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Editorial: Social Media Metrics Offer Academia a Tool

Key findings

  • Tenure decisions, promotions and grant awards for academicians are ordinarily based in large part on the impact factors of the journals they publish in and article citation rates
  • A study of five major radiology journals published in Radiology showed that articles that received the most attention on social media had higher citation rates (OR, 1.3–1.7)
  • Commenting on the study, editorialists Susanna I. Lee, MD, PhD, and David A. Bluemke, MD, PhD, note that this and similar observational studies cannot demonstrate whether social media activity drives citation rates
  • Still, social media metrics have some advantages over citation rates, including their immediacy and the fact that they represent all online publications rather than a select list
  • Social media activity is unlikely to replace citation rates in guiding advancement within the academy, but it represents an initial measure of a publication's newsworthiness as judged by fellow researchers and additional audiences

The influence and quality of a biomedical journal article are typically judged by the impact factor of the journal and the number of citations in other articles. These are critical metrics to most academicians because they guide decisions about tenure, promotions and grant awards.

Susanna I. Lee, MD, PhD, associate professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School and chief of Women's Imaging in the Department of Radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital, and David A. Bluemke, MD, PhD, professor of Radiology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, recently commented in Radiology about a study that concludes the social media "buzz" about a journal article is related to its citation rates.

If refined, standardized, and validated social media activity could serve as an early surrogate for citations, the editorialists believe.

The Study

The study by Pozdnyakov and colleagues in Radiology analyzed five journals: Radiology, American Journal of Roentgenology, European Radiology, Investigative Radiology and Journal of the American College of Radiology. For 462 original research articles published between January 1 and December 31, 2015, the team looked at two social media metrics:

  • Twitter activity (the number of tweets containing a link to the publication)
  • The Altmetric score, a weighted count of all online attention given to a publication, including mentions in social media, informational websites, mainstream news outlets, blogs and research paper aggregators

Overall, there was an only a weak correlation (r=0.20) between Altmetric scores and citation rates. In a subgroup analysis, though, the authors teased out a stronger association: articles that were tweeted about more than five times or had an Altmetric score >5 had higher citation rates (OR, 1.3–1.7).

"Correlation Is Not Causation"

Observational studies in many other medical disciplines have also noted positive associations between social media attention and citation rates, the editorialists say. However, the evidence on whether social media activity drives citation rates is still inconclusive.

Unsurprisingly, what matters on Twitter is the source. Several prospective studies have shown that tweets from journal offices don't significantly increase journal page views, but tweets from journal editors or from individuals who share their interpretations and reactions are more effective.

Citation Rates Are a Limited Metric, Too

Citation rates are imperfect because they:

  • Have limited scope—Since citation rates are calculated from a select list of journals, they reflect academic activity rather than medical practice as a whole
  • Are not necessarily correlated with readership—For example, the number of citations does not accurately measure the importance of a well-read article that alters clinical care but does not have much impact on research
  • Lag publication dates by approximately two years—Citation rates can't serve as a real-time impact of an article's impact, especially when a field is evolving rapidly, as became obvious with COVID-19

Social Media Activity: A Different Kind of Measure

Social media metrics have some advantages over citation rates: they track how research disseminates worldwide within hours, they draw on all online publications and they typically mature within two to three weeks. They are unlikely to replace citation rates in guiding advancement within the academy, but they represent an initial measure of a study's newsworthiness among fellow researchers and additional audiences.

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