Wednesday, 27 January 2016

» The Impact of Social Media on the Dissemination of Research: Results of an Experiment Journal of Digital Humanities


The Impact of Social Media on the Dissemination of Research: Results of an Experiment

September 2011 I returned to work after a year on maternity leave. Many
things needed sorting out, not least my digital presence at my home
institution, which had switched to a content management system that
seamlessly linked to University College London’s open-access repository,
The idea was we should upload open-access versions of all our
previously published research, and link to it from our home pages, to
aid in dissemination.

There is no doubt that this type of administrative task is tedious.
To break up the monotony of digging out the last previous version prior
to publication of my 26 journal papers (we put up a last-but-one copy to
get around copyright issues with journals) I decided to blog the
process. I wrote a post about each paper, or each research project that
had spawned papers. I wanted to tell the stories behind the research —
the things that don’t get into the published versions. I also set about
methodically tweeting about these research papers, as they went live,
going through my back catalogue in reverse chronological order.

What became clear to me very quickly was the correlation between
talking about my research online and the spike in downloads of my papers
from our institutional repository. A game that had spurred me to carry
out an administrative task was actually disseminating my research quite
effectively. So this, in turn, became the focus of the blog posts that
are featured here.

The first, “What Happens When You Tweet an Open-Access Paper”
discusses the correlation between talking about an individual paper
online, and seeing its downloads increase. The second, “Is Blogging and
Tweeting About Research Papers Worth It? The Verdict” discusses the
overall effect of this process on all my papers, highlighting what I
think the benefits of open access are. In the final post, “When Was the
Last Time You Asked How Your Published Research Was Doing?” I talk about
the link between publishers and open access, and how little we know
about how often our research is accessed once it is published.

More than 20,000 people have now read these three online posts. It is
evident to me that academics need to work on their digital presence to
aid in the dissemination of their research, to both their subject peers
and the wider community. These blog posts provide the evidence to prove

What Happens When You Tweet an Open-Access Paper

Chart of the Download Activity for "Digital Curiosities" from UCL "Discovery."
Chart of the Download Activity for “Digital Curiosities” from UCL “Discovery.”
So a few weeks ago, I tweeted and posted about this paper:

Melissa Terras, “Digital Curiosities: Resource Creation Via Amateur Digitisation,” Literary and Linguistic Computing, 25.4 (2009): 425 – 438. Available in PDF.
I thought it worth revisiting the results of this. Is it worth me digging out the full text, running the gamut with the UCL repository, and trying to spend the time putting my previous research online? Is open access a gamble that pays, and if so, in what way?

Prior to me blogging and tweeting about the paper, it was downloaded
twice (not by me). The day I tweeted and blogged it, it immediately got
140 downloads. This was on a Friday; on the Saturday and Sunday it got
downloaded, but by fewer people. On Monday it was retweeted and the
paper received a further 140 or so downloads. I have no idea what
happened on the 24th of October — someone must have linked to it? Posted
it on a blog? Then there were a further 80 downloads. Then the
traditional long tail, then it all goes quiet.

All in all, it’s been downloaded 535 times since it went live, from
all over the world: USA (163), UK (107), Germany (14), Australia (10),
Canada (10), and the long tail of beyond: Belgium, France, Ireland,
Netherlands, Japan, Spain, Greece, Italy, South Africa, Mexico,
Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Europe, United
Arab Emirates, “unknown”.

Worth it, then? Well there are a few things to say about this.

  • I have no idea how many times it is read, accessed, or downloaded in
    the journal itself. So seeing this — 500 reads in a week! — makes me
    think, “wow, people are reading something I have written!”
  • It must be all relative, surely. Is 500 full downloads good? Who can
    tell? All I can say is that it puts it into the top ten — maybe top
    five — papers downloaded from the UCL repository last month (I won’t
    know until someone updates the webpage with last months statistics).
  • If I tell you that the most accessed item from our
    department ever in the UCL repository, which was put in there five years
    ago, has had 1,000 full text downloads, then 500 downloads in a week
    isn’t shabby. They didn’t blog or tweet it, it’s just sitting there.
  • There is a close correlation between when I tweet the paper and downloads.
  • There can be a compulsion to start to pay attention to statistics.
    Man, it gets addictive. But is this where we want to be headed: academia
    as X-factor?
Ergo, if you want people to read your papers, make them open access,
and let the community know (via blogs, twitter, etc.) where to get them.
Not rocket science. But worth spending time doing. Just don’t develop a
stats habit.

