When Social Media Meets Research

Backed by almost a million-dollar grant, a team in WKWSCI has been investigating how social media can be used to measure the audience reach of academic research.

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Of all the ways one can use social media, a research team in the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information is using it to evaluate the reach of published papers written by researchers globally.

This evaluation method, known as altmetrics, refers to a set of metrics that utilises social media to measure the research impact, popularity and awareness of research articles.

As altmetrics became more popular over the past eight years, Professor Theng Yin Leng, who is the director of the Centre of Healthy and Sustainable Cities (CHESS) at WKWSCI, wanted to explore how it could be incorporated into the performance assessment of researchers.

Towards this end, Prof. Theng galvanised a global team of 11 individuals, including research fellows and associates, in 2015 to learn more about altmetrics and how researchers can leverage on it to widen readership.

On the back of a $919,846 grant from Singapore’s National Research Foundation under its Science of Research and Innovation and Enterprise Programme, the team has made its mark over the past three years.



In January this year, the team organised the region’s first altmetric workshop on campus. It has also developed an altmetric tool, Altmetrics for Research Impact Actuation, also known as ARIA. This tool is an in-house prototype incorporating both altmetrics and bibliometrics for researchers to utilise. Bibliometrics, which is based on citation count, is a traditional way of measuring research impact.

“Altmetrics is an ever-evolving field and it holds a lot of potential to become more diverse, open and move with the time.”

Sesagiri Raamkumar Aravind
research associate

According to Sesagiri Raamkumar Aravind, who leads the database team in the WKWSCI research project, altmetrics’ biggest draw is its inclusiveness.

“One of the biggest advantage to using social media is that there is no gate keeping involved,” he said.

With the advent of social media platforms, researchers can now easily share condensed versions of their papers on the internet. Such a way of disseminating their research has expanded their audience reach. With altmetrics, the impact of these articles shared online can now be measured.

Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and even YouTube are some of the social media systems that researchers are utilising to share and discuss about their articles with members of the public.

Besides technical fields such as computer science and medicine, altmetrics also allows other disciplines like the arts to make an impact in research. As the arts does not involve citations, bibliometrics was not a successful research impact measurement method.

Furthermore, bibliometrics only allows members of the research community to participate in discussions about the articles. It is a private sphere where authors cite one another, hence creating an elite club of a few members.

Another advantage of altmetrics is its fast and responsive nature.

“Once you post your article, you could have tweets within the first hour or so,” said Aravind. “Citations on the other hand, can take over a year in most cases,” he added.

Despite the appeal of altmetrics, the global and local research community is not fully aware of its existence, said Aravind.

“Researchers have to be more aware of these new communication channels where they can publicise their research so that it reaches its intended audience.”

Sesagiri Raamkumar Aravind
research associate

The research community is more familiar with the long-established method of using citation counts to gauge the reach of their articles. Additionally, gaining the public’s attention, rather than just that of fellow researchers, has not been a performance criteria they had to fulfill as professors.

“In most universities, researchers’ performances are evaluated through traditional metrics which focus on the number of references made by their counterparts,” he said.

While most researchers are open to the possibilities, some are not as familiar with social media as others. This could deter them from using altmetrics.

Nonetheless, Aravind and his team continue to spread awareness about their project through as many platforms as possible.

One such platform was the international Altmetrics for Research Outputs Measurement and Scholarly Information Management (AROSIM) workshop, which took place in January 2018.

This workshop, held at WKWSCI, involved not just researchers, but a wide range of attendees from policy makers to librarians across the globe.

“Our mission and vision was to get all these people together and create a discussion on altmetrics,” Aravind said.

Approximately 70 people attended the event, which was the first altmetrics workshop to take place in Asia. The team managed to invite top experts, such as altmetrics thought leader, Mike T​hel​wall, from the University of Wolverhampton, and Stacy Konkiel from Altmetric.com.

Along with panel discussions and talks by keynote speakers, researchers were able to use this platform to present their research work to a wide audience.

As most altmetrics workshops take place outside Asia, the team considers this one of their biggest achievements.

Since its inception, the research team has also created the ARIA tool. Using this tool, researchers can view both the citation counts as well as the reach of their papers via social media.

“Researchers have to be more aware of these new communication channels where they can publicise their research so that it reaches its intended audience,” he said.

They can garner attention to their works by amending their writing styles to cater to the general public.

“The field of altmetrics is still in its infancy and there is more that needs to be done.”

Dr Helen Mojisola Erdt
research fellow

Not everyone is familiar with complex research terminologies. Thus, by opting for more catchy titles and descriptions, researchers will more likely be able to create awareness and outreach for their work.  

“The field of altmetrics is still in its infancy and there is more that needs to be done,” said Dr Helen Mojisola Erdt, a research fellow on this project, from Germany.  

Dr Helen added that it is important to keep up with ongoing trends in social media as new tools may surface and it is crucial to adapt altmetrics to them.

Even as the project’s grant tenure came to an end last month, the team is still looking to expand its research on new types of altmetrics data. Aravind said he is hopeful for the future of altmetrics and is looking to expand the horizons by applying whatever his team had learnt in their upcoming collaborations.

They may also be turning their AROSIM workshop into an annual event should they receive more funding. Some members from the team hope to be invited to be a part of organising committees of future altmetrics conferences elsewhere, he added.

“It is an ever-evolving field and it holds a lot of potential. We hope that the metrics we use today to evaluate research papers will become more diverse, open, and move with the time,” he said.