Blog by Dr Chiara Ceci, Science Communication Executive, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

When it comes to the question “is using social media useful/important for scientists?” the evidence is overwhelming: yes, it is. And increasingly, more and more scientists regard social media as a key part of their job and it has been argued that Twitter can be a powerful tool to deliver conservation messages to a wide audience.

Just like pretty much anything in life, not everyone is on board; scientists are only human and like the rest of society there will be early adopters and laggards. And that’s absolutely fine, it happens (for science and for everything else) every time a new medium appears. Today some will be asking themselves if spending time on social media is actually worth it, but similarly when popular lectures and science writing were becoming more and more common in the Victorian age, scientists were asking themselves if they should spend their time on popular writing instead of focusing on their work. Charles Darwin, for example, had encouraged his colleague and friend Thomas Henry Huxley to write more science books for a popular audience, and when Huxley said he was too busy to do that on top of his work, Darwin told him that “At the time I felt it would be almost a sin for you to do it, as it would of course destroy some original work. On the other hand I sometimes think that general and popular treatises are almost as important for the progress of science as original work." (CRD to THH, 1865)

On the importance of science communication

Today we know that science communication is part of the work of a scientist, and that general and popular treatises (and TV/radio programmes, popular magazines, public lectures, science festivals, and social media etc.) are as important for the progress of science as original work: thanks to public science communication we put scientific work in the news reaching millions of people, we inspire the next generation of scientists, and, let’s not forget, we get to share out passion for science.

Social media is just another way of spreading the word about your work, getting to know peers from all over the world and sharing your interests online. But social media are not just a broadcasting channel to tell the world (well, your followers initially) about what you find interesting or what you have been up to; it is also a two-way communication and it can help researchers to find up-to-date information in their field and stay in contact with colleagues (and reach out to new contacts).

Science communication scholars have long known the importance of considering and studying communication on social media to understand how these media drive public conversation and also how they are used by scientists for scholarly communication and beyond. There are plenty of studies looking at scientists’ attitudes towards social media (here, here and here, just to mention a few) and, interestingly, specific scientific areas have looked at how social media has been driving social discourse about their subjects, such as physics, climate change, hydrology, epidemiology, paediatric emergency medicine, cardiovascular medicine and many more. Including of course ornithology.

Photo: The Altmetric Attention Score quantifies the attention received by a scientific publication on various online platforms including news, blogs and social media.

Is online attention associated with citations in the scholarly literature?

In a recent paper, RSPB Conservation Scientist Tom Finch together with  Nina O’Hanlon (Environmental Research Institute) and Steve Dudley (British Ornithologists’ Union), have found a positive correlation between online mentions of a research article (measured by Altmetric Attention Score) and future citations (for ornithological articles published in 2014).

The Altmetric Attention Score quantifies the attention received by a scientific publication on various online platforms including news, blogs and social media. When someone mentions your paper on social media (by including the URL link in the tweet/post), links to it in a blog or if a news outlet picks it up and links directly to the paper, then all these engagements add to your paper’s Altmetric Attention Score.

This paper highlights just how important Twitter is to ornithology Altmetrics – contributing 75% of total scores for the five year period they looked at.

The findings in this paper, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, suggest either that online activity can drive scholarly citations, and/or that Altmetric scores can act as an early forecast of the traditional citation count. The effect was strongest for articles in lower impact factor journals (with a Journal Impact Factor of around 2), usually more specialist, and this is perhaps because more generalist articles (in higher impact factor journals) will get cited regardless of online activity.

Have a look at the paper (and don’t forget to share it on Twitter thus driving future citations!) and find out more about “social ornithologists”.

If you want to become more social and you’re going to do one thing, then join Twitter and tweet about your research using the ready-made audience on the #ornithology hashtag.

There are many resources online on the topic, and if you are interested you should start from this series of blogs from the BOU.


Finch T, O’Hanlon N, Dudley SP. 2017 Tweeting birds: online mentions predict future citations in ornithology. R. Soc. open sci. 4: 171371.