Before the internet existed, few researchers would have given much consideration to “marketing” a published research paper. Conferences and symposia were the places to tout your work and share it with interested parties. With the rise of social media, however, all of that has changed, and expectations of publishers have changed along with it.
Journals and social media
Journals are still largely relying on Twitter as the primary social media tool for disseminating what they’re publishing, although TikTok is gaining some traction, especially among those in medicine. Other tools include Instagram and Facebook, but the Twitter focus is evident in one requirement that many journals have today: authors must submit a set of statements summarizing the main findings of the work, and those statements must be within the character limits of Twitter. In that way, journals readily have tweetable phrases to use if they decide to promote your work on this platform. Journals often also ask for a “graphic abstract,” which offers a readily available summary image to use on these platforms.
Authors also may be asked to consider search engine optimization, or SEO, in choosing titles for their papers and keywords, focused on words and phrases that would be searched most often. Another requirement journals have introduced is that the key terms in the title cannot also be used as keyword terms, which broadens the number of terms that will return your paper as a “hit” in a search.
Finally, some publishers are allowing comments on papers, so that peers (and others) can weigh in on the findings with any critiques or other commentary. You’ll also see on most publisher websites a tool that summarizes how many times a study has been shared on social media, viewed on the site, or cited by others, creating a competitive marketplace of ideas pegged to getting high numbers for these metrics.
Social media tools
Platforms like Twitter are just tools that can be wielded well or badly, for good or for ill. Researchers interested in getting their findings before the world can use these tools for that purpose, but these platforms are considered “social” media for a reason: you usually have to engage socially to get the attention you seek.
Scientists on Twitter (and TikTok and Instagram) have sometimes built large followings for themselves and their work by engaging with other researchers in the field or interacting with interested nonspecialists. And in some cases, a researcher will find that they suddenly have a high profile because their expertise is needed in a crucial moment, such as being an infectious disease epidemiologist during a pandemic. These scientists can use their platform educationally, to clarify what new findings mean, explain complicated concepts, and correct misinformation.
Regardless, your approach to using these tools should not be impersonal. If you want to market your work using these engagement platforms, real human engagement is important. If you are not interested in wading into the chaos of social media, your institution may have its own feeds run by public information specialists who tweet out important news. You can reach out to them about ways to get your work out in front of the world.
Science influencer—you or someone else
One way to turn attention to your work is to ask colleagues in the field who have an established social media following to talk about your work with their followers. Scientists are not trained, usually, to make requests like this or even think in this way, but it is OK to ask colleagues and friends to share a link to a newly published paper. And it’s OK to engage with them in interesting, respectful, and appropriate discussions on these platforms.
As with peer review, these supportive behaviors from friends and colleagues are part of a cycle of participation, so if a friend or colleague makes a similar request or engages with you about your work on social media, you can respond in kind.
Finally, engagement doesn’t have to be all about the work or the science. It’s fine to post about personal interests and activities, even opinions, if you’re comfortable with that. If your goal is to ultimately highlight you as a scientist and researcher, and by extension your work, your social media biography should always reference these elements, preferably with a related link.
Build your own community: followers and following
There have been a lot of discussions on social media about whether someone should always strive to have more followers than people they follow. Superficial or not, the impression is likely to be more positive if the balance is toward having more followers, or at least as many followers as people you follow.
How should you choose whom to follow? You can follow people in your field and accounts for relevant journals, publishers, and professional societies. You also can follow anyone who posts about interesting things or who are interesting themselves. One thing to keep in mind is that unless you lock your Twitter account so that only people you follow can see it, it is entirely public. Your employer, colleagues, students and mentees, and collaborators all can see it. The situation is similar for Instagram. Facebook settings allow for different levels of privacy and can be confined to only a few people, if needed.
Choosing a handle
The name you use for your social media account is your “handle.” The usual advice for people who have a professional face on these platforms is to choose a handle that’s as similar to their name as possible. For many names, the original handles are already taken, but people can append an honorific, such as Dr or MD, or add numbers, such as 1, and still have their name in the handle. Another common piece of advice is to try to use the same handle or similar handles across platforms for consistency.
Hashtags have bidirectional utility. Social media users can find hashtags related to their interests and follow them. For example, people engaged in clinical research or medicine can follow the hashtag #MedTwitter and see the stream of posts that have that hashtag added. Specialists in entomology can follow #EntoTwitter for all things related to insects and arachnids. And epidemiologists can find their team at the hashtag #epitwitter. You also can include a hashtag in your social media bio so that people using it for searches will find you, too.
Be available to journalists
Many journalists use social media to identify experts in a field for a study they’re covering. If you are out there using hashtags and discussing your work, they may find you. Or if your university promotes a study you’ve authored and you’re listed as a media contact, you’ll likely hear from journalists then, as well. Speaking with a journalist, especially one representing national outlets, is another way to gain some name recognition in association with your work and your field.