Putting a value on science communication

For many scientists, communicating the ideas that underpin their areas of expertise to the public and policy makers is critical. Sharing the findings of research could make a difference to people’s lives, even if it is just to increase their appreciate of science and the world around them. But how do we value the communication of science by scientists?

Scientists often bemoan the lack of acknowledgment of their scientific communications and community engagement efforts. There is little doubt that these “outreach” activities receive far less “academic credit” than publication in high impact journals.

Writing for “popular science” outlets is often perceived to be a career negative. While some argue there needs to be capacity for the community engagement efforts of scientists to be acknowledged in the assessment of academic accomplishment, others argue against it. Regardless of your motivations, if you’re going to engage in science communication, it is best to make the most of your activities but even when your research goes vial, how can you put a value on this?

How can you value your science communications in a way that may be recognised for employment, promotion, grant applications etc?

repellentbandOne of my recent articles for The Conversation, why mosquitoes seem to bite some people more, went a little bit viral. Almost 1.3 million people clicked on that article. Would I swap it for an article in Nature (or any other scholarly publication with a high impact factor) that only 20 people read? Probably as it would make a far more valuable contribution to my career…but would it have the same potential to change people’s awareness and behaviour in avoiding mosquito bites? Probably not.

I’ve written before about the importance of social media in getting the public health messages informed by my research out to the public. A blog post I wrote about the shortcomings of mosquito repellent wrist bands in protecting people against mosquito bites is the most read post on my blog. Since first published, the article “Do mosquito repellent wrist bands work?” has been read by around 47,000 people. The original paper, published in a journal without an impact factor, may have been read by only dozens of people if I hadn’t written about it on my blog.

repellents2

I’m increasingly asked to provide evidence of “engagement” or “translation” activities associated with my research. This is particularly the case for my activities with Centre for infectious Disease and Microbiology Public Health where translating research for improved public health outcomes is a key objective. Those outcomes have generally been focused on providing informed guidance to local authorities on infectious disease surveillance, diagnosis and treatment.

What about community engagement?

I wanted to share how I’ve been trying to value my science communication activities in recent years. My general approach to this is to document as much detail as possible about individual activities, try to quantify the reach of activities (as much as possible) and to try to use my experience with these activities into what could be best described as my “core” activities.

In the same way you may incorporate a new laboratory technique or statistical analysis into your research, why not incorporate your science communication activities similarly?

Webb_NineNews_March2015

Every summer I find myself standing in the mangroves talking to a camera (while being bitten by mosquitoes)

Media activities

In the summer past, I’ve been interviewed about 50 times on research findings, disease outbreaks and topical issues associated with mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease. This level of activity clearly holds the potential to engage the wider community with important public health messages as well as (hopefully) improve their understanding of local scientists and their research.

While keeping a track of the interviews and their details (date, topic, journalist, outlet etc) is handy, it is also possible to go beyond that to record audience reach and assign a relative value. This is where you’ll need the help of your institute’s media and communications unit. They should be able to obtain reports from media monitoring organisations that keep track of details (interview summary points and duration, audience size, estimated value) associated with media activities.

For example, on 16 January 2015 I did a live cross to Channel 7’s Sunrise program. The interview ran for just over 3 minutes, issues about mosquito-borne disease risk and personal protection measures were covered, it had an estimated audience of over 500,000 and was valued at around $200,000.

Over the course of a year (or perhaps a research project), it is possible to assign both a financial and engagement value? For me, the media activities over the 2014-2015 summer had an estimate audience of around 8 million and value of over $600,000. This extra level of detail adds so much extra weight to the value of science communications activities.

mosquitobites_magazines

Mosquito Bites is the bulletin of the Mosquito Control Association of Australia. Distributed to members throughout Australia and many other countries, it provides information on the operational aspects of mosquito and mosquito-borne disease management.

Popular science writing

I regularly contribute articles to non-scholarly publications, these include newsletters, bulletins and magazines produced by local community groups, industry bodies and scientific associations. As well as recording the specific details about each article, it is also possible to record circulation as a measure of engagement.

If you need to add a financial value to these articles, why not consider what the current rates are for freelance journalists? They seem to be around $0.40-1.00 per word, that makes any (non-scholarly journal) writing associated with research projects as an “in kind” contribution valued at around $500-600? Planning on writing an article associated with an upcoming research project, why not include this extra value as an “in kind” contribution?