The updated UCL statistics page for downloads shows
that “Digital Curiosities” was the fifth most downloaded paper in the
UCL repository in October 2011. Yeah, I’m up there with fat tax,
seaworthiness, preventative nutrition, and the peri-urban(?)
interface. The Digital Curation Manager at UCL, Martin Moyle, has been
in touch to confirm that 6,486 of the 224,575 papers in the repository
have downloadable full text attached.

Is Blogging and Tweeting About Research Papers Worth It? The Verdict

Graph of the Top Ten Downloaded Papers, Showing Large Spikes in Downloads for Those Papers Tweeted About by Terras.
When I Tweeted My Papers? Top Ten Downloaded Papers From My Department
in the Last Year, Seven of Which Include Me in the Author List
In October 2011, I began a project to make all of my 26 articles published in refereed journals available via UCL’s Open Access Repository, Discovery.
I decided that as well as putting them in the institutional repository,
I would write a blog post about each research project, and tweet a link
to download the paper. Would this affect how much my research was read,
known, discussed, distributed?

I wrote about the stories behind the research papers — from becoming so immersed in developing 3D that you start walking into things in real life, to nearly barfing over the front row of an audience’s shoes whilst giving a keynote, to passive aggressive notes from an archaeological dig that
take on a digital life of their own. I gave a run down, in roughly
reverse chronological order, of the twelve or so projects I’ve been
involved in over the past decade that resulted in published journal
papers. Along the way, I wrote a little bit about the difficulties of getting stuff into the institutional repository in the first place, but the thing that really flew was my post on what happens when you blog and tweet a journal paper, showing
(proving?) the link between blogging and tweeting and the fact
that people will download your research if you tell them about it.

So what are my conclusions about this whole experiment?

Some rough stats, first of all. Most of my papers, before I blogged
and tweeted them, had one to two downloads, even if they had been in the
repository for months (or years, in some cases). Upon blogging and
tweeting, within 24 hours, there were on average 70 downloads of my
papers. Seventy. Now, this might not be internet meme status, but that’s
a huge leap in interest. Most of the downloads followed the trajectory I
described with the downloads of “Digital Curiosities,”
in that there would be a peak of interest, then a long tail after. I
believe that the first spike of interest from people clicking the link
that flies by them on twitter (which was sometimes retweeted) is then
replaced by a gradual trickle of visitors from postings on other blogs,
and the fact that the very blog posts about the papers make them more
findable when the subject is googled. People read the blog posts — I
have about 2,000 visitors to my blog a month, 70% new, with an average
time on the site of one minute and five seconds. People come here, tend
to read what I have written, and seem to be clicking and downloading my
research papers.

The image above shows the top ten papers downloaded from my entire
department over the last year. There were a total of 6,172 downloads
from our department (UCL Department of Information Studies is
one of the leading iSchools in the UK). Look at the spikes. That’s
where I blog and tweet about my research. I’m not the only person
producing research in my department (I think there are eighteen current
staff members and a further twenty or so who have moved on but still
have items in the institutional repository) but I’m the only person who
has gone the whole hog on promoting their research like this. You will
see that seven out of ten of the most downloaded papers from my
Department in the last calendar year have me in the author list. As a
clue, I don’t know anything about Uganda, e-books, or classification in
public libraries. In the last calendar year 27 out of the top 50
downloads in our department feature me (as a rough guide, I get about
1/3 of the entire downloads for my department). My stuff isn’t better
than my colleagues’ work. They’re all doing wonderful things! But I’m
just the only one actively promoting access to my research papers. If
you tell people about your research, they look at it. Your research will
get looked at more than papers which are not promoted via social media.

Some obvious points and conclusions. Don’t tweet things at midnight,
you’ll get half the click throughs you get during the day when people
are online. Don’t tweet important things on a Friday, especially not
late — people do take weekends and you can see a clear drop off in
downloads when the weekend rolls around and your paper falls a bit flat,
as you sent it on its way on social media at the wrong time. The best
time is between 11am and 5pm GMT, Monday to Thursday in a working week. I
have the stats here somewhere to prove it. I won’t write it up, though,
as it’s pretty predictable. It is important to note that just putting
links on twitter isn’t enough, you have to time it right. The Discovery twitter account regularly
posts an automated list of the really interesting things people have
been looking at … at 10pm on a Friday night. I only know as I’m
regularly sad enough to still be on twitter at that time, but I suspect
if they tweeted the papers through the day during the working week …
well, you guess what would happen.

