LSC researchers find link between scientists’ public engagement and citation rates

Screen Shot 2014-10-24 at 3.36.10 PMMany scientists may still see talking to reporters or using social media to publicize their research as a poor use of their time, but a new study by researchers in the Department of Life Sciences Communication suggests otherwise.

The department’s Science, Media and the Public (SciMeP) research group just published a study in Journalism & Mass Communications Quarterly that links scientists’ engagement with audiences outside of academia, namely talking to journalists and having a presence on social media, to higher citation rates in academic journals.

“We have the hardest time getting this across to scientists because they don’t think it helps them within academia, within the ivory tower,” said Dietram Scheufele, an LSC professor and co-principal investigator for the research group. “We found that going outside of the ivory tower and talking to people you typically don’t talk to may actually help you back home.”

Combining Twitter and citation data with survey responses from scientists, SciMeP researchers showed a positive link between a scientist talking to journalists and his or her citation rates. Interestingly, the link is significantly stronger when that’s coupled with a Twitter presence.

“Our results highlight the importance of public communication, particularly if it includes multiple activities, on researchers’ academic reach,” said Dominique Brossard, the chair of the department and another co-principal investigator for the group. “In short, boundaries between academia and public contexts are blurry and likely to become even blurrier as more scientists embrace social media.”

The study asked researchers how often they talk to journalists, and combined these responses with data on scientists’ Twitter presence and citation rates. To get at the latter, the study examined h-indices, which explains how well cited a researcher is by telling how many articles a scientists has published with as many citations. For example, an h-index of 33 means that researcher has 33 papers that are each cited 33 times.


Xuan Liang, a life sciences communication Ph.D. student and first author on the study.

“This is not the first study to ask scientists if they talk to reporters or use social media,” said Xuan Liang, a life sciences communication Ph.D. student and first author on the study. “But, it is the first to combine these two behaviors and to see if the new media can amplify the impact of the traditional media and how that influences a very well-measured scientific impact.”

Although the data were lagged, SciMeP researchers are careful to not make definitive statements about causality. It could be that it’s not just public engagement that leads to higher citation rates, but that it’s those with already high citation rates who are engaging. Regardless of which direction causality goes, however, Scheufele argues that the study’s results are still a good thing and should break the stereotype that a scientist can’t have both.

“These new media allow you to amplify your science,” he said. “If we talk to journalists about this and tweet about it it’ll be more effective than just talking to a journalist. One explanation is that the more publicity an article gets the more likely it also ends up on the desks of your colleagues. If it’s written about and publicized on Twitter I’ll probably investigate more and pass it on so more people look at it. Then that may result in that study getting cited more.”

To read about other work LSC does with scientists and social media read this recent op-ed published in The Scientist:

Interested in more work done by the SciMeP research group? Be sure to check out their website: