Study: Talking To Reporters Can Boost Scientific Impact (And So Can Twitter)

Photo credit: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

A recent paper in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly highlights the role of public communications in boosting a researcher’s profile in the science community and finds that Twitter appears to increase the impact of those public communication efforts.

This is only the latest article to link news coverage of research to scientific impact (I’ve written about related research here and here), but the new paper does a few things I haven’t seen before. First, it looks at a number of public communications approaches (including working with reporters, blogging and talking to nonscientists) and whether social media mentions affect their impact. Second, the researchers used Jorge Hirsch’s h-index as their metric for measuring scientific impact in the context of public outreach efforts.

The paper, “Building Buzz: (Scientists) Communicating Science in New Media Environments,” by Xuan Liang, et al., was published online Sept. 12. (Full citation below.)

Liang, et al., write that their goal was to explore “whether public outreach via traditional and online media can boost scholars’ academic careers. Specifically, we attempt to address whether new media can amplify the effect of traditional public outreach on scholars’ scientific impact.”

Liang, et al., used the h-index as their proxy for scientific impact, explaining that “a researcher has ‘index h if h of his or her Np papers have at least h citations each and the other (Nph) papers have ≤h citations each,’ so that a high value in h-index indicates a high scientific impact of the researcher.” Note that Np, in this case, is the total number of papers a researcher has published.

For this study, Liang, et al., surveyed 241 of “the most highly cited U.S. scientists within the field of nanotechnology,” asking them about how often they interacted with journalists, how often they talked to nonscientists about their research, and how often they blogged about scientific research. The researchers then collected each survey respondent’s h-index from the Thomson Reuters Web of Science database, as well as data on how often a respondent’s work was mentioned on Twitter. Specifically, Liang, et al., searched for tweets that included a scientist’s name, research, and related links.

Talking to Reporters

The study authors found that researchers who had more interactions with reporters also had higher h-indices – which is consistent with earlier studies by Phillips, et al., and Kiernan that linked news coverage and citations (which, like h-index, are often used as a proxy for scientific impact).

In other words, this provides more proof that talking to reporters may boost a scientist’s impact – and is another blow against the myth that “serious” scientists don’t work with journalists.

However, Liang, et al., did not find any significant relationship between h-index and blogging or talking with nonscientists.

Twitter

The researchers also found that scientists whose work was mentioned on Twitter had higher h-index scores than scientists whose work wasn’t mentioned.

In fact, Twitter appeared to work as an amplifier, boosting the impact of other forms of outreach: scientists who interacted with reporters had higher h-index scores if their work was also mentioned on Twitter, and so did scientists who talked to nonscientists about their work. (Sorry, science bloggers – they still didn’t see a relationship between blogging and h-index.)

Liang, et al., acknowledge the limitations of this study – including the imperfect nature of the h-index as a proxy for scientific impact and the limited sample size.

However, the researchers conclude that “outreach activities, such as interactions with reporters and being mentioned on Twitter, can assist a scientist’s career by promoting his or her scientific impact. More importantly, online buzz (e.g., being mentioned on Twitter) further amplifies the impact of communicating science through traditional outlets on the scholar’s scientific impact.” [Note: the researchers found correlations between public outreach activities and h-index. Correlation and causation are not the same thing. In case that wasn’t clear, I’m stating it explicitly here.]

My Two Cents

Confirmation bias is when people find information, or interpret it, to support their own preconceived notions. And I may be as guilty of this as anyone. That said, this study strengthens arguments that it is worth a scientist’s time to publicize his or her work – particularly by working with reporters. It also supports my longstanding position that using social media is not (necessarily) a waste of time.

The article is well worth reading (I offered the scantest overview here), and I encourage you to peruse it.

And, as always, I’d love to get your feedback. What do you think of the paper?

Note: Thanks to Karl Bates for bringing this paper to my attention.

Citations: “Building Buzz: (Scientists) Communicating Science in New Media Environments,” Xuan Liang, Leona Yi-Fan Su, Sara K. Yeo, Dietram A. Scheufele, Dominique Brossard, Michael Xenos, Paul Nealey, and Elizabeth A. Corley, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, published online 12 September 2014. DOI: 10.1177/1077699014550092

“Importance of the lay press in the transmission of medical knowledge to the scientific community,” David P. Phillips, et al., New England Journal of Medicine, 1991. DOI: 10.1056/NEJM199110173251620

“Diffusion of News About Research,” Vincent Kiernan, Science Communication, September 2003. DOI: 10.1177/1075547003255297

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12 thoughts on “Study: Talking To Reporters Can Boost Scientific Impact (And So Can Twitter)

  1. Paige Brown Jarreau

    I should read the paper before asking, but it seems odd that blogging wouldn’t increase h-index. But then again, it seems that comparing ‘being mentioned’ on Twitter and the act of blogging aren’t the same – it seems the equivalent would be to see if a scientist’s blog was mentioned (in the news etc.) or had a threshold of traffic, etc. In other words, measuring blogging would be more equivalent to measuring simply being ON twitter, where measuring being mentioned on Twitter should have an equivalent ‘impact’ measurement of blogging. Does this make any sense?

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  5. In Matt Shipman’s peice “Talking To Reporters Can Boost Scientific Impact (And So Can Twitter)”, and the original “Buss buidling” article by Liang et al. the focus is the impact of media communication on the reputation of the scientist. This is a necessary and important consideration in the current competitive scientific environment and the broader social and political contexts in which the understanding of science amongst certain sectors and its value is low. We could and should go a step further in our efforts to transfer knowledge to the general public and highlight scientific successes. The long term benefits of good communication by scientists to the community will keeping science relevant. Increased awareness of the contribution of science to various aspects of our lives will continue to provide positive feedback on policy decisions around allocation of funds for science. Articles such as those by Matt and Liang will encourage scientists to find new ways to communicate their work for the short benefit of individual scientists and the long term promotion of science in general.

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