The paper that really flew — “Digital Curiosities” — has now been downloaded over a thousand times in the past year. It was the 16th most downloaded paper from our entire institutional repository in the final quarter of 2011,
and the third most downloaded paper in UCL’s entire Arts Faculty in the
past year. It’s all relative really — what does this really mean? Well,
I can tell you that this paper was the most downloaded paper in 2011 in
Literary and Linguistic Computing (LLC) Journal, where it was published (and where it lives behind a paywall apart from being available free from Discovery). LLC
is the most prestigious journal in the discipline I operate in, Digital
Humanities. The entire download count for this paper from LLC
itself, which made it top paper last year? 376 full text downloads.
There have been almost three times that number of downloads from our
institutional repository. What does this mean? What can we extrapolate
from this? I think it’s fair to say that it’s a really good thing to
make your work open access. More people will read it than if it is
behind a paywall. Even if it is the most downloaded paper from a journal
in your field, open access makes it even more accessed.

However, I might just have written a nice paper that caught peoples’
interest; there are, after all, no controls to this, are there? No
controls! How can we tell if papers would fly without this type of
exposure? Well. Erm. I might have not tweeted one or two papers to see
the difference between tweeting and blogging about papers and not doing
so. Take the LAIRAH (Log Analysis of Internet Resources in the Arts and
Humanities) project, which I wrote about here.
We actually published four papers from this research. I tweeted and
promoted three of them actively. One I didn’t mention to you. Here are
the download counts. Guess which one I didn’t circulate?

The papers that were tweeted and blogged had at least more than 11
times the number of downloads than their sibling paper which was left to
its own devices in the institutional repository. Q.E.D., my friends. Q.E.D.

I can’t know if the downloaded papers are read though, can I? The
only way to do so is to enter the murky world of citation analysis. The
trouble with this is the proof of the pudding will come to light in a
few years time — if someone reads something of mine now and decides to
cite it, it’s going to take one or even two years (or more) for it to
appear in my citation list. So, I’ll be keeping an eye on things, not
too seriously as we all know things like H-index are problematic. Just
for the record, at time of writing, I have 218 citations, according to Google Scholar.
My H-index is 8, and my i10 index is 5, which is ok for a relatively
young Humanities scholar (I’m still technically an Early Career
Researcher for another year, as defined by the UK funding councils).
“Digital Curiosities” only has three published citations to date. Three
published citations. Remember, it’s been downloaded over 1,300 times,
between LLC and our repository. Will this citation count grow?
Will I be able to demonstrate, over the next few years, that retweeting
leads to citation? Will I be able to tell how people came across my
research? We’ll see. Don’t worry, I’ll blog it if I have anything to say
on this.

I also know nothing about how many times my other papers are
downloaded from the websites of published journals, or consulted in
print in the library. The latter, no one can really say much about — but
the former? It seems strange to me that we write articles (without
being paid) and we get them published by people who make a profit on
them, yet we don’t even know — usually — how many downloads they are
getting from the journals themselves. The only reason I know about the LLC statistics is because I am good friends with the editor. So,
there are obvious advantages to being able to monitor my own downloads
from my institutional repository. It’s been a surprise to me to see what
papers of mine are of interest to others. (Should that drive my
research direction, though?)

The final point to make is that people don’t just follow me or read
my blog to download my research papers. This has only been part of what I
do online — I have more than 2,000 followers on twitter now and it has
taken me over three years of regular engagement — hanging out and
chatting, pointing to interesting stuff, repointing to interesting
stuff, asking questions, answering questions, getting stroppy, sending
supportive comments, etc. — to build up an “audience” (I’d actually call
a lot of you friends!). If all I was doing was pumping out links to my
published stuff, would you still be reading this? Would you have read
this? Would you keep reading? My blog is similar: sure, I’ve talked
about my research, but I also post a variety of other content, some
silly, some serious, as part of my academic work. I suspect this little
experiment only worked as I already had a “digital presence,” whatever
that may mean. All the numbers, the statistics. Those clicks were made
by real people.

