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Researchers on social media

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I’ve written a number of times previously about the rising role of crowdsourcing and social media in the academic research process.  One area that hasn’t been explored however is the role social media is playing once those academic papers are published.

A recent study conducted by the University of Colorado Cancer Center set out to explore how academic journals are utilising social media to extend the reach of their journals.  The message seems to be that whilst some are doing this job rather well, the majority are failing miserably, therefore failing in their ability to disseminate information in a culturally relevant way.

“If a journal wants to educate people, this is a way to do it,” says Robert Dellavalle, MD, PhD, MSPH, investigator at the CU Cancer Center and associate professor of dermatology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Dellavalle also manages the Facebook page for the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.

The study explored the social media usage of over 100 dermatology journals, covering such topics as dermatillomania, and compared the kind of work they did online with that of dermatology organisations and patient-advocacy groups.  They found an inverse level of popularity on the social web, with advocacy groups having roughly double the following of the professional bodies, who in turn had roughly double the following of the journals.

For example, at the time of study the Skin Cancer Foundation had 20,119 Facebook followers, the Dermatology Network had 11,251 Facebook followers, and Dellavalle’s Journal of the American Academy of DermatologyFacebook page had 5,286 followers.

There are exceptions of course, with the New England Journal of Medicinegetting hundreds of thousands of reads through their social media presence. They’re not getting nearly that many reads on the journal itself.  This is perhaps not surprising given that the journal has nearly 450,000 fans on Facebook.

From these heady achievers however, the drop off is significant, with lesser known journals barely making a splash.  Indeed, of the 102 journals studied, just 12.7% even had a Facebook page, with 13.7% bothering with Twitter.

“Some journals haven’t recognized the potential of fully embracing popular social networks,” Dellavalle says.“Even in the community of academic researchers, there’s an ever-changing goal post of relevance. If you don’t remain active, you fall behind the times. With continued technological evolution, organizations that fail to recognize the opportunity provided by social networking sites risk becoming marginalized by their inability to assimilate to social media as an expected form of communication.”

Now obviously the number of followers or fans is a pretty crude measure of success on social media, but in an age where there is increasing pressure for research to be open and transparent, there seems to be a strong role for social business, both in the construction of the research, and of course in its dissemination to the wider public.  This is especially so given the crucial role journals can play in publishing failed research as well as successful research.  The lower communication costs involved with social media could make an ideal channel to achieve this.

As with most industries of course, there will be early adopters that take ‘new’ technologies by storm.  Hopefully in time, the best practices adopted by these forethinkers will drag the laggards up to speed.

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