Finding the science in social media

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Research Publishing
By: Richard Barley , Sat Dec 23 2017
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Author: Richard Barley

Senior Social Media Manager, Springer Nature

On this planet of nearly 8bn people, more than 3bn of us use social media each month [*]. This staggering growth, from the early days of social as a means to keep in touch with friends, to the essential “global town square” that it has now become, is both remarkable and yet unsurprising. As humans, we have a need to feel connected to something larger than ourselves; to be a part of a community and to share our thoughts, opinions and (let’s be honest) cat pictures with others. In the technology-driven society of the last 20 years, this desire to be connected has been largely satisfied by the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but it could be argued that these tools have also driven society further apart.

Social Media © Pexels

Social media has been at the centre of revolutions, given a voice to those silenced by governments and traditional media, and has highlighted incredible stories from across the globe that would have otherwise been unheard. However, from the outside it may seem like a frivolous waste of time - a place for arguments and celebrity gossip. It has also given a platform to hatred, amplified the message of groups considered unwelcome in civilised society, and caused misery for some who have been subjected to online abuse. In recent years, even the definition of “truth” and “facts” are being brought into question every day by high-profile accounts.

So while social media is being used as a new tool for research and dissemination of research, some are skeptical of its wider usefulness and are choosing not to engage. However, as it provides access to a significant audience who are looking to read, share and understand scientific research, are these researchers missing a trick by not engaging, as social media could be equated to a giant, global research conference. There will be heated discussions, disagreements and differences of opinion, but, ultimately, there will be debate, interesting discoveries and new connections to be made.

Science is a hugely popular subject on social media, with some of the most popular science-based accounts boasting tens of millions of followers. But with most scholarly articles hosted elsewhere, how many of these followers are clicking through to read the actual articles?

Science is a hugely popular subject on social media, with some of the most popular science-based accounts boasting tens of millions of followers.

In her post on The Source, Penny Freedman examines a recent study from Scientometrics, and concluded that “article visits directed by social referrals account for about 12.10 % (final period) to 15.41 % (initial period) of total visits“. With 76.88% of the visits from social media being generated in the initial week after publication, there is clearly a hunger for new science.

But it’s not just about chasing clicks. The power of social media to bring together communities to encourage debate and discovery should not be ignored.

For example, a recent BMC ‘On Medicine’ blog post highlighted how the medical critical care community has organically developed a series of hashtags to share medical research and other resources via social media. The Free Open Access Medical (FOAM) education movement uses hashtags such as #FOAMcc and #FOAMped to discuss topics related to, in these cases, critical care and pediatrics. Search for content under the related #POCUS hashtag and you will find medical professionals sharing clips of ultrasound videos to promote discussion and learning. Across every field of science you will find similar communities, making the most of the unprecedented connectivity we now have at our fingertips in order to advance understanding, share discoveries and gain new insights.

One of the reasons often cited for people abandoning social media, is that they don’t feel that their follower numbers are significant enough, and that “nobody is listening”. This sense of insignificance can multiplied by the tendency to compare one’s own account with that of high-profile, “celebrity” users - a comparison that is not only unhealthy, but also unfair.

In his recent paper on Genome Biology, Neil Hall, from the Centre for Genomic Research at University of Liverpool, introduced the notion of a Kardashian Index to quantify the “discrepancy between a scientist’s social media profile and publication record based on the direct comparison of numbers of citations and Twitter followers”.

While this “study” is, in the main, not altogether serious, there is a very important conclusion drawn. That is the importance of not just listening to the “loudest voice” on social media. There are many users of social media, across all industries and walks of life, who have managed to gain a large following. However, simply having huge numbers of people subscribed to receive updates from an individual should not in itself grant that individual any greater level of authority or trustworthiness on any particular subject. Often, the most knowledgeable input will come from those users with much smaller follower numbers, who would normally be drowned out in the crowd.

This is particularly clear when applying the “K-Index” to the scientific community, where the majority of “Kardashians”, those with a much larger discrepancy between their follower and citation numbers, were found to be men. A clear reminder, as if one were needed, to seek out diverse views and make judgements on expertise, not popularity.   

At Springer Nature we believe that social media is a vital tool for everyone involved in the academic research and publishing process, which can help advance discovery, learning and understanding.

At Springer Nature we believe that social media is a vital tool for everyone involved in the academic research and publishing process, which can help advance discovery, learning and understanding. We encourage everyone to make use of social to share knowledge and make ideas widely accessible. For example, our SharedIt tool allows for free and easy sharing of subscription articles in our journals across multiple platforms, including social.  And, as a part of this ever-growing community with nearly half the world’s population within our collective reach, perhaps we can ensure that the future of this globally-connected planet is founded in something that we should all be happy to share - sound science.

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Author: Richard Barley

Senior Social Media Manager, Springer Nature

Richard Barley is the Senior Social Media Manager at Springer Nature, having joined the company in March 2018 to cover the maternity leave of our Head of Social Media. Richard’s career has followed the growth of social media, starting at TweetDeck, then Twitter UK, before going on to roles at the BBC and HSBC, while also running his own social consultancy company. Richard now leads our Social Media team, with responsibility for sharing the best content from across Springer Nature, while supporting the growth of social within the organisation.

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