I regularly write for The Conversation. The website provides excellent data on the readership of individual articles (including with respect to other contributors from your institution) in addition to republication and social network sharing. Most of my articles receive around 6,000-8,000 reads but many have also reached around 20,000. Again, this is typically substantially greater exposure than received by my articles in scholarly journals. Recording this additional information would help make a handy argument that non-academic writing holds value, especially when arguing about research translation.

Output from @mozziebites Twitter Analytics for February 2015

Output from @mozziebites Twitter Analytics for February 2015 showing data on impressions and engagement with my Tweets during the month.

Social media activity

Got a Twitter account or Facebook page? It is obviously great to keep track of your follower numbers, retweets, likes and shares of tweets and posts. It is a way to demonstrate engagement with the community. I started tracking my activity on Twitter early on. I was partly interested in whether people would engage with tweets about mozzies but I also wanted to demonstrate to my “bosses” that using social media for “work purposes” had some benefits in line with the public health objectives of my research activities. There was also a very nice paper published in 2012 that provided a framework for assessing the engagement of health authorities with social media and I wanted to gather similar data.

For Twitter users, you can access data on your own account via Twitter Analytics. It provides plenty of useful information, especially engagements (i.e. total number of times a user interacted with a Tweet, including retweets, replies, follows, favorites, links, cards, hashtags, embedded media, username, profile photo, or Tweet expansion), impressions (i.e. times a user is served a Tweet in timeline or search results) and link clicks (i.e. clicks on a URL in the Tweet). This kind of data can help demonstrate the extent to which the online community is interacting with your own social media activity.

It will also help if you engage with your institution on social media. Help promote their activities and those of your colleagues and collaborators. In turn they’ll help raise your profile too.

ABCOpenDay_ParramattaPark_WebbGiggle

Speaking at public events provides opportunities to meet a wide cross section of the community….even celebrities such as Jimmy Giggle at the ABC community event at Parramatta Park, April 2014.

Community presentations

Every year i speak at a range of community events. In the past year or so I’ve spoken at such diverse events as Sydney Olympic Park Authority’s Life in the Park, Australian Skeptics in the Pub, Cumberland Birds Observer’s Cub meeting, Oatley Flora and Fauna Conservation Society meeting and Pint of Science. This provides an opportunity to speak to a wide cross section of the community but is also an opportunity to document experience in communicating to different audiences.

As well as keeping track of these speaking engagements (date, title, location, hosting organisation), I also try to record the number of attendees and most of the time I make a note of questions asked. This, again, is a way to document engagement/translation of research. It can also form a foundation for how you may shape research, it has particularly been the case for me reviewing the way we share public health information relating to the promotion of insect repellent use.

Communications and publications

Finally, think about ways you can parlay your experience with science communication into output that’s recognised by your organisation or institute. Why not write a perspectives piece, commentary or letter to the editor? I’m regularly seeing articles popping up in peer reviewed journals explaining the benefits of using social media, why not target a journal within your field that may not have covered the topic. You only need to see the metrics on this paper, ‘An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists‘, to realise that there is plenty of interest and having an extra journal article under your belt won’t hurt either.

Similarly, if you’re being asked to speak at conferences and workshops on your use of social media and/or science communication strategies, make sure you’re recording all those details too.

To conclude, there may not (yet) be a magic number to assign to your science communications activity in the same way impact factors and altmetrics help measure the success of traditional academic output. However, that doesn’t mean you cannot record a bunch of “metrics” associated with science communications, both online and off, that will hopefully better place you for that next job offer or promotion.

What do you think? How do you document your scientific communications activities? Join the conversation on Twitter.

The five best non-buggy things about Entomology 2014

portland_oldtownThere was lots of love about Entomology 2014 but some of the biggest highlights had nothing to do with the bugs. Here are some non-entomological hits from the conference.

1. Portland, OR.

Host city makes a difference. I know many considerations are taken into account when deciding on a venue but an interesting host city (or region) can really tip the scales. Portland was a great decision. One of the great things about Portland was that it provided many conversation starters. Tips on where to find the best coffee, craft beer and donuts dominated plenty of on- and offline conversations during the course of the meeting (plus a few “field trips” thrown in for good measure).

