curve is a 13% subset of the Nature
group who are involved a two-way conversation with their scientific
peers. These scientists describe their use of Twitter, in particular, as
a platform to comment on and discuss research that is relevant to
their field. Another term for this practice is “micro-blogging.”

If the end game is impact, the way there is engagement

Engagement between authors and readers of research articles comes in
many forms,  characterized by rising levels of interaction. A potential
range is illustrated in this figure from a PLOS ONE study looking
at reader responses to 16 articles in the pain sciences disseminated
using social media. As the authors point out, the collection of metrics
for more complex levels of reader engagement (impact) is still in
a nascent stage. For example, a measurement of the number of readers
who apply a newly published research finding to clinical practice is
currently not available, although it seems likely that a self-interested
tech sector will meet this challenge, and meet it soon.

A 2013 study in PLOS ONE tracked the impact of social media on the dissemination of research articles, with 6 levels of  engagement identified between readers and the published research.
2013 study in PLOS ONE tracked the impact of social media on the
dissemination of research articles, with 6 levels of engagement
identified between readers and the published research.
What about my paper?

As a researcher looking for readers, your imperative is more basic.
With many more of your peers going to social media to push out their
latest work, the status quo of one-way science communication will no
longer suffice. Even if all you’re after is readers for your article, it
behooves you to use these newly available tools to stand out in
a crowded field.

This is where micro-blogging, and Twitter, in particular, come in.
Here are five tips to help you join the growing number of scientists and
students who are leading their peers to the likely future of
scientific communication.

11_Twitter tips_image

Tip 1. Get on Twitter and describe yourself in five words or less

To get started on Twitter you
must choose a “handle” (user name) which sums you up — in 160
characters or less. This can actually be a very useful exercise. What makes your research contribution different from everyone else’s?

  • To create a pithy Twitter profile and find your peers, follow the
    model of cancer bioinformatics researcher, B.F. Francis Ouellette (@bffo),
    by coming up with three to five words to describe your work. Use key
    words; include methods, disciplines and related fields, institutions,
    journals, diseases or occupations that relate to your science.

  • Add a photo of yourself or an avatar but save the pic of you kissing
    your pit bull, like your passion for artisan beers, for your Facebook
    or Instagram page. (Most scientists wisely keep their personal and
    professional social media accounts separate).
A PLOS Biology perspective
provides an overview of what social media can do for scientists, with a
comprehensive primer on how best to get started, including on Twitter.

Tip 2. Tweet the way you talk, not the way you lecture or write your science

If, like most scientists, you’re a collaborator at heart, use Twitter
as a place to share your knowledge; mentor and be mentored; discuss and
debate the merits of research. Make your Twitter “voice” reflect your
real personality. Keep it casual.

back of the napkin

What should you tweet?

  • Recommend links to online content of interest. Say why you’ve singled out that research article or blog post for a mention.
  • Ask questions and flag concerns.
  • Offer deserved compliments and congratulations to your fellow researchers.
A word on word choices

To connect and thrive on Twitter, you must give up the jargon.

  • This tip also applies to the titles of your papers. Turn obtuse
    technical lingo into plain language, make it catchy, and many more of
    your peers will click through to read the paper – even those who would
    have perfectly understood the original title! Here, an author distilled
    the (not terrible, but terribly long) article title “The Shear Stress of
    Host Cell Invasion: Exploring the Role of Biomolecular Complexes,” into
    the tweet below. Got your attention faster, right?
tweet title
  • If your article contains a striking image or figure by all means
    tweet it too – and not just the cute animals. Even a virus can be a
    beautiful, especially to your fellow scientists. And, hot off the press,
    Twitter now allows posting of video clips.
Remember, your immediate goal is to acquire attention for a newly
published article. Longer term, you’re after relevance in the ongoing
scientific conversation. To track how well you’re doing at both, check
out Article Level Metrics (ALMs), which measure impact in terms of views, downloads, comments, citations and media coverage for each of your articles.

Tip 3. Optimize your Twitter time with advanced tools

After finding and interacting with an initial group of your peers by
following them, being followed back, tweeting and retweeting items of
interest, you’re ready to try some more advanced community and
conversation-building tools, including Twitter “lists” and “tweet

  • A Twitter list is an option on your profile
    settings which allows you to group together colleagues in one easily
    accessed virtual file. Then you can *Tweet to individuals on this list
    or turn the name you’ve given it into a “hashtag” such as
    #PLOSNeuro. For efficiency, track conversations among users of this
    hashtag using a multiple-Twitter stream monitoring app such as
  • Cross promote on your blog. If you maintain an individual blog, display your Twitter stream on its home page to facilitate comments and discussion in both places. (WordPress has a widget for this purpose).
  • A Tweet chat or Tweet up is a live, regularly-scheduled Twitter conversation typically used to discuss a single topic or paper. For a good model, visit #PubHT, a biweekly Twitter discussion group on public health issues, described in detail in group member Atif Kukaswadia’s (@Mr_Epid) blog post.
The more ambitious social media-minded researcher can try online curation tools – among them and —
to assemble tweets, which they can then post in blogs as topical
science stories, conference reports or on altmetrics-based CVs.

Tip 4. Go where the scientific conversation goes 

Most authors would probably prefer that readers of research articles
say whatever they have to say about their work in the comments section
immediately below the article on the publisher’s website. And yet, as
discussed above, this train has already left the station; like it or
not, the conversation has moved.