So that would be my conclusion, really. If you want people to find
and read your research, build up a digital presence in your discipline,
and use it to promote your work when you have something interesting to
share. It’s pretty darn obvious, really:

If (social media interaction is often) then (open access + social media = increased downloads).
What next? From now on, I will definitely post anything I publish
straight into our institutional repository, and blog and tweet it
straight away. After all, the time it takes to undertake research, and
write research papers, and see them through to publication is large; the
time it takes to blog or tweet about them is negligible. This has been a
retrospective journey for me, through my past research, at a time when I
came back from a period of leave.
It’s been fun to get my act together like this — in general I needed to
sort out my online systems at UCL, so it gave me some impetus to do so.
But it has shown me that making your research available puts it out
there — and as soon as I have something new to show you, you’ll be the
first to know.

When Was the Last Time You Asked How Your Published Research Was Doing?

Whilst writing up my thoughts about whether blogging and tweeting about academic research papers was “worth it,” the one thing that I found really problematic was the following:

I also know nothing about how many times my other papers
are downloaded from the websites of published journals, or consulted in
print in the Library. The latter, no one can really say much about — but
the former? It seems strange to me that we write articles (without
being paid) and we get them published by people who make a profit on
them, yet we don’t even know — usually — how many downloads they are
getting from the journals themselves.
That’s true enough, I thought. But whose fault is it that I don’t
know about access statistics for journals I have published in? Have I
ever asked for the access statistics for how many times my
papers have been downloaded from the journals they are published in? Has

So, Reader, I asked for some facts and figures regarding the circulation of journals and the download statistics of my papers.

I have to say that the journals were really very helpful, and
forthcoming, if surprised. “I imagine the publishers would be happy to
tell an author the cumulative downloads for their papers … So far as I
know, you are the first author ever to ask … certainly the first to ask
me,” said David Bawden, editor of the Journal of Documentation (JDoc). Jonas Söderholm, editor of HumanIT, highlighted some of the issues journals will face if people start asking this kind of question, saying:

A reasonable request and we would gladly assist you.
Unfortunately we do not have direct access to server logs as our web
site is hosted as part of the larger University of Borås web. We will
take your request as a good excuse to check into the matter though, and
also review our general policy on log data.
Most journals got back to me by return of email, telling me
immediately what they knew and were very aware of the limitations of
their reporting mechanisms, for example whether or not the figures
excluded robot activity, the fact that how long the user stays on the
website is not known so accidental click-throughs are undetermined, etc.
Such caveats were explained in detail. Emerald, the publishers of JDoc and Aslib Proceedings,
were not comfortable with giving me access to wider statistics about
their general readership numbers, given this could be commercially
sensitive information, which is understandable; they were very happy to
give me the statistics relating to my own papers, though.

The only journal not to get back to me was LLC ,
published by Oxford University Press (the editor replied to say he was
not sure he had access to these statistics, but would ask). This is
ironic, given I’m on the editorial board. I’ll press further, and take
it to our summer steering-group meeting.

I suspect that the actual statistics involved are only really very
interesting to myself. I had originally planned to make comparisons with
the amount of downloads from UCL Discovery (open
access is better, folks! etc.), but I think the picture is foggier than
that. What this exercise does do is highlight the type of information
that, as authors, we don’t normally hear about, which can be actually
quite interesting for us, as well as stressing the complex relationship
between open access and paywalled publications. Here are some details:

