Retweet or perish
According to one study, Twitter is the most widely used social network for disseminating scientific articles from Brazilian journals
SciELO is an electronic library that consolidates almost 300 Brazilian scientific journals. It was the subject of a groundbreaking study to assess the impact of its articles on websites, blogs and social networks, as well as other electronic media. The study, presented in June 2014 at a webscience conference by Argentine Juan Pablo Alperin, a researcher at the School of Education at Stanford University, arrived at two important conclusions. First: the dissemination of science over the Internet and social networks still seems to be somewhat limited in Brazil. Second: despite the limited penetration, the Twitter microblogging service was the social network with the most references and recommendations for the articles that are found on SciELO.
Of the articles that were published in 2013 by the journals on SciELO, 21,560 were analyzed. Nearly 1,300 papers, or 6.03% of the total, were mentioned in 144-character Twitter posts. Facebook, with five times as many active users as Twitter, came in second in Alperin’s study, with 2.81% of SciELO articles mentioned. According to Alperin, the Facebook figures may be somewhat higher, because only messages on Facebook public profiles were counted. “For example, it was not possible to survey links in closed groups,” the researcher says. The data were obtained from Altmetric, a company that provides tools to monitor Internet references to individuals and corporations, as well as scientific articles.
The performance of other websites and social networks was insignificant. Social network Google+ (connected to Google) and scientific blogs mentioned fewer than 0.1% of the papers. On social network LinkedIn, the most important for the business world, or on Wikipedia, no mention of the articles was found. However, the work did not evaluate the performance of a virtual tool widely used by researchers: Mendeley, which began as software that organizes bibliographic references but turned into an important social network of scientists through which interesting articles are shared with colleagues and students.
Alperin’s study is part of a recent area of bibliometrics known as “altmetrics,” a reference to metrics that provide an alternative to the exclusive use of citations. Altmetrics surfaced for the first time in 2010 and seeks to measure the influence of scientific production by analyzing references on websites and social networks, downloads and retweets. Similar studies of international databases suggest that the impact of scientific documents found on databases from developing countries exceeds what has been observed in Alperin’s work. An article published in 2013 in the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology showed that between 2010 and 2012, of the more than 1.4 million articles in the area of life sciences available simultaneously in the PubMed databases (the most important in the biomedical area) and Web of Science by Thomson Reuters, at least 9.4% were tweeted at least once. Alperin found several explanations for the difference. The first is that, in developed countries, relatively more people are on the Internet. “In second place, I am conducting a study that suggests that about 50% of SciELO users are students. It may be that they are not very inclined to share articles over networks. Finally, it seems to me that Latin American researchers have yet to adopt social networks as working tools the way that colleagues from other countries have,” he believes.
The Lattes Platform
The emergence of Twitter as a social network for disseminating scientific production is being observed by bloggers and researchers who are familiar with this universe. “There are more and more scientists, mainly young ones, who have profiles on Twitter and they routinely use the social network to communicate with colleagues and recommend articles,” says biologist Atila Iamarino, co-founder of the ScienceBlogs Brasil network. Iamarino is now doing post-doctorate work in microbiology at Yale University with a grant from FAPESP. Iamarino observes that in the United States many researchers use the professional network LinkedIn to disseminate their articles because the network has morphed into a platform for resumes. “In Brazil, LinkedIn does not seem to be popular with researchers because our resumes use the Lattes Platform,” he says.
One advantage that may explain why researchers prefer Twitter, Iamarino observes, is the capability of the microblogging network to effectively disseminate information to all followers; this is not the case with Facebook, which generally shares information with a small group of “friends.” “If I publish something on Twitter, I know that all my contacts will have access to my post. With Facebook, I don’t know how many will get it,” he says. To be sure, the emergence of social networks has played a role in the dissemination of science that in the past was the realm of blogs. “Today, blogs contain more in-depth and elaborate texts that are read and commented on by an audience that is interested in them. But the general public is on Facebook and Twitter,” Iamarino notes.
But to what extent can the impact on websites and social networks be compared to the impact traditionally measured by citations? The answer is still under construction, but it indicates that altmetrics – far from replacing measurement systems such as impact factors or the h-index – is emerging as an additional method of measuring the impact of scientific production and monitoring how scientific articles are disseminated and discussed by researchers and laypersons immediately after they are released. In an article published in 2012 in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, Gunther Eysenbach, a researcher at the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation in Canada, showed a correlation between scientific articles with a large number of tweets in the first three days after they were published and those that are extensively cited. However, the coverage of the research was narrow. The analysis was limited to 286 articles solely from the Journal of Medical Internet Research between 2008 and 2011. “There are many articles with a large number of citations that did not spill out onto the social networks, just as there are many articles that were widely shared, such as articles on political or ideological issues that are of interest to researchers, that subsequently were not converted into citations,” Iamarino says. “Likewise, there is a broad range of behavior among the various fields of knowledge, and what we see clearly among life science researchers is not being reproduced in the groups of other disciplines,” he says.