How online outreach adds value to scientific research

Author: Nick Dragojlovic, 03/04/15

Scientists: I have some questions.

Have you ever written a blog post about your field? Tweeted a link to a new scientific publication? Joined a forum discussion about the latest research?

As it turns out, your likelihood of answering “yes” to one or more of these questions is no better than a coin flip. Fifity-two percent of respondents to a 2014 Nature News survey reported never having engaged in an online discussion about research. The recent Pew Research Center’s survey of AAAS members backs up this statistic. Only 47% of their respondents reported using social media to discuss or follow science, and only 24% said they blog about science and research.

This is a sad state of affairs. For one, in an era in which a growing number of people get their information about scientific advances online, scientists cannot afford to remain unengaged. Areas of science as diverse as embryonic stem cell research and vaccinations have triggered bitter societal debates. Active participation in public outreach by the scientists conducting this research is crucial to defending its value.

And it’s not just me saying that outreach is a public good. Eighty-seven percent of the Pew survey’s respondents agreed that scientists should “take [an] active role in public policy debates about science & technology.” The problem, it would seem, is that many of those same respondents didn’t perceive any concrete research or career benefits to engaging in outreach, with only 22% feeling that promoting their work on social media is important for career advancement. Indeed, in the Nature News survey only 43%, 30%, and 17% of respondents, respectively, felt that their online network was useful in attracting collaborators, future employers, or funding.

In short, scientists overwhelmingly agree that public engagement is good for Science™, but not particularly useful to advance their own science. Thankfully, there’s growing evidence that the latter sentiment is just wrong.

3 reasons online outreach is good for your research?

An emerging genre in the scientific blogosphere features testimonials about the varied array of professional benefits that can be derived from using social media. I won’t go over these again in this blog post. Instead, because scientists care about science, here are three ways in which online engagement can help scientists to advance not just their careers, but their actual research.

Scientific Impact – Early post-publication blog citations and Twitter mentions of an article are both correlated with an increased number of future citations in scientific journals. In fact, a recent study found not only that researchers whose work was mentioned on Twitter tended to have a higher h-index, but also that this increased the impact of their interactions with traditional news media.

Clearly, these relationships may not be causal (it could be that bloggers and Twitter-users are just good at spotting future high-impact papers), but they do suggest that researchers who are able to generate online discussion of their work may be able to extend the reach of their findings and ideas. Social media activity can also be used as an alternative impact metric, and funding agencies themselves are beginning to explore whether it can serve as a proxy measure of, for example, a paper’s impact among the policy community.

Crowdfunding – A growing number of biomedical researchers are trying to crowdfund specific research projects, and while many fail, others have succeeded in raising significant amounts of money. A study of 97 crowdfunding campaigns focused on cancer research, for example, found that they raised an average of $45,629 from donations that averaged $186.

Crucially, a study published by the creators of the #SciFund Challenge found that Twitter outreach was one of the key drivers of crowdfunding success in the scientific arena. Their broader conclusion is that scientists who hope to crowdfund their research need to focus on building an audience for their work. Based on their findings, I’ve estimated that a scientist with a good, but not stellar, online network could expect to raise up to $20,000 in a 30-day crowdfunding campaign. A strong online outreach effort can also provide long-term benefits, including connecting scientists with wealthy donors and angel investors if they decide to try to commercialize their research.

Crowdsourcing – Finally, scientists can tap their online network to recruit participants for crowdsourced research projects, which are now commonly used by biomedical researchers. A great example is the Scripps Research Institute’s Andrew Su, who just completed a pilot test of Mark2Cure, a citizen science project in which participants helped to annotate medical research articles to help draw new inferences from the literature. The crowdsourced annotation of the test corpus was as accurate as that completed by biocurators with PhDs, and, needless to say, depended entirely on recruiting willing participants, largely through social media.

Getting Started

So if you’re one of the 50% of scientists who has yet to start blogging, Tweeting, or Pinning, fear not. To be effective, you don’t need to join every platform (I spend most of my social media time on Twitter and LinkedIn). Thankfully, there are also a growing number of excellent guides available that can help you to make sense of the bewildering array of social media platforms. You can use this paper and this guide, both tailored to scientists’ needs, to get a sense of which platforms might be the best fit for you.

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Nick Dragojlovic
Nick Dragojlovic is a health services researcher at the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences. He has previously held postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Calgary and at UBC, and has received funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research. He holds a BA from Yale University and an MA and PhD from UBC. Nick is particularly interested in the use of alternative finance mechanisms to support scientific research, and covers the topic on his blog: Funded Science
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