  • One of my papers published in JDoc, “Enabled backchannel: conference Twitter use by digital humanists,”[1] was downloaded 804 times from the JDoc website during 2011, and was number 16 in the download popularity list that year. The total number of paper downloads from JDoc as
    a whole during that year was 123,228. Isn’t that interesting to know? I
    have a top twenty paper in a really good journal in my discipline! Who
    knew? It has now been downloaded 1,114 times from their website. In
    comparison, there have been 531 total downloads of that paper from UCL
    Discovery in the past six months. But the time frame for comparison of
    downloads with the open-access copy from Discovery isn’t the same, so
    comparing is problematic — and there are more downloads from
    the subscription journal than from our open-access repository. Still, it
    shows a healthy amount of downloads, so I’m happy with that.
  • The Art Libraries Journal, only
    available in print, not online, were quick to tell me that the journal
    is distributed to 550 members: 200 going abroad to
    Libraries/Institutions, 150 sent to UK Personal members, and 200 going
    to UK Libraries/Institutions. My paper published there, “Should we just send a copy? Digitisation, Use and Usefulness,”[2]
    has had 205 downloads in the last six months from UCL Discovery, so I
    perceive that as a really good additional advert for open access: the
    print circulation is fairly limited, but the open-access copy is
    available to all who want it.
  • My paper in the open-access International Journal of Digital Curation, “Grand Theft Archive: a quantitative analysis of the current state of computer game preservation,”[3]
    was downloaded 903 times in 2009 out of the 53,261 times the full text
    of a paper was accessed. (The average was 476, with standard deviation
    307). In 2010 the paper accounted for 919 out of the 120,126 times the
    full text of a paper was accessed. (The average was 938, with standard
    deviation 1,045.) That compares to only 85 downloads from the UCL
    repository, but hey, it’s freely available online anyway,
    without having to revert to an open-access copy in an institutional
    repository. It might be worth drawing from this that copies of papers in
    institutional archives are only really used when the paper isn’t
    available anywhere else, but you would hope that would be obvious, no?
  • Internet Archaeology has an online page with their download statistics readily available (how
    I wish all journals would do this). The journal gets around 6,200 page
    requests per day. But since article size varies widely, with some split
    into hundreds of separate HTML pages, it is difficult to know how
    meaningful this is. I was sent a spreadsheet of the statistics from my
    paper published there, “A Virtual Tomb for Kelvingrove: Virtual Reality, Archaeology and Education,”[4]
    which suggests that there have been 2,083 downloads of the PDF version
    of the paper from behind the paywall since 2001 (but some may be missing
    due to the way the reporting mechanism is set up) with none in the past
    year (compared to 276 downloads of this from UCL Discovery in the past
    six months, so many more from our institutional repository comparing
    like periods). The HTML version of the table of contents has been
    consulted 16,282 times since 2001 (this is freely available to all
    comers) but there have been 67,525 views of all files in the directory
    since then — but since the paper is comprised of hundreds of individual
    files, it is difficult to ascertain readership. Judith Winters, the
    editor of Internet Archaeology, notes “It is curious that when
    the journal went open access for about 2 weeks towards the end of last
    year, the counts did increase but not dramatically so” — so when a
    non-open-access journal throws open its doors for a limited time (Internet Archaeology did this to mark Open Access Week last year) it is not like access figures go wild. That’s really interesting, in itself.
It has been fascinating, for me, to see the (mostly positive)
reactions publishers have to being approached about this — and
surprising that not more people have actually asked publishers about
these statistics. We are giving away our scholarship to publishers, in
most cases; shouldn’t we get to know how it fares in the wide, wide
world? As citation counts, and H-indexes, and “impact” become
increasingly important to external funding councils and internal
promotion procedures within universities, why would journal publishers
not make this information available to authors?

Will you need this type of information for the next grant proposal,
or internal promotion, you chase? Why would you not be interested in how
your research flies? But journal publishers will only start providing
authors with this kind of information routinely if enough scholars start
to ask about it, and it becomes part of the mechanics of publishing
research — particularly when publishing research online.

So if you have published in a print journal which has an online
presence, or in an online journal, drop them an email to ask politely
how your downloads are going. Do it. Do it now. Ask them. Ask them!

Originally published by Melissa Terras on November 7, 2011, April 3, 2012, and May 16, 2012. Revised with new introduction for Journal of Digital Humanities September 2012.

  1. [1] Claire Ross, et al. “Enabled Backchannel: Conference Twitter Use by Digital Humanists,” Journal of Documentation 67.2 (2011): 214 – 237.
  2. [2] Melissa Terras, “Should we just send a copy? Digitisation, Use and Usefulness,” Art Libraries Journal 35.1 (2010).
  3. [3] Paul Gooding and Melissa Terras, “Grand Theft Archive: a quantitative analysis of the current state of computer game preservation,” International Journal of Digital Curation 3.2 (2008).
  4. [4] Melissa Terras, “A Virtual Tomb for Kelvingrove: Virtual Reality, Archaeology and Education,” Internet Archaeology 7 (1999).

Melissa Terras

Terras is Director of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities and Professor
of Digital Humanities in UCL's Department of Information Studies. With a
background in Classical Art History, English Literature, and Computing
Science, her doctorate (University of Oxford) examined how to use
advanced information engineering technologies to interpret and read
Roman texts. Publications include "Image to Interpretation: Intelligent
Systems to Aid Historians in the Reading of the Vindolanda Texts" (2006,
Oxford University Press) and "Digital Images for the Information
Professional" (2008, Ashgate). She is currently serving on the Board of
Curators of the University of Oxford Libraries. Her research focuses on
the use of computational techniques to enable research in the arts and
humanities that would otherwise be impossible. You can generally find
her on twitter .

» The Impact of Social Media on the Dissemination of Research: Results of an Experiment Journal of Digital Humanities

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