Research Article: Academic information on Twitter: A user survey

Date Published: May 17, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Ehsan Mohammadi, Mike Thelwall, Mary Kwasny, Kristi L. Holmes, Sergi Lozano.


Although counts of tweets citing academic papers are used as an informal indicator of interest, little is known about who tweets academic papers and who uses Twitter to find scholarly information. Without knowing this, it is difficult to draw useful conclusions from a publication being frequently tweeted. This study surveyed 1,912 users that have tweeted journal articles to ask about their scholarly-related Twitter uses. Almost half of the respondents (45%) did not work in academia, despite the sample probably being biased towards academics. Twitter was used most by people with a social science or humanities background. People tend to leverage social ties on Twitter to find information rather than searching for relevant tweets. Twitter is used in academia to acquire and share real-time information and to develop connections with others. Motivations for using Twitter vary by discipline, occupation, and employment sector, but not much by gender. These factors also influence the sharing of different types of academic information. This study provides evidence that Twitter plays a significant role in the discovery of scholarly information and cross-disciplinary knowledge spreading. Most importantly, the large numbers of non-academic users support the claims of those using tweet counts as evidence for the non-academic impacts of scholarly research.

Partial Text

Scholars use a range of different types of social web platforms in their professional activities. Twitter is one of the most popular microblogging platforms in many countries, allowing users to broadcast short messages. Academics use Twitter to communicate scientific messages at real-time events, like conferences, but also for more routine information sharing [1]. Since Twitter is used for academic purposes and counts of tweets from and elsewhere seem to be increasingly consulted for research monitoring [2],[3],[4], it is important to understand the typical motivations for using Twitter in scholarly communication. In response, previous studies have surveyed a small snowball sample of 28 Twitter-active academics [5] and 613 academics with a Twitter account in Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Philosophy, English, Sociology, and Anthropology at 68 U.S. universities [6]. Since tweet counts may be useful as evidence of the impact of research outside of academia (i.e., the extent to which non-academics find a study to be useful), a broader perspective is needed, including non-academic users. In response, this paper reports the first survey of a large and diverse sample of Twitter users inside and outside academia and from around the world to discover who tweets academic publications and why. This contextual information is important to help interpret the meaning of tweet counts as a scholarly impact indicator. Users were selected on the basis that they had tweeted at least one journal article.

Scholarly communication in the digital age includes formal and informal uses of the internet to discuss, publish and disseminate scientific discoveries [12]. In the current paper this definition is expanded to cover non-academics accessing, discussing, and sharing academic information. This study focuses on Twitter as a new channel for dissemination of scholarly articles because it is the most widely used general social media site for publication sharing [13]. This section first discusses general reasons for using Twitter in academic contexts. There is no relevant research on academic tweeting (i.e. tweeting scientific articles) by non-academic users, so this issue is not covered. It then focuses on counts of tweets about academic publications as an indicator for research evaluations.

This study investigates key aspects of academic information sharing on Twitter to better understand (a) the context in which academic research is tweeted, and (b) the context in which Twitter is used to find academic information. The research questions cover gaps identified by the literature review.

Although many previous studies have analyzed published tweets, not all tweets originate from a person. Twitter bots create automatic tweets that are difficult to distinguish from human-authored posts [44]. Machines create a substantial number of tweets of academic papers [45], undermining evidence about the value of Twitter from studies that interpret tweets at face value. A survey approach was used to bypass this problem by focusing on human users and to get richer background information.

The main results are given in the appendices and this section summarizes the key findings.

The results have several limitations. The survey sample is limited to Twitter users with personal webpage links in their Twitter profiles. These are presumably more likely to be academics or professionals than people that are unemployed or working in government or industry. The sample is also restricted to people that have current email addresses in their webpages that can be extracted using web-mining methods. Thus, the original sample is a limited and probably biased subset of people that have tweeted academic articles. The low response rate is typical of online surveys and is likely to bias the results to the attitudes of people that have a greater interest in the use of Twitter within research. This may explain the high numbers of social sciences and humanities scholars. It probably also biases the results towards more active users.

The survey suggests that most people who tweet academic information work in academic institutions, with other groups of users outside academia such professionals (engineers, physicians, and lawyers), but with many managers and journalists also tweeting academic information. This is consistent with previous research [31],[13], but probably over-represents academia due to the survey sampling method (emails from home page URLs in Twitter profiles). In this context, the relatively high proportion of non-academic tweeters is a surprising and important finding. No previous survey of Twitter use for scholarly communication has attempted to identify non-academic tweeters of academic research. For people seeking to use Twitter to disseminate information to the wider public, this is the most substantial evidence yet that this may work.

The results have several practical implications. For information sharing, Twitter is particularly important in the social sciences and humanities. Thus, researchers in these areas should be encouraged to investigate whether they can benefit from using the service, if they are not already doing so. It is possible that other disciplines rely on effective alternative communication means, such as conferences, preprint archives, or professional online networks such as LinkedIn.