I’ve seen interesting/new locations boost the numbers of conference attendees for the Australian Entomological Society and Mosquito Control Association of Australia in recent years too.

bluestardonuts2. Free public transport

Brilliant. With the meeting attracting over 3,000 people, it wasn’t possible to hold the event at a single venue that also provided accommodation for the bulk of attendees. As everyone was spread out across the city, getting back and forth from the Oregon Convention Center could have been quite tricky. Portland has a great public transport network but, better still, conference registrants received a free pass for travel throughout the course of the meeting! It certainly took the stress out of getting around.

sizzlepie3. Promotion of social media

The Entomological Society of America really needs to be congratulated on the way they’re employed social media as a critical component of their scientific conferences. I’ve been to conferences where social media has been tolerated but rarely encouraged. At this meeting, social media use was integrated into the day-to-day conference experience.

There was promotion of #EntSoc14 before, during and after the meeting. From the registration website to the opening address by David Gammel, social media was embraced and encouraged. Probably the best element was the use of a series of large screens throughout the conference center with a cascade of twitter and instagram posts. There was even a large display in the trade hall! Wonderful idea because it brought the “non-tweeting” conference attendees into the mix. I had a few a few conversations with people who don’t use social media but tracked me down because they’d seen tweets on the screen earlier in the meeting.

tweetscreen

An example of the “social media screens” dotted throughout the conference venue (Source: Christie Bahlai ‏@cbahlai)

Having an opportunity to meet in real life many of the wonderful people I’d only ever corresponded with via social media was one fo the highlights of the conference.

I was tempted to post something about tweeting at conference but there are already a bunch of great resources on the use of social media during conferences. Here are just a few “How to live-tweet a conference: A guide for conference organizers and twitter users“, “A Guide to Tweeting at Scientific Meetings for Social Media Veterans” and “Ten Simple Rules of Live Tweeting at Scientific Conferences“.

Here are the key slides (plus a bonus) from my conference presentation on the use of social media to extend the reach of public health messages:

4. Free WiFi

Whether we like it or not, we’re tethered to work. I learned a valuable lesson this year when I took myself “off the grid” for a few weeks during a holiday break. It took me the best part of a month to catch up. Being able to regularly check in with work emails during a conference (without having to pay exorbitant access rates) really helps. It is also handy chasing up papers referenced in presentations and other resources shared throughout the conference.

I know it is no fun seeing a conference room full of people checking email during someone’s presentation and I personally don’t do it myself. However, there were plenty of places and spaces to sit down and do that outside the presentation rooms.

5. A sustainable conference venue

I know this isn’t always possible but having a conference venue that put a high priority on sustainability was great. From recycling of coffee cups to stormwater runoff, most of the bases were covered. Nice for me, given my interest in constructed wetlands and stormwater management, to see the systems in place at the Oregon Conference Center.

Oregonconvention_urbanstormwaterTo some, these may seem like trivial aspects of a major scientific conference but they really made for a great experience at Entomology 2014 for me.

What do you love (or loathe) about scientific conferences (beyond the science itself)? Join the conversation on Twitter.

Can social media help track environmental change?

saltmarshrehabilitation_KGIA picture may well tell a thousand words but what if that picture is tweeted, shared and liked? Could social media help engage the community with local wetlands? Could it assist in crowd sourced tracking of environmental change?

After the fire comes the photos

Using photography to track post-bushfire environmental change is common in Australia where bush fires are a part of life. Scientific publications and technical reports produced across the country have used “before and after” photos to highlight the dramatic change, and equally dramatic recovery, seen in the Australian bush after fire.

How can we incorporate social media in tracking this post-fire recovery? Perhaps it could even play a role in boosting the spirits of the local community seriously impacted by bushfire? The recovery of communities is as important as recovery of the environment. A recent study has highlighted the importance of social networks in the community and perhaps opportunities to share interactions with the environment through social media would provide further opportunities for engagement.

Bushfires are a natural part of the Australian environment and photography plays a key role in reminding us that our vegetation can respond remarkably after even the most intense fires (Source: CSIRO)

Bushfires are a natural part of the Australian environment and photography plays a key role in reminding us that our vegetation can respond remarkably after even the most intense fires (Source: CSIRO)

An example of engaging social media in bushfire recovery comes out of California. I’m particularly taken by the use of social media as a critical component of the program tracking recovery from bush fires that swept through Mt. Diablo in 2011. The project is coordinated by the Nerds for Nature team, inspired by the initiative of Sam Droege and his Monitor Change project.

