Tracking research impact through Twitter

24 August 2012

Cameron Neylon of the LSE blog Impact of Social Sciences has recently written a piece on the possibility of tracking research impact via Twitter. Monitoring the way how research influences policy and how professionals use the studies they’ve read on their day-to-day practice has proven to be difficult for a number of reasons: professionals don’t usually write new research papers citing the work they’ve used as sources; identifying said sources can be tricky because they may be several steps behind from the new study; and sometimes researchers aren’t even aware of their work being used because they are so far removed from its practical application.

Neylon mentions an example of a research article on HIV status, domestic violence and rape, reaching a practitioner community, which he found via Altmetric, a web app that helps track conversations around scientific articles online. The article was tweeted by several accounts, particularly by two South African support and advocacy groups. This example shows that it is possible to identify where research is being discussed and by whom.

It is possible, however, to go further than this:

More recently I’ve shown some other examples of heavily tweeted papers that relate to work funded by cancer charities. In one of those talks I made the throw away comment “You’ve always struggled to see whether practitioners actually use your research…and there are a lot of nurses on Twitter”. I hadn’t really followed that up until yesterday when I asked on twitter about research into the use of social media by nurses and was rapidly put in touch with a range of experts on the subject (remind me, how did we ask speculative research questions before Twitter?) . So the question I’m interested in probing is whether the application of research by nurses is something that can be tracked using links shared on Twitter as a proxy?

The hypothesis is that the links shared by nurses and their online community via Twitter are a viable proxy of a portion of the impact of certain research on clinical practice. This, of course, could be used for other professions as well, by monitoring what research is tweeted, how much it is retweeted and how often.

The Impact of Social Sciences blog also has a guide to using Twitter in university research, teaching, and impact activities.