10 tips for tweeting research

Experts weigh in on how to make the most of a tweet.

9 May 2019

Bec Crew

retrorocket/Getty

Social media can be a powerful tool in an academic’s constant battle for attention among the 2.5 million papers published in English-language journals each year. But viral success stories are rare, and the precise combination of factors that create them are hard to pin down, let alone replicate.

One thing is certain, though: tweeting haphazardly into the ether is not the answer.

As trends from data spanning Twitter’s first decade start to emerge, so too do the elements of a strategic approach. Here are 10 tips for tweeting about research to make an impact.

1. Don’t be afraid to promote your own work.

Twitter is not a place to be shy. You are the best advocate for your work, and self-promotion is a proven way to drive research dissemination.

A paper presented earlier this month at the CHEST Congress 2019 in Thailand by researchers from the University of Toronto in Canada found that when authors tweeted about their own work, they saw as much as a 3.5-fold increase in tweets about their studies that year from other people, compared with authors who did not tweet about their studies at all.

This means if you're tweeting about your research, there's a good chance others will be, too.

“Papers can only get cited if scientists know about them,” says Tom Finch, an ecologist at the University of Cambridge in the UK, who has investigated how online mentions predict future citations in certain fields.

“Promoting research on Twitter seems like a good way of getting it in the back of people's minds, so when they come to write their own papers, it’s likely that this could have a ‘cause and effect’ and increase the citation rate of your paper in the future.”

2. Have a clear sense of purpose for why you are on Twitter.

It can be easy to get sucked in and waste too much time on Twitter, but the opposite is true, too – you could talk yourself out of using it at all because of the perceived time commitment.

But, as Mark Carrigan, digital sociologist at the University of Cambridge, advises, a strategic approach is best. Identify how your Twitter use connects to your research activity, and figure out how it can supplement or replace the things you already do.

“The novelty of these platforms poses all sorts of problems,” says Carrigan. “There's no end to the time that you could put into them. I think it's necessary to have a clear sense of purpose, because it advances engagement and makes it easier to protect yourself from being sucked in, and using them in time-consuming, ineffective ways.”

3. If you’re going to tweet about something controversial, plan it out.

Depending on your area of research, controversy might be unavoidable.

As Carrigan advises, if you are working on a topic that is controversial or contested, you should plan your engagement around the very real possibility that it will attract backlash online. Obvious examples include genetically modified food and climate change.

“I think many academics, if not most, are able to slide beneath the radar, because the topics they're working on just don't attract attention,” says Carrigan.

“If yours does, you need to plan with that in mind. You need to be very careful about sharing half-formed thoughts. You need to have a clear sense of whether you're doing this to talk to peers about work in progress and related issues, or are you doing this to reach a broad set of audiences?”

4. Tap into your community.

Twitter is a very open channel, but its accessibility belies the insular tendencies of the myriad micro-communities that thrive via hashtags like #rstats (statistics), #phdchat (lab life), and #cubing (Rubik’s cube enthusiasts).

Depending on your field of research, these communities can be a major asset in drawing attention to your work.

A recent study by Finch and his colleagues investigating social media responses to ornithology papers found that Altmetrics – which measure attention received by a paper, including how many times it’s viewed, downloaded, or mentioned on social media, in blogs, news articles, and elsewhere online – not only complement traditional measures of scholarly impact such as citations, but might also anticipate or even drive them.

Finch says the highly engaged community of researchers and bird enthusiasts following #ornithology likely play a big role in driving the visibility of new studies.

“We do have a strong community within ornithological academia, but I wonder if it’s also due to the fact that there are so many members of the public who are also interested in birds – there are a lot of amateur naturalists,” says Finch.

“We’re in a lucky position in that we're linked to quite a large group of members of the public who are interested in our work.”

5. The more you post, the more followers you’ll attract.

Some people are better at engaging a large audience on social media than others, but when it comes to building your base, it’s often just a numbers game, so make an effort to tweet regularly.

An analysis of 36 million Twitter profiles and 28 billion tweets by social media analytics company Beevolve concluded that:

  • users who had sent 1 to 1,000 tweets had an average of 51 to 100 followers;
  • users who had tweeted more than 10,000 times were followed on average by 1,000 to 5,000 users; and
  • users with more than 15,000 tweets had between 100,001 to 1 million followers.
graph showing an increase in tweets correlates to an increase in followers.

Source: Beevolve

6. The more followers you have, the broader your audience.

Not every researcher wants to connect with the general public, so if your main goal is to simply communicate with your peers, you don’t necessarily need a large Twitter presence. But to reach beyond academia on Twitter, you need to build a (relatively) solid following.

According to a 2018 study by Isabelle Côté from Simon Fraser University in Canada and Emily Darling from the University of Toronto, more than half of the average scientist’s Twitter followers are other scientists.

But once their follower count hits 1,000 and above, their audiences tend to be more diverse, including more research and educational organisations, more members of media and the general public, and a small number of decision-makers.

graph showing twitter follower types

Source: I. Côté and E. Darling/Facets

7. Use hashtags – wisely.

We don’t recommend you throw any old hashtag onto any old tweet (#science and #biology likely won’t get you very far), but hashtags can be an effective way to tap into an engaged community on Twitter.

Communities using #academictwitter, #phdchat and #scholarsunday are a close-knit, enthusiastic group, and being actively involved helps combat the isolation that comes from just starting out on Twitter (or perhaps returning from an extended break).

Also be on the look-out for ‘of the moment’ hashtags that are relevant to your work. These spring up sporadically and invite a flurry of activity – and often plenty of media attention. Past examples include #bestcarcass, #doesitfart, and #ActualLivingScientist.

8. Take a cue from young researchers.

A paper recently presented at iConference 2019 at the University of Maryland in the US in April looking at why some studies are more popular on social media than others found that papers written by younger authors often had the highest Altmetric scores.

“The academic age of authors – the number of years since their first publication – is negatively correlated with Altmetric scores of the publications,” says one of the team, Jiang Li, professor of information science at Nanjing University in China.

“This means that, for young scientists, their research tends to be more popular on social media.”

Li suggests this is because young researchers are more likely to be using social media to promote their work than academics who have been publishing over several decades.

9. Take control of your research group’s updates

University websites aren’t known for their agility, so when a change occurs in your research group or you’ve got a position to fill, get it out into the world fast by posting it on Twitter.

As Piero Carninci, deputy director at the RIKEN Centre for Integrative Medical Sciences in Japan, notes, scientists who post job vacancy information to social media can achieve a better response rate than those who rely entirely on their institute's recruiting process.

“Those who have a large number of followers can recruit much better when they post a job on their account - they get more applications,” says Carninci.

10. Familiarise yourself with your institution’s social media guidelines.

Most institutional guidelines for social media use are fairly straightforward, common sense policies, but it’s worth familiarising yourself with yours, especially if you’re considering a return to Twitter after a long hiatus. If you feel that the current guidelines are overly restrictive or out of date, speak up and get clarification – it’s not unusual for guidelines to be written by those who aren’t all that familiar with the platform.

The biggest misstep, says Carrigan, is when institutions wait for a PR crisis to occur and then rush out social media guidelines in response.

“There are some high-profile cases where guidelines have been issued in response to a crisis,” says Carrigan. “When you write guidelines because something has already gone wrong, that's not going be good institutional strategy.”

This article is one of a series of Nature Index articles about social media and academic practice. Hear more from Mark Carrigan on how academics and their institutions can bridge their social media cultural divide; and we look at why maintaining professional social media profiles can be so complicated.

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