The idea is based around members of the community taking photos at set locations with set perspectives and compiling those photographs shared through social media, to create a crowd sourced time lapse animations of post-bush fire recovery (you can read a little more about it here). What makes this so neat is the simplicity. Clear signage and a simple bracket for lining up your camera/phone. The website interface is great too. The team behind the project have provided some detailed instructions that form a great basis for adapting this approach to a local environment (they also point out that this project may not be as simple to implement as you may think…).

Tracking bushfire recovery with crowd sourced photographs! (Originally tweeted by Sergei Krupenin in reference to Nerds for Nature program)

An Australian take on crowd sourced “environmental change” photography

Another example of using photography to track environmental change is the Australian Fluker Post project. Similar to the approach by the Nerds for Nature team, this project, coordinated by Dr Martin Fluker at Victoria University, is a “citizen science system designed to allow community members to contribute towards the ongoing care of various natural environments by taking photographs”.

“Fluker Posts” are installed at key locations and members of the community can use their own cameras to take photos and then email them to coordinators. As well as collecting material to assist local land managers, this project may have a more subtle influence on conservation by engaging the community with the local environment. By providing an opportunity for local residents (as well as regular visitors) to track the changes in their local environment, it would be hoped that a connection and care for the local environment would increase. As well as directly changing behaviour that may threaten local habitats or wildlife, the community (and by extension local decision makers) are more likely to be supportive of rehabilitation efforts.

An example of a newly installed Fluker Post ready to help track environmental change (Source: The Fluker Post Project)

An example of a newly installed Fluker Post ready to help track environmental change (Source: The Fluker Post Project)

You can see examples of photos from the various Fluker post locations here but you can also keep up to date with various projects at the Fluker Post Facebook page. A relatively new venture has just kicked off using this “technology” to engage with school students – a great idea!

Tracking tidal changes

Another great example of crowd-sourced tracking of the potential environmental change is the  Witness King Tides program. The program is coordinated by Green Cross Australia and calls of members of the community to submit photos taken during king tide events (the highest of the spring tides each month) to help generate an indication of what may happen in the future with sea level rise. There is a wonderful collection of photo albums here from across Australia.

This idea of a crowd-sourced collection of photographs tracking tidal events has been tried in the past. Most notable was a collection of photos contributed to by over 250 people taken during a major tide event in 2009. A useful document was produced by NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. It highlights an important issue in relation to potential impacts of sea level rise. The first wave of impacts may not be catastrophic but they will be disruptive.

While images of major cities underwater often accompany media reports of rising sea levels and plans for adaptive responses, in many parts of Australia, increasing frequency of these “higher than usual” tides will cause disruption to cities and townships in other ways. Blocking stormwater systems, forcing the closure of roads and delays with ferry services. In addition to this, there is the increasing risk of coastal erosion and loss of amenities in coastal regions.

SOPA_kingtides

“Before and after” shots of a cycleway through Sydney Olympic Park in January 2014. Higher than expected spring tides flooded many of the pathways, cycleways and boardwalks in the local area causing much disruption; perhaps a sign of things to come if rising sea levels make these event more frequent.

One of the problems with this method, however, is that these photographs end up being “one offs”. Without a comparison to “normal” conditions, it can sometimes be difficult to gauge the significance of tidal inundation without being familiar with the local area. Fortunately, there are many examples where contributors send both “before” and “after” tidal inundation shots and they do provide a stunning visual representation of the disruption sea level rise may cause. Perhaps the incorporation of “photography points” (following the examples from the Flucker Post or Nerds For Nature teams) at key locations would be a useful addition to the program?

This approach has been adopted bytThe City of Manduarh in Western Australia with their  Tidal Image Mandurah Project. The community has been asked to take photos at key locations with a view that images of tidal events such as storm surges, high tide and erosion will help track change. Nothing too fancy in these locations either, just a strategically placed spray painted blue camera!

