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Twitter vs science: How users access scientific information in tweets

By Dental Tribune International
February 24, 2021

LEIDEN, Netherlands/DALIAN, China: When it comes to social media platforms, Twitter has certainly established itself as a well-known brand since its launch in 2006. The micro-blog website is popular among political and cultural figures, for example, as well as scientists and researchers, who use the platform to share their work. A new study suggests that an understanding of how Twitter users click science can lead to improved engagement with science in social media contexts.

Scientists from Leiden University and Dalian University of Technology came to this conclusion by investigating the potential engagement behaviour of Twitter users around science. In their recently published study, they looked at the click metrics on Twitter regarding 1.1 million Bitly short links to scientific publications embedded in scholarly Twitter mentions—Bitly is a free URL shortening service. They found that around 49.5% of the links were not clicked and 22.0% were clicked only once or twice. Only 11% of links received ten clicks or more. Also, clicking of any links only happened shortly after the respective post went live.

Understanding Twitter’s mechanics is complex

In an interview with Dental Tribune International, study co-authors Zhichao Fang, a PhD candidate at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies at Leiden University, and Rodrigo Costas, a senior researcher at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies, gave some insight into the research. “Although the dissemination of scientific information is widespread on Twitter (one in three papers gets some attention on Twitter), there is still little evidence of whether (and how) Twitter communities react to science. We found that click metrics data of tweeted URLs to scientific papers offers the possibility of tracking the digital footprints back to science, which could add a missing piece to the puzzle of science–social media interactions,” he explained.

According to Fang, the data availability of click metrics was the greatest challenge to the research because Bitly was the only source that publicly provided click metrics for its generated short links through its application programming interface (API). However, a new API version launched in 2020 and stricter policies on the availability of its click metrics data have increasingly limited access for a larger-scale investigation. “That’s also one of the reasons why we are calling for a more open policy of Twitter on sharing the recorded URL click data, at least for research purposes,” he said. “Larger availability of click data would contribute to improving our understanding of the deeper level of Twitter interaction with and reception of scientific information.”

Twitter is a strong platform for communicating scientific findings

However, despite its complex algorithms and seemingly low click rates, this does not mean that Twitter is an ineffective platform for sharing content. In fact, previous research shows that it has a significant role in publicizing scientific information and improving scholarly communication because it is the most used social media platform for this purpose.

The research team also stressed that the 1.1 million Bitly short links analysed in the study accumulated 12.0 million clicks from all kinds of sources (e.g. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube).

In the future, the researchers would like to look into the topic further by particularly focusing on Twitter-related features that can be related to increased clicks. Fang concluded that the best thing Twitter users can do to attract attention to the shared content for now is to engage with it and to use other social media channels in combination to increase reach.

“For example, Twitter features such as using hashtags, liking tweets, or mentioning other users might lead to more clicks on Twitter. Also, the ‘social media capital’ of Twitter users (e.g. highly followed users) might lead to an increased number of clicks to scientific papers. Of course, these hypotheses need to be further empirically examined in future research. Besides, tweeting papers related to society, healthcare and environmental problems seems to be more likely to trigger Twitter clicks, since papers from these subject fields generally get more engagement from Twitter users,” Fang advised.

The study, titled “How is science clicked on Twitter? Click metrics for Bitly short links to scientific publications”, was published in the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology on 23 January 2021, ahead of inclusion in an issue.

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