For Scientists, More Tweets Don't Mean Better Citation Numbers

Slowly but surely, scientists are taking to Twitter to promote their research. But tweeting may not have the effect they hope: According to a new study, blasting 140 characters about their findings doesn’t correspond with a higher number of citations in peer-reviewed journals.

In what they say is the largest Twitter study of scholarly articles, the researchers looked at 1.4 million peer-reviewed articles published between 2010 and 2012, and determined how often they appeared on the social media site. They then counted each article’s journal citations (a generally accepted method for evaluating an article’s impact on the scientific community). The study appears in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

Researchers found that the top-tweeted scientific articles were either funny or about health. Big hits included acne in teenage athletes and the links between physical activity and mortality rates.

More tweets did not make for more citations. A study of genes altered by radiation exposure was tweeted 963 times yet received only nine academic citations. A similar study had 300 fewer tweets but nearly three times as many citations. “For the time being, Twitter cannot be considered a good marker of scientific impact,” University of Montreal professor Vincent Larivière, who supervised and co-authored the study, said in a press release. He notes that part of the problem may be that most scientists are still silent on Twitter: In 2012, only 20.4 percent of articles included in the study got tweeted. Still, that’s an improvement from previous years, and perhaps a sign that science is becoming better integrated into society. “Regardless of whether non-scientists are sending this information, it proves that science is an aspect of general culture,” said Larivière.

At least some scientists have taken to Twitter not to promote their research, but to provide brutally honest, and sometimes humorous, insights into the nature of their work. At #overlyhonestmethods, for example, scientists share their less-than-scientific methods, according to the Guardian. “There was no plan—we just tried stuff we thought would be interesting until something interesting happened,” tweets one. Another sample: “We didn’t read half of the papers we cite because they are behind a paywall.”

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