An example of the spray-painted blue camera on a beachside post inviting members of teh community to take and share a photo of Florida Beach (Source City of Mandurah)

An example of the spray-painted blue camera on a beachside post inviting members of the community to take and share a photo of Florida Beach (Source: City of Mandurah)

Tracking constructed wetland change

Where would I like to see this implemented? I’ve had the opportunity to work in and around many newly constructed wetlands. These have ranged from small freshwater wetlands in urban areas to extensive rehabilitated estuarine wetlands. The common denominator across all these sites has been vegetation change. I cannot be out there every week taking photos but it would be great if there was a collection of photos being shared by the local communities that I could tap into.

There are some great examples of interpretive signage around our local wetlands. There is also a shift in thinking from traditional interpretive signage to take advantage of new technologies so why not include social media to engage visitors and local community further? Perhaps social media networking should be included in wetland management plans?

Signage at Gungahlin Wetlands, ACT

Signage at Gungahlin Wetlands, ACT. An example of structures associated with urban wetlands that can be modified to include opportunities for social media use through the use of recommended hashtags (for Twitter or Instagram) and/or brackets for placing cameras/smartphones

A simple addition of a bracket and details on sharing photographs could easily be incorporated into local signage as it is installed and/or updated. As well as tracking changes in vegetation growth in and around constructed and rehabilitated wetlands, the encroachment of mangroves into mudflats or sandy shores along urban estuaries could be a focus too. Of course, storm events and unusually high tides could be documented too. An added bonus would be if some rare or unusual wildlife popped up in photographs.

Educational signage of this nature are common place around wetlands in Sydney, could the inclusion of some guidelines for social sharing images help track mangrove incursion into shoreline habitats?

Educational signage of this nature is common place around wetlands in Sydney, could the inclusion of some guidelines for social sharing images help track mangrove incursion into shoreline habitats?

There are plenty of other ways social media can assist environmental conservation and rehabilitation. Pozible and Landcare have recently announced the launch (and called for the submission of proposals) of a new global crowdfunding partnership called The Landcare Environment Collection, an opportunity to showcase and support the crowdfunding campaigns of environmental groups in Australia and around the world.

Perhaps I need to prepare a proposal for the installation of some “social sharing” camera stands…

Why not join the conversation on Twitter and help share other examples of where social media could help track environmental change.

Can social media increase the exposure of newly published research?

seal_wikicommons

What can we learn about the benefits of social media by comparing the popularity of research into seals and mosquitoes? (Photo: Andreas Trepte, www.photo-natur.de)

There are many proposed benefits associated with the use of social media by scientists. There have been a couple of excellent pieces recently published that provide an overview of social media and some of the potential benefits of its use. Last month I wrote about tracking the exposure and reach of my tweets to measure the potential impact of public health awareness activities. Twitter seems to work well in providing exposure for public health messages, could it be used to increase exposure of new publications?

The role of social media in the promotion of research and publications has already received some attention. A study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) measured the quantity of tweets linking to publications in JMIR. The authors found that 4208 tweets cited 286 distinct JMIR articles and concluded that “highly tweeted articles were 11 times more likely to be highly cited than less-tweeted articles”. Similarly, a study analysing access to and citation of pre-print publications posted to the arXiv database (http://arxiv.org) found that “the volume of Twitter mentions is statistically correlated with arXiv downloads and early citations just months after the publication of a preprint”.

There have also some interesting observations by Melissa Terras on her blog about the use of social media to increase exposure of publications. Melissa found that publications she blogged or tweeted about had at more than 10 times the number of downloads than her other publications. In particularly, Melissa posted a nice piece on increased access to one of her recently published open access papers after she had tweeted about it.

I’ve been planning to do something similar with my publications but just hadn’t had an opportunity to do it. One of the other issues is that I generally don’t publish in open access journals. I’ve been guilty of simply submitting articles to journals that I had previously published in or that were considered the key journals of mosquito research or were of regional importance (e.g. Australian Journal of Entomology, Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association, Journal of Vector Ecology).

On 7 May 2013, a publication that I was co-author on was published online in the open access journal PLoS ONE (Gonsalves L, Law B, Webb C, Monamy V (2013) Foraging Ranges of Insectivorous Bats Shift Relative to Changes in Mosquito Abundance. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64081. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064081). I was looking forward to the publication of this paper. It presented some of the research from a very exciting project investigating the ecological role of mosquitoes in coastal environments. I was also excited about publishing in PLoS ONE and having some research more widely (and freely) available.

Since PLoS ONE provide metrics on each of their publications, I thought I’d take the opportunity to track some of the basic metrics to see if activity on social media may influence exposure of the publication. Each day, for almost four weeks, I made a record of the page views, downloads and “social shares” (Facebook and Twitter mentions). I made a conscience effort to split my “self-promotion” tweeting into three distinct periods, the first few days after publication, a week or so later and then an additional week later.

Rather than just track our paper, I thought I’d also track some other papers published on the same day. I choose two “mosquito-related” papers, one “general health” related paper and two “ecology” papers. In selecting these papers, I simply browsed the list of publications to see what else had been published that day, I didn’t give any consideration to what impact or “newsworthiness” these papers may inherently have.

 The five additional papers selected were:

Kim J-Y, Ji S-Y, Goo Y-K, Na B-K, Pyo H-J, et al. (2013) Comparison of Rapid Diagnostic Tests for the Detection of Plasmodium vivax Malaria in South Korea. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64353. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064353 [the “malaria” paper]

Villabona-Arenas CJ, Mondini A, Bosch I, Schimitt D, Calzavara-Silva CE, et al. (2013) Dengue Virus Type 3 Adaptive Changes during Epidemics in São Jose de Rio Preto, Brazil, 2006–2007. PLoS ONE 8(5): e63496. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063496 [the “dengue” paper]

Winkvist A, Bertz F, Ellegård L, Bosaeus I, Brekke HK (2013) Metabolic Risk Profile among Overweight and Obese Lactating Women in Sweden. PLoS ONE 8(5): e63629. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063629 [the “lactation” paper]

Jessopp M, Cronin M, Hart T (2013) Habitat-Mediated Dive Behavior in Free-Ranging Grey Seals. PLoS ONE 8(5): e63720. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063720 [the “seal” paper]

Moody EK, Sabo JL (2013) Crayfish Impact Desert River Ecosystem Function and Litter-Dwelling Invertebrate Communities through Association with Novel Detrital Resources. PLoS ONE 8(5): e63274. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063274 [the “crayfish” paper]

On the day of publication, as is usually the case with new publications, I tweeted about the paper and provided a link to PLoS ONE. I also sent an email around to my “mosquito research” colleagues. In addition, I wrote a blog post, the buzz of bat conservation, that put the paper into context with the broader research project. I tweeted about that too, in fact I probably tweeted links to the blogpost more than the paper directly during those first few days. The paper’s lead author, Leroy Gonsalves, tweeted about the paper and blog post too.

I think it is important to note that, much to my disappointment and notwithstanding media releases from both the Australian Catholic University and University of Sydney media offices, I am not aware of any substantial coverage of our paper in the online or traditional media. All the promotion for this paper seemed to come from social media.

 So, what happened?

 Firstly, how much exposure did our publication get via social media? The chart below shows the total daily blog post views and “social shares” of the publication itself. You can see the results of my tweeting about the blog post early on. I guess it is hard to say how many people who read the blog post then went on to view or download the paper. There were, however, also number of tweets linking to the paper directly over the first few days. The additional periods of active “tweet promotion” were between 15-17 May and 24-25 May and you can see the resulting increase in “social shares” during those periods. It is also interesting to note that “social shares” on the 19 May too that, from what I understand, was not prompted by any active tweeting on my behalf.

The total daily blog post views and social shares of our publication

The total daily blog post views and social shares of our publication

How did this change the exposure of the publication?

Looking at the chart of cumulative page views, you can see that, as expected, all the papers had a quick jump in the first couple of days following publication and then the number of page views remained the same for the rest of the week. A couple of interesting observations from that first week. Our paper, along with the “malaria” paper, had the most page views at around 400. While we had put our efforts into social media (with plenty of tweets and a total of 14 “social shares”), there were no “social shares” of the “malaria” paper. The paper with the most “social shares” was the “seal” paper with 28 but less than 200 page views had occurred in that first week.

Total daily page views of our publication along with five additional papers published on the same day.

Total daily page views of our publication along with five additional papers published on the same day.

After a week or so, I put some effort into tweeting about the paper, this time linking directly to the publication. I also tried tweeting at times when people in the US and UK may be more likely to be online. Over this time, there was approximately another 20 “social shares” of our paper. The chart shows the resulting boost in page views over that next week or so. While all the other papers maintained a relatively consistent number of page views, ours jumped substantially so that by the end of the second week we’d had almost twice as many page views. There was no substantial boost in social shares of the other five papers.