In the view of Jonathan Eisen (@phyogenomics), a prolific blogger and tweeter and a long-time PLOS Biology Editorial Board member, formal comments sections will continue to lose any participation they once had.

“I guarantee there are more comments on Twitter about a PLOS paper,” he said.
To become a part of this fast-growing culture of decentralized
assessment of scientific research, try using Twitter to share your
(abbreviated ) feedback on new articles. Then add a link to the
published article — which may or may not contain a longer version of
your comment.

pmri conversation
Hopefully, Professor Eisen’s prediction isn’t yet a done deal and
publishers, including PLOS, will fully rise to the challenge of making
continuous assessment of the research a “no brainer” both on and off
journal sites.

For its part, PLOS is facilitating scientist-to-scientist
communication in discipline-specific communities. These dedicated
PLOS pages are run by Community Editors external to PLOS, who
are supported by staff and academic editors from the PLOS journals.
Community editors crowdsource researcher feedback on previously
published articles contained in PLOS Collections, and new research
published by PLOS and other non-PLOS journals. This program began in
2014 with PLOS Neuroscience and PLOS Synthetic Biology,
with others to be added in 2015. Critiques (comments) on research
articles are posted in a community blog featuring original and
syndicated posts, with blog posts amplified by real-time micro-blogging
from Twitter lists posted on these same pages.

Meanwhile, the Twitter part of this larger scientific conversation is
here to stay, no matter where it “lives.” For a model of how Twitter,
Facebook, Linked-in and WordPress blogging can be integrated into an
academic science work flow, particularly that of early career
researchers and students, read this blog post from Stewart Barker, a 1st year PhD student in microbiology at The University of Sheffield.

Tip 5. Use Twitter to crowdsource your science as an information provider and recipient

We start from the premise that the scientific community can reliably
be counted on to “root out the rubbish.” Rubbish in this context usually
refers to bad science, or misleading interpretations of good research.

crowd source

In a similar vein, science-based Twitter networks are proving to be rich
and reliable sources for rapidly offering and receiving highly
specialized information – with questions and answers flowing from
scientist to scientist and between scientists and science journalists.
For an example of the latter,  journalist Seth Mnookin (@SethMnookin) describes
crowdsourcing a complex genetics question while on a tight deadline,
with help arriving just in time from UCLA geneticist Leonid Kruglayak (@leonidkruglayak).

SciComm ripple effects

The ongoing adoption of Twitter is having a measurable effect on individual scientists in terms of increased productivity and readership, even if the jury is still out on a correlation between Tweets and citations.

Beyond the individual benefits for scientists who incorporate Twitter into their research life cycles, altmetrics researcher (and coiner of the term) Jason Priem, writing in 2011,
saw scientists interacting on Twitter as a “revolutionary form of
scholarly communication,” one which could “transform centuries-old
publishing practices into a much more efficient and organic vast registry of intellectual transactions.” 

“Registry” is an interesting choice of words in that it suggests a
permanent record. Seemingly transient, the 140 characters you tweet
today remain accessible far longer than you might think (Twitter has
recognized the value customers place on the ability to recreate their
tweeting histories and have made it possible to go back a full seven
years – the entire lifetime of Twitter – to find up to 3200 tweets
per user). There’s even talk of giving tweets their own Digital Object
Identifiers or DOIs. Meanwhile, the Modern Language Association (MLA)
provides a standard format for citing a single tweet in an academic manuscript.

Embrace the wider effects. Once you find your voice and engage with fellow scientists via online social networks, you will
draw the attention of science journalists with direct access to an
international online audience of readers you cannot reach on your
own. Fortunately, your needs and theirs are symbiotic: science writers
need research news and you can supply it. How likely they are to select
your article, and how accurately they interpret the essence and
significance of your findings, depend on how widely and clearly you
communicate your science — after your research article is published.  This is where your institution’s Public Information Office (PIO) can play a pivotal role, especially
if you stay involved by checking the press release for clarity and
accuracy and by exploiting your own network for outreach.

In the view of many in the broad scientific community, your job doesn’t end there.

 In light of the recent PEW poll
revealing large gaps between scientists’ and public views on critical
scientific issues, many scientists are re-evaluating their individual
responsibility to communicate directly with the general public. If, as
UK Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Mark Walport recently told
a meeting of climate scientists, “Science isn’t finished until it’s
communicated,” it follows that scientists’ use of large public social
media platforms such as Twitter to explain their science will
be increasingly considered a vital part of a researcher’s work flow.
How might the wider adoption of social media impact the entire
scientific enterprise? Join the conversation and you’ll be among the
first to find out.

A PLOS invitation: no time like the present

If you have an article coming out any time soon, this just may be a
Goldilocks moment for you and your research team to take the plunge into


To celebrate our recently passed milestone of reaching 70,000
Twitter followers (200K if we include all PLOS journals), PLOS has an
invitation for you. If you’ll take a moment now to create your own
Twitter account, then follow us @PLOS, we will strive to be among the first to follow you back.

And, while you’re choosing who else to follow, please consider the PLOS journals:








Thank you and we’ll see you on Twitter!

*Thanks to @sharmanedit for pointing out that it isn’t possible to
“Tweet to a Twitter list” as this had read previously. Still useful as a
Rolodex like file keeping system, I find.

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