PLOS paper going viral?

There is just too much going on now with the whole Ebola virus outbreak and the ALS Ice bucket challenge to really use the word “viral”, but I will use it regardless. Last Thursday at 2pm a small editorial co-authored with Ethan Perlstein went live at PLOS Computational Biology about ten simple rules for live tweeting at scientific conferences. The response has been pretty amazing, I think its as close to viral as anything I have ever been a part of.

I happened to be on a 2 day vacation to recover from the previous weeks travel at the ACS, but instead devoted half a day to posting an article on this blog, tweeting and thanking the retweeters “live”. It sounds absolutely ‘nutty’ as I write this. I am a relatively sober scientist, but over the past year I have begun to follow how blog posts and twitter can have an impact on reaching potential readers of scientific articles in open access journals in particular. I am using open access journals because in most cases it is pretty easy to follow the metrics, like views, shares, downloads etc. PLOS are pretty handy like this. Some open access journals make the information only available to authors, but not PLOS, F1000research etc..

Last year we had a paper on Acoustic dispensing and computational modeling in PLOSONE that achieved considerable views primarily because of a blog post from Derek Lowe which stoked interest. To date in over a year it has over 10,300 views, 6 citations, 47 saves, 122 shares etc, not bad going in 16 months. But I am still having a hard time seeing if it will have any lasting impact, does it make a difference?

Then comes the latest editorial / paper and in just a few days it has over 7300 views and over 660 shares and this is growing by the hour. Why? Both Ethan and myself tweeted out the link and had considerable retweets. I tweeted each rule and that had no effect. So I think what has happened is that Ethan’s well connected network of 4707 followers has really made its impact felt and they have in turn retweeted it and so on. For instance PLOS Computational¬† Biology retweeted to their > 4000 followers. We have helped, personally I have thanked many of the retweeters and inturn I have seen that this act alone converts many into new followers. Whether this continues is another matter. Its time consuming but this is a kind of experiment in seeing if using Twitter can actively help promote an article about using Twitter. A nice circle.

So I was wondering what this means too if anything and how do we measure impact?

First we picked a topic for a “Simple Rules” editorial that has hit a nerve in a really good way. While the journal is a computational biology journal it clearly does not seem to put off people coming to it to see the article. Perhaps we would have the same impact in PLOS ONE? While the article is not in anyway about computational biology it is relevant because of the use of sharing scientific insights etc using computational methods – namely live tweeting. Not sure this is really justification. But on another level if we are to communicate science whether its ecology, evolutionary biology of computational chemistry or biology we have to do this optimally. At this point in time Twitter is a way to communicate that has created a pretty good sized user base with 271 M monthly active users. If we can get other scientists to communicate in turn what other scientists are saying and seeing at scientific conferences we could have a massive magnifying effect. Sure some of it will be meaningless but we will get information out there and anyone searching for scientific topics will find it. A great analogy here is perhaps ‘scientific scrapbooking’. We piece together all the small tweets into some coherent whole, or software will make sense of what is coming out of the patchwork of data. We are part way there with ODDT being able to collect tweets on a disease or topic and being chemistry aware. What would an app or software need to have to be truly universally science aware (that is handling structures, images, molecules, all kinds of data etc).

I have asked if new scientific conference live tweeters will let me know when they do it. I am not expecting them to remember. So what can we do to keep the memory of the article fresh? Well As people suggest new rules I am adding them to the article comments. Sure this list may grow, but a bit of audience participation might be a good thing. It would be great if some journalists or a blog picked it up and spread the word but I am not proactively doing this. We have had questions on Twitter about the ethics of sharing hashtags for conferences before they start, some people thought our rules a bit obvious so I think keeping the discussion going and perhaps engaging some conference organizers would be smart. If major conferences had scientists actually live tweeting and perhaps even professional live tweeters (..now there is a new job for the resume) that would certainly raise the visibility. For example the ACS occasionally has individuals tweeting out new molecules as they are presented. But what if BIO had people tweeting live and SLAS, and Neuroscience (insert your favorite science conference here).

Now back to doing science and occasionally Tweeting about it.


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  1. sean says:

    I also added a link to the paper on Kudos

  2. sean says:

    Approaching 10,000 views in a week – with lots of retweeting, response has been amazing thank you!

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