A week or so later (now about two weeks after publication), I repeated the same amount of tweets with links to our publication. This third burst of tweets failed to repeat the noteworthy increase of earlier efforts. Why? Perhaps by the time I got around to my third burst of tweeting, any of my followers who were interested in this work had already checked out the paper or had already retweeted my messages on earlier occasions.

There is also the possibility that the spike in page views of our article may not have been the result of that second batch of tweeting. Perhaps there was some kind of delay between people seeing the links and accessing the paper? Could you trace that spike in interest back to the initial “social media push”?

Clicking a link is one thing but was the paper downloaded?

It is interesting to compare the cumulative rates of page views to the cumulative rate of downloads. In the chart of cumulative daily downloads of our publication below, you can see that a very similar trend is followed. After an initial rise and plateau, there is a secondary jump in downloads. There is a similar increase in the number of downloads of all the papers but it is quite dramatic in ours. However, after two weeks or so, and despite additional tweets with links to the paper, downloads grow at a very slow rate. This trend is also shown in the download data of the other publications.

Total daily downloads of our publication compared to five other publications published on the same day

Total daily downloads of our publication compared to five other publications published on the same day

Putting aside the debate around the timing of tweets their resulting influence on metrics, at the end of the three week period, our paper had received almost twice as many “social shares” as any of the other papers, and subsequently, substantially more page views and downloads. Surely the social media effort assisted in this result? I don’t want to draw too much from this relatively simple analysis but I think the resulting increase in exposure of the publication has been worth the relatively small amount of time invested in spreading the word via Twitter.

Lastly, I think it is important to make a note about the importance of the “traditional” media. As I mentioned earlier, I was both surprised and disappointed at the lack of coverage the publication received. I thought a new study that contributes some answers to one of the most commonly asked questions I get, “are mosquitoes good for anything?”, would have generated more interested. I guess all researchers think their research will attract wider interest!

So what happens when a paper is picked up and widely publicised? It is interesting to look at another recently published paper in PLoS ONE. Smallegange RC, van Gemert G-J, van de Vegte-Bolmer M, Gezan S, Takken W, et al. (2013) Malaria Infected Mosquitoes Express Enhanced Attraction to Human Odor. PLoS ONE 8(5): e63602. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063602 was published a week or so after ours on the 15 May. It is a great study with an interesting story. The researchers found that mosquitoes infested with malaria parasites are more attracted to humans than non-infected mosquitoes. It was really no surprised that it has been picked up by media outlets across the globe. There have been around 60 news items online that reference the paper, 325 “social shares” and the paper has been downloaded over 700 times. Could these numbers have been generated by social media alone? I have a sneaking suspicion that traditional media played a significant role in the promotion of this publication but social media, and the spread of links to both news coverage and the paper directly, must have played a role as well.

 UPDATE [6 March 2014]

It has now been around 10 months since our paper was published so I thought I’d revisit the metrics for all these papers to see if the trend we observed over the first few weeks continued.

Cumulative page views and downloads of six scientific papers published in PLOS ONE and respective "social media" shares

Cumulative page views and downloads of six scientific papers published in PLOS ONE and respective “social media” shares

It is interesting to see that our “Bats” paper received the most page views (2,186) over that time while the others ranged from 715 through to 1312. However, there wasn’t such a dramatic difference in the number of downloads with our paper downloaded 342 times compared to the 298 of the “Malaria” and 252 of the “Dengue” papers.

There is no doubt that our paper received the most “social shares” but it is also worth noting that there were plenty of Facebook shares of the “Seal” paper but that didn’t result in a boost to either page views or downloads compared to the other papers. In fact, there wasn’t much difference compared to papers with minimal or no “social shares”.

What does this mean almost a year on from publication? With regard to our paper, “social shares”, particularly Twitter, seemed to boost the number of page views we received. Given the result with the “Seals” paper, it is tempted to suggest that Twitter shares are more important than Facebook shares but I suspect I may be drawing a long bow on that one.

I don’t see anything in this analysis that suggests it isn’t worth putting in a bit of effort to promote new publications via social media. It would have been interesting to see what these metrics were like had one of these six papers tracked had been picked up by traditional media outlets. I suspect that working closely with your institution’s media office will be just as important, probably more so, than just relying on send out a few tweets.